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Ben Kweller Reviews S.F.’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest


This past weekend, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park welcomed the eighth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, with its truly eclectic bill, including Gogol Bordello, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Iron & Wine, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, among others. Another performer: country-lovin’ indie-rocker Ben Kweller.

Kweller played, but he also watched scores of live sets. Here, the ragamuffin Texan offers his best of the fest and chats about the importance of the bluegrass and country to the indie-rock scene.

The Gourds:

“I just love their live show because it’s really upbeat, exuberant, and energetic. They’re well known for their cover of ‘Gin and Juice’ by Snoop Dogg. It’s a fun and kind of fast country version. And they actually played it! I thought they stopped playing the song because they were bummed about that being the song they were known for. But I was actually happy to hear it. I’m a big fan of their early stuff, their first record. It’s just good old shit-kicking country music.”

Emmylou Harris / Elvis Costello:

“I’m glad I got to see Emmylou Harris, and I actually hung out with her backstage. She’s been around for so long and done so many great and different things in her career, ya know? Elvis Costello’s show was really good, too. He brought up Emmylou and Jim Lauderdale, who’s a well known songwriter out in Nashville. Jim’s really cool — we actually talked about getting together in Nashville and writing some songs. Elvis was great; he did a lot of covers, including ‘Love Hurts’ with Emmylou. Man, it was good.He also played Van Morrison’s ‘Wild Night.’ I thought that was interesting.”

Iron & Wine:

“I think they fit into the ‘hardly’ part of the festival, just like myself. It’s a lot more traditional, old-school country and western style, and I think Sam’s [Beam] songs work in there, too.”

Gogol Bordello:

“Their show was the most extreme and not really in the bluegrass realm. It was incredible — off the charts and energetic. In fact, everyone was saying it was the first ever moshpit at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass!”

Dry Branch Fire Squad:

“Four old guys from Kentucky, singing around one mic with upright bass, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. It was really cool to hear stuff like that. They’re what I really came to the festival wanting to hear — some real down home bluegrass. And they totally delivered. Their playing was so impressive and the songs were great. It was so relaxing to kick back and get right up to those speakers.”

“The whole festival was really cool. Check it out because you’re going to hear a lot of music that you’ve never heard before that will just blow you away. That’s how it was for me. I hadn’t heard of so many of the things, and once I listened to the music I was immediately into it.Most of the people that listen to Ben Kweller are really musically open-minded, so I think that it’s definitely something that they would dig.”