Did you notice your cell-phone reception was a lot better this year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?  All across Golden Gate Park, temporary cell-phone towers stood tall, keeping concert goers connected all through the weekend.  But it was not just these towers of electric connection that were keeping people together this last weekend.  But rather the three days of free and highly eclectic music in a beautiful and historically uniting setting.

As I walked into the park on Friday afternoon with my girl friend Jen and my friend Jason I instantly felt good vibes pouring out from the interiors.  The three of us kicked up some dust as we walked east along the polo fields, the sound of music growing louder with each step.

My prime objective of the afternoon was to see The Seven Walkers.  All I really knew about the Seven Walkers was that Bill Kreutzman, drummer from the Grateful Dead was in the band.  As we approached Arrow Stage, wind and cold air from the ocean playing on our backs, I could hear a cover of “Sugaree” by the Grateful Dead.  There is something magical about walking into the park to find hundreds of people gathered on a lawn, dancing to Grateful Dead music.  Our timing was perfect and set a great pace for the weekend to come.

The Seven Walkers put on a great show, combining the psychedelic sounds of 1960s San Francisco rock with a twist of some New Orleans jazz.  Along with Kreutzman, the group consisted of George Porter Jr. Papa Mali and Matt Hubbard.  As a band made up of previously accomplished musicians, they were thrilled to be playing together in this formation and in support of their new album.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys put on a fabulous display of good old-fashioned bluegrass.  Having grown up going to bluegrass festivals with my family I always feel a special kinship to this type of music.  As fiddles, mandolins and banjos ripped through the think fog of Friday evening my feet and those of thousands of others kicked up grass and flew through the air in time to the fast paced music. Only when the band slowed down did we.

I also noticed something I have never before caught onto.  There must be a sound laced into the high pitch, high paced frequency of this type of music that really gets all the dogs within earshot all worked up.  At first I thought it was a coincidence, but three to four instances of dogs responding in this manner and we were convinced.  Perhaps an official study should be conducted to be absolutely sure of this phenomenon.

After finishing off the beers we brought, cleaning out a pirate beer merchant of his inventory and an incredible show by The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs; we were ready to make our way back to camp.  Oh wait, I just live twenty blocks that way, we’re not camping at this festival.  This fact is one that played a pivotal role in the weekend being such a fine musical experience.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue tore the Star Stage apart at 11 a.m. on Saturday.  What a way to start a day.  The cool coastal air kept everyone feeling fine in the face of blisteringly hot funk/jazz that wailed into the moderately sized crowd.  It was after this show that I learned the ways of the Star and Towers Stage.  The two stages were right next to each other, and would rotate on performances, giving each stage about an hour break between performances.  Red wine, a blanket, a hula-hoop and a broadcast of the music coming from the other stage kept us content until Hot Tuna Electric arrived on Star Stage to give us some of that good old rock and roll.

Aside from some stages being overwhelmingly crowded at some points, the festival really goes off without a hitch.  A minor amount of efficiency can assure that you will see at least four whole bands in a day and if you really want to run around you could see even more.  Portable toilets were ample and conveniently located at all stages and thoroughfares while a variety of food vendors were set up at each stage.

I couldn’t help but feel a total sense of community within the crowd all weekend.  Never did I witness any fights, bad behavior or any of the other hiccups of humanity that seem to surface when you host over half of a million people in one place at a time.

I love the idea that more than half of a million people leave that festival radiating that sense of community and spread it to those they encounter afterward.  It perpetuates neighborly love and in my opinion is an ideal that keeps San Francisco the open minded, peaceful place that it is.

Sunday was just fantastic.  The March Fourth Marching Band opened up the Porch Stage with their dose of oddity, circus-style entertainment.  Bringing the Burning Man flavor the 12-piece band flooded the small stage with drums, brass and homemade costumes.  Stilt walkers flared about the audience and performed stunts in time to the funky, energetic marching band music.

As I walked through the field leading up to the Arrow Stage I was damn glad I had friends who had secured a front row spot for the day.  With our primo vantage point we sat and danced through Moonalice, Rail Road Earth, Keller and the Keels and bit of Yonder Mountain String Band.  A quadruple threat of performances that would have made the entire weekend worth while all on their own.

But the weekend wasn’t quite over.  The fantastic thing about this festival is the variety of music.  While much of it could be put into a few loose categories, some acts still stand out on their own as indefinable and completely unique.

Mike Patton made that happen on Sunday afternoon.  After Elvis Costello left the Star Stage the majority of the crowd left with him.  The wildness that was soon to ensue was largely unknown to the average concert goers; and bigger more recognizable acts drew the masses away.

What was to be shown next was the mighty Mondo Cane.  Front man for Faith no More, Mr. Bungle, Fantamos, Tomahawk and Peeping Tom; Mike Patton delivered his orchestra backed rendition of Italian opera and pop songs from the 1950s.  Upon explanation it may sound a little hokey, but as a seasoned concert attendee, I can honestly say it was one of the most awesome musical performances I have ever seen.  (If you have a minute, these links are a great collection of youtube videos.)

Anyone who knows Mike Patton, will immediately understand how this could and indeed does work oh so, so well.  His vocal range is out of this world and he really shows it with this project.  To see this singer, who is probably one of the most creative and diverse artists of the last 25 years bring this new project to the US for the first time was the real treat of the weekend for me.

Another year down, my best yet.  We joined the hundreds of thousands in departing the magical meadows of Golden Gate Park.  Mystified by having such a great weekend offered to us for free right in our own front yard, we all headed home to the inevitable realities of Monday.  But the city’s positivity battery was charged up and I am sure everyone went home feeling lucky and grateful for the gift.  Thank you Warren Hellman, I promise one year I will make it to your show too.

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