Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: 10 Bands You Should Not Miss

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San Francisco's annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. You could pick any number of themes to select the acts you want to see -- old punk pioneers, roots music up-and-comers, etc.-- and follow one through all three day's lineups. You could also pick a stage to sit in front of, as festival founder Warren Hellman suggests, and simply be satisfied with whoever performs there. (Check that last link for an interview with Hellman, the local billionaire who puts on the free festival.)

We, however, suggest a different tack: spend a bit more energy and try to get a sample of the huge variety of music all on display for free in Golden Gate Park this weekend. Here then are 10 bands (plus a few more) that we suggest you make part of your Hardly Strictly Bluegrass adventure:

Friday

The Ebony Hillbillies (2 p.m., Banjo Stage): Kind of the deans of the New York City subway performance scene, this outfit has been playing old-time string-band music together for over a decade. They've also played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, so don't miss this chance to catch the Hillbillies for free on the West Coast.

Jenny and Johnny (4 p.m., Rooster Stage): This collaboration between romantic partners Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley) and Johnathan Rice issues learn, accessible indie-rock with just the right amount of edge. Fun fact: the two were introduced by Conor Oberst, who plays Hardly Strictly on Saturday.

Saturday

Jonathan Richman (12:05 p.m., Rooster Stage): The former frontman of the Modern Lovers has lost his proto-punk edge, but the able wit remains. You may want to be sitting down for these funny lyrics and stripped-down acoustic tunes, but they're worth catching anyway.

Carolina Chocolate Drops (12:55 p.m., Banjo Stage): Bluegrass with beat-boxing? Yes -- this trio plays a mix of old-time standards and originals with an antique feel (get ready for jugs and banjos) and an irreverent edge. Given their style and impressive technical skills, these three could steal Saturday afternoon.

Conor Oberst (2:30 p.m., Star Stage): The self-indulgent genius behind Bright Eyes strikes a more mature, roots-influenced tone in his recent work, which he releases under his own name. But even if Conor's calmed down emotionally and traded easygoing country for the intricate arrangements of Bright Eyes' heyday, the vivid stories-as-lyrics that we all loved (or hated) about Bright Eyes still front his latest songs. Oberst is also a great example of the influence that the recent revival of American roots music has had on indie-rock.

Richard Thompson (3:30 p.m., Towers of Gold Stage): Brought to fame with seminal Brit folkies Fairport Convention, Thompson has had a fascinating musical run both on his own and with former wife Linda Thompson. Not all of his songs are winners, but the good ones are tremendous lyrical and instrumental affairs, with guitar work that's pushed Thompson into the ranks of the instrument's all-time greats.

Sunday

Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes (3:05 p.m., Star Stage): In which the magnificent songwriter/producer/Sundance Channel TV host Costello will likely perform his great songs, like "Allison" and "Peace Love, and Understanding" with a more roots-oriented country band. Another classic artist you have to see just because you can -- for free.

Patti Smith (4:10 p.m., Towers of Gold Stage): The folk-punk songstress and poet gives wild, cathartic performances, which, coupled with her influence on the early punk and new wave scene in New York, makes her an easy must-see.

The Avett Brothers (5:45 p.m., Arrow Stage): Sometimes a bit too earnest for their own good, the Avetts' acoustic mopes and multipart harmonies are nonetheless beautiful and impressively constructed. If alternative-old-time music becomes a new fad genre -- even more than it already is, we mean -- these guys get some of the blame.

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings (5:55 p.m., Rooster Stage): You might think that putting a band together to sound like the old Stax and Motown hitmakers would backfire in a reverby sea of tepid, imitative nostalgia. And it almost does. But frontwoman Sharon Jones is a powerful singer and presence, and her band of highly skilled whiteboys doles out R&B with the funky restraint of the old masters. Which means the Rooster stage is the place you gotta finish Saturday evening -- that is, if you're not getting entranced by festival stalwart Emmylou Harris.

Honorable Mentions

Fountains of Wayne (Saturday, 1:35 p.m., Towers of Gold Stage): One of the most out-there picks on this year's excellent lineup, Fountains of Wayne are an enjoyable alt-pop outfit from the '90s with earworm hooks and simple sentiments. If you get tired of banjos and fiddles -- and some of us will -- head over here.

Joan Baez (Saturday, 2 p.m., Banjo Stage): Possessor of some of the most honeyed vocal chords in all of folk music, Baez is a '60s legend: titan songwriter, former lover (and current foe) of Bob Dylan, and epitome of all that is classic folk. In 50 years, she hasn't lost an ounce of the protest spirit, and her singing still sparkles.

Mondo Cane (Sunday, 5:20 p.m., Star Stage): The U.S. live debut of former Faith No More frontman (and Nor-Cal native) Mike Patton's new project, in which he sings Italian standards from the '50s and '60s -- in Italian. Not for everyone, but a huge draw for some die-hard Patton fans.

Emmylou Harris (Sunday, 5:45 p.m, Banjo Stage): The country/bluegrass singer has been at Hardly Strictly since the beginning, and Hellman named the festival partly as a way to get Emmy, as he calls her, to play his favorite songs. Given that this is the festival's 10th anniversary year, it's a great time to get reacquainted with Harris' magical pipes and timeless music.

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