Jimmie Dale Gilmore gave Saturday’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass audience a little insight into how “hardly” came to be part of the festival’s name.
Festival benefactor Warren Hellman was trying to accommodate Gilmore, a Texas singer-songwriter lacking formal bluegrass credentials. So he renamed his “Strictly Bluegrass” festival and opened the door to a broader range of acts.
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Over time, his tent has expanded considerably, beyond rootsy troubadours such as Gilmore’s Flatlanders to anomalous acts Thurston Moore, Broken Social Scene and even the avant-garde guitarist Buckethead, all of whom performed this year.
But the focus remains rootsy, as it was again this year. One of the great joys of 2011 was arriving Sunday afternoon to hear unfamiliar bluegrass and its variants emerging from the wooded hollers of Golden Gate Park.
On Friday, the Bay Area’s most distinctive female singer, Jolie Holland, charmed a hometown crowd with stories and songs both old and new. Holland’s singing and her band’s playing had a muscularity and energy that don’t come across in her albums.
The Mekons returned for the first time since 2007, accompanied this time by singer-guitarist Tom Greenhalgh, who made up for lost time with rousing renditions of “Beaten and Broken,” “Fletcher Christian” and “I Fall Asleep.”
The latter was one of several winning songs off the venerable band’s new album, “Ancient & Modern.”
Once again, the festival was well-attended, but the crowds were hardly oppressive — except during headliners such as Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. Sounding one part “In Through the Out Door” and one part “Raising Sand,” Plant’s band romped through a variety of originals and covers, highlighted by his and Patty Griffin’s fabulously reworked rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Hellman began Saturday with a heartfelt tribute to the late bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens, who played the very first festival and to whom this one was dedicated. Hellman’s Wronglers then played a fittingly reverential set of the type of music Dickens loved.
On Saturday night, Robert Earl Keen once again turned the Rooster Stage into an outdoor roadhouse with rousing renditions of “Feels Good Feeling Good Again” and “The Road Goes on Forever,” plus artful reimaginations of “Corpus Christi Bay” and “Dreadful Selfish Crime.” The crowd would have followed Keen back to Texas on foot, if asked.
Sunday’s highlights included the trio of Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussein, whose uplifting instrumentals were perfectly suited to the pastoral setting. The Blind Boys of Alabama were as spirited as usual, and delivered a note-perfect performance of their classic mash-up of “Amazing Grace” and “House of the Rising Sun.” And while Dr. John is moving very slowly across the stage these days, someone forgot to tell his fingers. He and the Lower 911 tore it up in their early afternoon set.
As always, the festival ended with Emmylou Harris, this time performing a set studded with material from the new album “Hard Bargain.” The achingly beautiful performance demonstrated just how much Harris — and the festival she headlines — have matured during their glorious decade together.