At one point, a stage emcee declared: “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSBG) is the greatest free music festival in the world,” and judging by the reaction of a large throng of the estimated one million in attendance over the course of the three-day weekend event held annually at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and from the diverse lineup of artists assembled, it was hard to disagree.


On the first day of HSBG, Friday September 30, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore showed a different sonic side with his five-piece unplugged band featuring himself on acoustic guitar and both a violinist and harpist. One of the early songs broke off into an unexpectedly intensely building jam that showed great promise for this side-project.


Unfortunately, we had to vacate Moore’s set prematurely to catch Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. Plant delivered a more satisfying show than his first HSBG appearance in 2008, as nearly half of the material was Led Zeppelin, with “Thank You” being the closest to a Zep rendition. Guitarist Buddy Miller, who Plant credited with conceiving this “new” Band of Joy (the name was taken from an old band Plant and deceased Led Zep drummer John Bonham were in during the 1960’s), added bluesy psychedelic leads that reinvented the Led Zep material as Miller avoiding taking the well-worn Jimmy Page paths.  


The Band of Joy’s rendition of Plant’s excellent early solo hit “In the Mood” was especially atmospheric. And while some of the Zep tunes like “Gallows Pole” were expected, others like “Bron-y-Aur Stomp” were a nice surprise. And Plant didn’t disappoint with a modified yet still powerful version of “Misty Mountain Hop,” with its lyrics of “walking through the park” and “hey boy, do you wanna score?” perfectly capturing the hippie vibe of the Haight-Ashbury district, which comes to an end at the entrance of Golden Gate Park.


On Saturday, Canada’s Broken Social Scene intrigued with their mix of indie pop, stoner sensibilities and multi-guitar assault, and also got in the spirit of the moment by dedicating one song to all the park trees surrounding the HSBG grounds. They were more than an adequate precursor to Buckethead, the enigmatic instrumentalist whose six-string supremacy almost defies description – it’s as if the electric guitar was built specifically for this masked musician to play.


Buckethead got the prog-funk mélange started with “Night of the Slunk,” and pulled out his usual bag of tricks – including a literal bag of toys that he threw out to eager audience members, then got down with his robotic and nunchuk dance routines. The only downside was an extremely late start to the set, forcing an abrupt ending to “Soothsayer,” typically an emotional powerhouse, but Buckethead was playing it with an extra measure of sublime quality that begged for it to continue on through the night – but alas it was not to be (HSBG wraps up just after 7pm each day).


On Sunday, the final day of the HSBG, we caught Dark Star Orchestra’s (DSO) set. The Chicago-based cover band recreates Grateful Dead concerts from a given show over the band’s 30-year history and on this day they aptly chose 9-28-75, which was also a free show in Golden Gate Park on a Sunday. The DSO take on “Truckin’” summed up the difference between the two shows – the Dead, who were largely on hiatus in ’75 and botched the composed sections of the song, yet nailed the jam. DSO on the other hand, performed the composed portion of “Truckin’” note-perfect, but because of the festival time restraints the jam had to be cut painfully short. However, DSO compensated with a tight and powerful “Stronger Than Dirt,” the rarely played jazzy instrumental gem from the Blues for Allah album.


After DSO, with the sun having set, we managed to catch the very end of Emmylou Harris’set, as she encored with the old bluegrass spiritual “Get Up John (the Baptist)” accompanied on banjo by Warren Hellman, the Bay Area investment banker billionaire who finances HSBG each and every year, and promised that number 12 will be coming in 2012.