Highlights At Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 17

By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Music festivals will often throw attendees into a quandary by scheduling multiple must-see acts at the exact same time, and this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 17 is no exception. Below is a highly subjective tip sheet on some of the recommended acts and hidden gems playing over the course of the weekend in Golden Gate Park.

Friday, Oct. 6

Billy Bragg (Banjo Stage 2:35pm-3:25pm)

British punk-folk protest singer Bragg has played Hardly Strictly before and never fails to draw a vocal crowd eager to sing along to his politically charged anthems. Whether performing solo on electric guitar or working with such notable collaborators as Wilco and fellow songwriter Joe Henry. His most recent album with Henry, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, was  collection of train songs recorded at stations and along tracks during a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. Bragg is a charismatic talent onstage.

Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express (Swan Stage 2:35pm-3:25pm)

One of San Francisco’s underappreciated modern-day troubadours, Prophet has been painting vivid character studies with his songs ever since he became a member of rock band Green On Red in the mid 1980s. Fresh from opening for UK rock legend Ian Hunter at the Fillmore a few weeks ago, The gifted guitarist performs songs from his latest acclaimed effort Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins on Yep Roc Records backed by his powerhouse band, the Mission Express.

The Bo-Keys featuring Don Bryant and Percy Wiggins (Banjo Stage 3:55pm-4:55pm

Memphis-based soul band the Bo-Keys have been delivering their horn-powered style of southern soul for nearly two decades. Heavily influenced by the classic output of Stax and Hi Records, the multi-generational band founded by bassist-producer Scott Bomar and guitarist Skip Pitts (who laid down the legendary wah-wah riff that propelled Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning “Theme From Shaft”) also features famed Stax/Hi drummer Howard Grimes, Hi Records session organist Archie “Hubby” Turner and trumpeter Ben Cauley, the sole survivor of the crash that took the lives of Otis Redding and his backing band the Bar Kays. Songwriter and vocalist Don Bryant (who helped pen the classic hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain for wife Ann Pebbles) fronts the group.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (Swan Stage 3:55pm-4:55pm)

One of two sons of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti continuing to spread the kinetic gospel of the powerful Nigerian music, Seun Kuti inherited the helm of his father’s band Egypt 80 when he was only 14 years old after Fela passed away in 1997. Offering up a mix of incendiary original songs and classic Fela tunes, onstage the commanding performed delivers a mix of fiery political rhetoric and kinetic grooves. The only question his how he and his group will cram their usual marathon two-hour plus set into a mere 60 minutes.

T Bone Burnett (Banjo Stage 5:30pm-6:45pm)

Though well-known among musicians for his work with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue during the mid-1970s as well as a number of cult solo releases the following decade, T Bone Burnett’s greater claim to fame has been as a producer. Initially taking the reigns on albums by Los Lobos and Elvis Costello during the ’80s, Burnett would have a hand in such hit albums as the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaborative album Raising Sand, John Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom and the soundtracks The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain and Walk the Line. Expect an all-star crew of supporting musicians and guest singers to join the respected figure onstage.

Saturday, Oct. 7

Poncho Sanchez (Swan Stage 11:40am-12:20pm)

A percussion great who has been performed with such Latin jazz greats as vibraphonist Cal Tjader and fellow conguero Mongo Santamaria, Poncho Sanchez stands as one the best modern purveyors of classic Latin soul and boogaloo. A veteran bandleader who has issued over 25 albums with Bay Area jazz imprint Concord Records, Sanchez is a sure-fire party starter who will get earlier arrivals on their feet and moving Saturday morning.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Porch Stage 12pm-12:45pm)

Originally a guitar-and-drum duo founded by Matthew Paige and Zachary Murphy, the Nashville-based group eventually expanded to a quartet with the addition of harmonica player Ollie Dog and bassist Dylan Whitlow. Bashing out a raw style of garage-blues with touches of soul and swampy bayou funk, the group has built a growing audience with its raucous festival appearances and tour slots opening for blues maestro Buddy Guy and fellow southern rockers Alabama Shakes.

Ozomatli (Swan Stage 2:30pm-3:20pm)

Crafting one of the more original and eclectic sounds to emerge from Los Angeles in recent decades, global groove juggernaut Ozomatli has been igniting dance floors with its mix of Latin, hip hop, rock and funk for over two decades. From it’s early hits with onetime members Chali 2na and Cut Chemist (who were also part of LA hip-hop heroes Jurassic 5) through it’s latest album effort Nonstop: Mexico to Jamaica that teamed the band with legendary reggae producers Sly and Robbie to dramatically recast a wide array of songs from Mexico with a distinctly Jamaican flavor, Ozomatli will bring an explosive multi-cultural party to the Swan Stage.

