Mekons among the highlights of a lively Hardly Strictly opening night 

click to enlarge The Mekons returned to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival for the first time since 2007. (Courtesy photo) - THE MEKONS RETURNED TO THE HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 2007. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • The Mekons returned to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival for the first time since 2007. (Courtesy photo)
  • The Mekons returned to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival for the first time since 2007. (Courtesy photo)

The early forecast called for rain, but perhaps the skies have enough sense not to spoil the nicest gift San Franciscans receive each year.

The 11th-annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival got off to a fabulous start Friday and Saturday amid perfect weather and one of the concert’s strongest lineups ever. At any one time, several worthy acts were performing on a stage somewhere in Golden Gate Park. Friday and Saturday’s lineups yielded a wealth of riches.

The Mekons returned to the festival for the first time since 2007, accompanied this time by singer and guitarist Tom Greenhalgh, who’s been missing in action during the band’s last few visits to the city. Greenhalgh made up for lost time by delivering rousing renditions of “Beaten and Broken,” “Fletcher Christian,” and “I Fall Asleep,” the latter being one of four up-tempo songs the group played off its new album, Ancient & Modern. Alas, the venerable band was just getting warmed up when its too-short set concluded with magical versions of “Hole in the Ground” and “Hard to Be Human.”

Jolie Holland, perhaps the Bay Area’s most distinctive female singer, charmed a hometown crowd with stories and a smattering of songs both old and new. Although her recorded work is fabulous, the muscularity and energy of her singing and her tight four-piece band don’t quite come across in the studio. Live, she absolutely kills it.

Southern Culture on the Skids dug a ditch and filled it with trash culture: banana pudding, dirt track racing, and strawberry wine. Thurston Moore turned a Sonic Youth-style instrumental dirge into an acoustic romp, complete with violin, two acoustic guitars, and a full-sized harp. M. Ward and his six-piece band were far from mopy; their energetic set turned his originals into tight shuffles and included surprising covers by Buddy Holly, John Fahey, and Chuck Berry.

The festival was well-attended, but Friday’s crowds were hardly oppressive until Robert Plant and the Band of Joy performed. Sounding like one part Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door and one part Raising Sand by Plant and Alison Krauss, the band romped through a variety of songs by Plant and others. He traded vocals with colleagues Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, and Darrell Scott and Plant and Griffin sung a fabulously reworked version of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.” The band ended with another Zep crowd-pleaser, “Ramble On.”

Bright Eyes closed out Friday with a mob of about 20 band members and guests pounding various percussion instruments in a glorious noise jam.

Culture hero and Hardly Strictly benefactor Warren Hellman kicked off Saturday's lineup with a heartfelt tribute to bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens, who died this year and to whom this year's festival was dedicated. He was followed by his band the Wronglers, featuring Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who said Hellman told him he was the reason the word "hardly" was appended to the festival's name after year two. That may be the case when Gilmore plays by himself or with the Flatlanders, but the Wronglers were a faithful tribute to the music Dickens loved.

The Alison Brown Quartet is like the missing link between Bela Fleck-style banjo playing and a piano quartet. It was joyous music to hear outside. In the festival's most charming moment, Brown's "road manager and his assistant," apparently Brown's young daughter and son, who could scarcely have been more than a combined age of 13, sang a cute rendition of the classic tune "Old Dan Tucker."

Chicago's Otis Clay with Chick Rodgers tore it up with some blues-inflected gospel. Rodgers is an incredibly powerful singer who gyrated around the stage like a woman possessed by the lord.

Actor Hugh Laurie of House fame revealed himself to be a reverential student of the blues and New Orleans-style R&B. His voice is distinctive if not fantastic and he was unsurprisingly quite an entertainer, with a tight, versatile band.

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson conducted a crowd-pleasing survey course in their respective catalogs, plus a healthy dose of covers by the likes of Bob Wills and Johnny Cash.

Once again this year, the most remarkably incongruous part of the festival is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' performance of their modest, unadorned songs before an audience of tens of thousands. This year, they performed several songs off their new album the Harrow and the Harvest.

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