Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

This year, P and I took advantage of her west coast work trip to catch Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free music festival in the heart of San Francisco. We stayed with her college friend, Joe, and got to see some great performers, eat some tasty food, meet some new folks, unexpectedly run into old folks and walk a lot.

The lineup was great for any festival, let alone a free one, though the price of easy access was a massive crowd of people who seemed to prefer altering their minds with drugs rather than music. Not that I’m opposed to honoring a soulful rendition of “If the River Was Whiskey”, but I do prefer attentive listening. Due to crowds and transport logistics, we didn’t quite get to see everyone we wanted; Jolie Holland, AA Bondy, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn were a few victims of circumstance. We did get to see M Ward (good), Robert Plant (not so good), Robert Earl Keen (pretty good), The Felice Brothers (quite good) and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings (very good). The clear standout, though, was Frank Fairfield.

A cynic might suggest that Fairfield’s style and personality is an affectation or a schtick. The man looks and talks as if he stepped into the outhouse beside his southern Appalachian cabin in 1870 and stepped out 140 years later. From his clothes to his humility, there’s very little that seems modern about him. Seeing him live, it’s clear that he’s genuinely a man out of time.

Frank Fairfield

We were running late and were thrilled to discover him playing the smallest stage of the festival. Despite a decent crowd, we walked right up to the front row and got to watch him from about 20 feet away. He played with vigor and feeling, and the instant he stopped, he was bashful, awkward, almost autistic. He was also the most consummate musician I’ve ever seen, starting with the fiddle, then moving to the banjo, then to the guitar, then back to the banjo, then to the fiddle again. The speed of his banjo playing seemed supernatural, and he played with the fiddle so ardently that he barely had any horsehair left on his bow by the end of his song. When he was done, he took a couple of quick bows, picked up his three instruments and walked off the stage to really good applause. It was great to see people lined up to buy his newest album, Out on the Open West, from his wife, who P tried to convince to come to DC.

As a treat just for you, here’s “Chilly Winds”, with a little background chatter, recorded from Frank Fairfield’s set:
Frank Fairfield – Chilly Winds (Live at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011)

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