My friend Tara Shupe just started Valley Tan, a groovy little acoustic music magazine mostly about the Salt Lake music scene. I agreed to write some stuff for it, but since I know almost nothing about Salt Lake, I decided to write about the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time fest. Check it out at Valley Tan or keep reading.
San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Festival
By Scott Nygaard
For most San Francisco residents, mention of their “local bluegrass festival” immediately brings to mind the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the annual Indian summer event in Golden Gate Park for which local billionaire/banjoist Warren Hellman imports a large number of the people you think of when the term Americana is bandied about (thus the “hardly” part of the name) for half a million freeloading music-loving party goers. But for the local bluegrass community, the real San Francisco bluegrass festival occurs in the doldrums of midwinter, when the musician-run San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Music festival takes over a slew of local venues for nine days of concerts, square dances, workshops, films, jam sessions, and community building.
While the Hardly Strictly festival favors Nashville-based headliners like Del McCoury, Emmylou Harris, and Ricky Skaggs, along with such not-even-close-to-bluegrass acts like Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, and this year’s oddity Boz Scaggs (Ricky’s long-lost second cousin twice removed?), and generally gives the local bluegrass scene the cold shoulder, the SFBG&OT fest revels in the multifaceted local bluegrass and old-time scene, while importing a healthy dose of the Portland old-time crowd and even a few choice trad headliners like the Foghorn String Band, Ralph Stanley, Danny Barnes, or this year’s score, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Venues include local acoustic hangouts like the Freight and Salvage, Noe Valley Ministry, Plough and Stars, and Atlas Cafe, along with a few less-trafficked settings (whose denizens appear a bit surprised to see banjos and mandolins in their midst) like the Make-Out Room, Swedish American Hall, and the Verdi Club, an old Italian-American social club in San Francisco’s Mission District that hosted a day of workshops and concerts I was fortunate to be a part of this year.
Since it was Super Bowl Sunday and most bluegrass fans had never heard of the Verdi Club, turnout was not quite as robust as the organizers had hoped (though the festival is not heavily promoted, many SBFBG&OT fest concerts are sell-outs), but not as bad as some had feared. With guitar workshops by Jim Nunally (who had performed two nights earlier with David Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience) and myself, mandolin workshops by Eric Thompson and Ida Viper’s Brian Oberlin, a fiddle workshop by the Crooked Jades’ Sophie Vitells, and an old-time banjo workshop by Mark Petteys, the day got off to a sleepy start but was in high spirits by the time the late afternoon jam session broke up and the evening concert kicked off.
The lineup that night typified the eclectic and charming nature of the local San Francisco scene, which, while still reeling under the effects of the Summer of Love to some extent, is also home to a rabidly traditional “play-me-something-I’m-used-to” contingent. Leading off the night was Jimmie Rodgers acolyte Toshio Hirano with note-perfect guitar-and-vocal renditions of classic Rodgers and Hank Williams songs. Hirano was followed by the duo of myself and Celtic/old-time mandolinist Paul Kotapish. Up next was the Mercury Dimes, a rollicking Charlie Poole-ish string band that featured the twin fiddles of Elise Engelberg and Michael Follstad and the ragged-but-right old-timey singing of guitarist Matt Knoth and guest banjoist (and festival organizer) Tom Lucas.
After that, I was back at work as the “second guitarist” with Eric Thompson’s Kleptograss, a collection of Bay Area stalwarts that includes Jody Stecher on mandolin and banjo, Paul Shelasky on fiddle and momentously bad jokes, Paul Knight on bass, and Thompson on guitar, mandolin, clawhammer banjo, and Puerto Rican ten-string cuatro (which, by the way, is even harder to tune than a mandolin). If there were any ghosts of the old Verdi Club regulars lingering in the rafters they might have been less surprised than the bluegrass crowd to hear the Greek kalamatiano and Puerto Rican tunes that pepper Kleptograss’s repertoire of fiddle tunes, Gypsy swing, and Muddy Waters blues, but if the “extreme eclectic” repertoire bothered anyone in the audience (spectral or corporeal), they politely kept it to themselves. Closing the show was local bluegrass favorite, the Brewglass Boys, this night missing their leader Belle Monroe, who was snowbound in the far reaches of Nevada and whose progress (or lack thereof) was regularly monitored by the evening’s emcee, Chuck Poling.
But this was just one night of many at this year’s San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time festival. Other festivalgoers were treated to the likes of Peter Rowan, Town Mountain, the Freight Hoppers, the Crooked Jades (with new member Rose Sinclair on banjo and slide guitar), the Spring Creek Bluegrass Band, and Jackstraw, not to mention local up-and-comers Homespun Rowdy, the Whoreshoes, and the Barefoot Nellies. With all that talent, I doubt anyone was longing for a Skaggs (either Ricky or Boz).