Sturgill Simpson (Swan Stage 6pm-7pm)

Tagged as a rising star of alternative country in 2014 after the release of his celebrated album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Kentucky-raised musician Sturgill Simpson moved from the psychedelic experiments of that effort in an even bolder direction with his anticipated follow-up disc A Sailor’s Guide To Earth last year. Intertwining Simpson’s familiar Waylon Jennings-style honky tonk with R&B influences and soulful horn arrangements featuring ample contributions from the Dap-Kings (the renowned Brooklyn-based soul ensemble that used to back the late Sharon Jones), the concept album earned the songwriter another round of rave reviews. While Simpson’s band changed significantly earlier this year with the departure of blazing lead guitarist Laur Joamets and the horn section, the songwriter has made a welcome return to the electric six-string that marked his earlier work.

Sunday, Oct. 8

Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls (Towers of Gold Stage 11:45am-12:30pm)

The latest project of the prolific Welsh songwriter and member of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers (and too many other collaborative groups to details in this small space), Langford and fellow Chicago-based musicians Bethany Thomas, John Szymanski and Tawny Newsome who make up Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls will perform gospel, southern rock and soul-tinged Americana songs from their eponymous new album on Bloodshot Records that they recorded late last year in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Big Freedia (Towers of Gold Stage 1:20pm-2:10pm)

One of the pioneering figures in the New Orleans hip-hop sub genre of bounce music, Big Freedia has been a champion of the frenetic, bass-heavy sound in 1999. While she may be better known because of her drama-filled reality show on the Fuse channel, the self-proclaimed “Queen Diva”  has long been bringing her booty-shaking live extravaganzas to San Francisco clubs and Golden Gate Park (she has been part of the annual “Beignets and Bounce” sets at the Outside Lands culinary stage for several years running).

Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones (Banjo Stage 1:35pm-2:25pm)

Whether playing blues-soaked rockabilly licks with his original band the Blasters (which he co-founded with his older brother Phil), exploring country roots music with his solo work or lending his guitar talents to bands including LA-based punk icons X (and their acoustic counterpart band the Knitters) and fringe punk experimentalists the Flesh Eaters and the Gun Club, Dave Alvin has proven himself to be a California musical treasure.

Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time Band Reunion (Towers of Gold Stage 2:55pm-3:55pm)

One of the biggest and boldest entries for this year’s festival, the reunion of the late free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman’s harmelodic funk outfit Prime Time will alternately thrill and bewilder music fans. While Coleman had spent decades focused on pushing the experimental jazz envelope with his acoustic ensembles,  he released his first album featuring electric instruments recorded by the group that would become known as Prime Time in 1976.

Similar to the double quartet the musician used on the 1960 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, Prime Time featured two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers and/or percussionists to create a chaotic, kinetic style of music that would later be tagged as “harmelodic funk.” Original Prime Time members bassists Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Al MacDowell, guitarist Charlie Ellerbee, tabla player Badal Roy and Ornette’s son and longtime drummer Denardo Coleman will be joined by special guests saxophonist David Murray, trumpet player Wallace Roney and renowned avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot.

Bob Mould Band (Rooster Stage 4:05pm-5:00pm)

Punk pioneer, leader of the ’90s band Sugar and noted solo artist Bob Mould helped chart the course of punk and alternative rock ever since he co-founded the influential Minneapolis hardcore trio Hüsker Dü in 1979 with drummer Grant Hart (who sadly just passed away last month) and bassist Bob Norton. Matching the band’s punk ferocity with a gift for melodic songwriting no other punk band could come close to, Hüsker Dü laid the blueprint for many of the noise-pop bands that emerged after the group split in 1988. In the decades since, Mould has explored confessional solo acoustic songwriting, electronic dance music and loud, tuneful rock with equal success. He brings his current band featuring bassist Jason Narducy and drummer John Wurster to Hardly Strictly.

Cheap Trick (Towers of Gold Stage 4:50pm-5:50pm)

A vital part of classic-rock radio and a major inspiration to legions of indie-rock bands from the ’80s through today, Rockford, IL-based power-pop maestros Cheap Trick have been making their muscular, tuneful sounds since first coming together in 1973. Still featuring three-fourths of the line-up that burst to international fame after the release of their landmark live album Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1979 (guitarist Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx is playing drums instead of original member Bun E. Carlos), the quartet was finally given a long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.

Junior Brown (Rooster Stage 5:30pm-6:45pm)

Armed with blinding guitar skills, bone-dry wit, and a deep baritone voice, Austin-based country institution Brown has been entertaining audiences across the globe for decades. He got his start playing guitar and lap steel in New Mexico roadhouses as a teen during the ’60s. But it wasn’t until after Brown invented his hybrid double-necked instrument, the “guit-steel,” that he found his unique sound. Switching seamlessly between standard six-string and finger-picking lap-steel, Brown deftly mixes jaw-dropping fretwork with heartfelt country balladry and deadpan delivery on such comic gems as “Venom Wearin’ Denim” and “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” that hearkens back to the style of trucker country songwriter Red Simpson (whose songs “Highway Patrol” and “Semi Crazy” Brown covered).

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