By Jordan Latham
With 7 stages featuring over 100 artists, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a pretty epic music festival. Made even more awesome by the fact that, to spite all the big name performers, the cost of admission is zilch! -- The festival is totally free.
I showed up with my family quarter to 6 on Saturday night to catch LA Celtic punk band Flogging Molly. I had seen this band a couple times previously, but the east coast shows id been to, were a sea of scaly caps, mutton chops and Mohawks. This crowd is not that. Rocking all that classically San Francisco 70s era hippie fashion, nothing has changed. And everything has changed. I guess it's marketed as boho. Adorned by the young, wealthy elite of San Francisco's techie population, it looks slightly disingenuous, and very far from free spirited or flower child.
Despite working several years on Haight Street in San Francisco, I had never made the actual festival before (weekends off in the restaurant industry aren't a thing). Boasting 750,000 attendees, there's a serious crowd at most every stage in golden gate park. The Swan stage was set above a shoulder to shoulder, packed field of festival goers. We perched our kids at the edge of the crowd, where people had pitched hammocks high in the eucalyptus trees to get a better view.
The hundreds of people walking between performers showcased a range of ages, from college kids to senior citizens. The scene at the Swan stage was more college aged, thousands of Jansportand Northface backpacks full of PBR. Given that the festival had started at 11 am, by 6 people had put in a good 7 hours of drinking luke warm beers and sharing soggy joints, and the buzz was palpable. To spite the intense wind, the skunky air was strong.
Because Flogging Molly has a very specific sound, people either really like them or they don't. The people on the outskirts of the crowd seemed uninspired when the first beats of the first song rung out. The fans were clearly down in front, as soon as the lyrics began I could hear the section of the crowd who had come with intent to see this band singing raucously along.
Dave King introduced the band with a quip about "if an old guy with crazy hair can get away with playing punk music, America might elect Burnie Sanders for president." After he said his name, I noticed people all throughout the crowd had taped Sanders for President 2015 signs to their jackets and coolers. If any one might agree with Kings statement, it would be this audience.
Dave King has a very comfortable, casual way of banter between songs. Having been born and raised in Dublin, his accent is definitively Irish, but slowed down enough to be discernible to his American audience.
Flogging Molly began their set with several older songs. Having been around since 1997, they have put out 7 killer albums and I liked them all. Drunken Lullaby, With in a Mile of Home, the section of people in front of the stage had moved back.
By the time the first two songs had completed a significant mosh pit had formed. The mosh pit is made up of the punk rockers who are here to dance to this band, and whatever drunk young men are feeling aggressive enough to throw themselves into the fray. Mosh pits at music festivals without security are controlled by the participants and surrounding audience. When some one falls, it's the responsibility of the adjacent people to strong arm them back to a standing position. It's on the circle pit members to avoid trampling any person on the ground. The audience and dancers are responsible for pulling apart any fights that may break out, and keep a slightly watchful eye on any person acting too drugged out or crazy. To spite these unspoken rules there will be bruised ribs and bloody noses. To a true fan in the moment, you won't feel the pain.
Due to the rapid beat fueling most Irish punk bands, Flogging Molly puts on a high energy, fast and furious set. Dave King turns red and sweaty right away, and gets redder throughout the show.
Wrapped up in Tomorrow Comes a Day too Soon, I didn't notice a dude with a fancy camera circling and taking pictures of me and my kid. When he started asking me questions about where I was from and if I wanted him to email me photos, I could almost catch a buzz off his breath. He swayed back and forth snapping pictures, telling me my kids were beautiful. "You're not English?" He slurred. "You look like you're from the UK". He won't remember this when he looks at his camera through his head ache tomorrow, so I feel no obligation to be polite, and we move away from him farther up the hill.
The sound carries well, and even though we ve moved farther back, the acoustics are still good. At our new spot on the hill, we re between a guy selling beers out of his cooler and a gaggle of girls clearly on a hallucinogen ride, wearing expressions in response to things we couldn't see. Dave King sang "don't sink the boat, you built to keep afloat" and I settled back into listening and rocking my kid to the the tune of the Irish fiddle.
As the sun prepared to set, the wind kicked up. It seemed at times like all the drought induced dust was being sucked into the sky and blown at our faces. The fall leaves that have begun to litter the park were funneled into the air around us. The canvass covers of the stage pulled wildly at the rope constraints.
The band appeared un phased. If anything, they were energized by the unruly weather. with tight grips on their instruments they showed no sign of being aware the stage might lift off and blow away over our heads.
We joined the throngs of people who had had enough of the wind and left before their set was through. My two year old was officially pissed off in his stroller, where he'd digressed from dancing to throwing a weather induced tantrum. On our long walk out, drunk people left and right had words of wisdom for my kid about hanging in there. One tall man in black said "he sounds like a highway to hell" and as he yammered on about ACDC lyrics my kid was so weirded out by the nonsensical noise coming out of a grown up, he forgot to throw his fit.
As we sat in bumper to bumper to traffic on our drive back to Oakland I thought about how watching a band play live is such a different experience every time. Watching an intimate show in a bar, or at a concert venue, Flogging Molly was a different performance than what I had just seen. Their performance at Hardly Strictly, was gracious and spirited and intentional. A big part of my adoration of live shows is the intensely in the moment aspect. Sharing a one of a kind memorable experience with the strangers around you. They're no longer strangers, they are the other people who got to see that set in that venue in that year. That band will never play that same set the same way again. Concerts are like snow flakes, all the details that set them apart from each other, no two live performances will be exactly the same.
The stormy wind shaped the environment and the energy at theFlogging Molly performance at Hardly Strictly bluegrass 2015. It swirled the music around the massive audience, it amplified the feeling of experiencing something together that was special, and unique and rad. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have not experienced the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival, make it happen. It's an adventure in concert going, you never know what will happen. You can say you were there when...