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 19 is no exception. Below is a highly subjective tip sheet on some of the recommended acts and hidden gems playing Sunday in Golden Gate Park.
Sunday, Oct. 6
Bill Kirchen (Banjo Stage 11am-11:45am)
Virtuoso roots guitar hero Bill Kirchen first came to fame in the late ’60s as the gun-slinging secret weapon of Michigan country-rock group Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen — his fiery guitar licks fueled the band’s hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” — until the group split up in 1976. He would go on to form the Moonlighters, a group he described as a “swing orchestra,” as well as beginning a collaboration with British songwriter Nick Lowe that would lasts decades (he also worked with Lowe’s contemporary Elvis Costello and early rock heroes Gene Vincent and Link Wray). Nicknamed “the Titan of the Telecaster” for good reason, Kirchen will put his skills on display on the Banjo Stage Sunday.
Mapache (Bandwagon Stage 1:35pm-2:25pm)
SoCal high school friends turned cosmic country duo Mapache, Clay Finch and Sam Blasucci create a pop-minded style of Americana that hearkens back to the sounds of Gram Parsons and the Byrds with their soaring vocal harmonies. Shortly after releasing their debut album last year, the pair quickly recorded and issued their beguiling EP Lonesome LA Cowboy featuring covers of songs by New Riders Of The Purple Sage, the Louvin Brothers and Doc Watson.
Liz Cooper & The Stampede (Banjo Stage 12:30pm-1:20pm)
Nashville-based trio Liz Cooper & the Stampede first came together in 2014 and soon established themselves as a powerhouse live band with their unique dreamy psychedelic folk sound built around the singer/guitarist’s powerful voice. A string of self-released live EPs earned the band invitations to play notable music celebrations including Napa’s BottleRock and the Austin City Limits Festival, the threesome signed to Sleepyhead Records and issued their debut album last year.
Fantastic Negrito (Swan Stage 1:20pm-2:10pm)
The onetime Oakland street performer Xavier Dphrepaulezz took a long, circuitous route to his current success fronting Fantastic Negrito. Dphrepaulezz was being groomed by Interscope Records for MTV success in the ’90s as a Prince-influenced neo-funk singer before a car crash that left him in a coma for weeks sidelined his career. He later explored a style of funk-infused punk before eventually settling on his current gospel/blues-drenched incarnation that earned Fantastic Negrito the top spot in the NPR Tiny Desk Concert competition in 2015. The following year, the group’s official debut The Last Days of Oakland was issued to heaps of well-deserved praise, eventually winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Last spring, they scored a repeat win of the same Grammy award with their latest album Please Don’t Be Dead. Expect the kind of fiery performance that has made the charismatic Dphrepaulezz and his band a festival favorite.
Judy Collins (Banjo Stage 2:05pm-3:05pm)
Along with her ’60s contemporaries Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Judy Collins stands as one of the last surviving major folk stars from that era still performing today. Initially focusing on traditional songs with her debut album Maid of Constant Sorrow, but as her popularity rose, Collins would provide early breaks for a number of notable songwriters, recording tunes penned by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell (Collins scored a big hit with her version of “Both Sides Now” in 1967), Randy Newman and Fred Neil long before they had their own careers. The singer who inspired the Crosby, Stills and Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” makes her first ever Hardly Strictly appearance at age 80.
Meat Puppets (Swan Stage 3pm-3:50pm)
One of the pioneering punk bands to add country elements to their sounds, the Meat Puppets started when the Kirkwood brothers Curt (guitar) and Cris (bass) first teamed with drummer Derrick Bostrom in Phoenix in 1980. While their first SST EP In a Car was made up of hardcore punk songs, the band brought in more roots elements for their 1982 eponymous debut, covering songs by Doc Watson and Bob Nolan on the lysergically influenced recording (the band said they were high on LSD throughout the three-day recording session). Subsequent efforts Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun continued to refine the band’s psychedelic country punk sound. Championed by Nirvana — who had the Kirkwood brothers play on their MTV Unplugged special as featured guests — would be signed to a major label in the early ’90s. Despite several break-ups and Cris battling serious drug dependency issues through the decade, the original trio of members are back together with Bostrom rejoining the group last year to record their latest album, Dusty Notes.
Michael Nesmith & the First National Band (Rooster Stage 4:25pm-5:20pm)
Best known as a member of the late 1960s pop rock band the Monkees who came to global fame as the stars of the absurdist television show of the same name, Michael Nesmith had the greatest success of all his bandmates with his solo career. He started the country-tinged First National Band in 1969 and scored a minor hit with the song “Joanne.” He would release a string of albums over the course of the ’70s in addition to acting in, writing and producing television shows and films including the cult classic Repo Man. In addition to occasional reunions with the Monkees, last year Nesmith put together a new version of the First National Band to revisit his solo material live.
Emmylou Harris (Banjo Stage 5:45pm-7pm)
The artist the festival was originally built around, Emmylou Harris has been the traditional closer for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass since the beginning. Harris got her start singing as part of the ’60s NYC folk scene, but first came to fame singing harmony with Gram Parsons in his country rock band during the early ’70s. After his untimely death, Harris launched a fruitful solo career that has continued to this day.