The big event of the opening day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival on Friday in San Francisco was a hometown gig by Boz Scaggs. Playing under a spotless blue sky with a ten-piece band, Scaggs performed his blockbusters and material from his latest album (which no less than Robert Christgau called his best since "Silk Degrees" -- "by a wide margin").
Scaggs closed his main set with the best "Lido Shuffle" imaginable, sounding a lot like Van Morrison, and then encored with "Lowdown," which turned Golden Gate Park into a disco. Forty years after its release, the songs on "Silk Degrees" still have a magical impact on crowds.
He also played a song about the nearby Mission District -- "Last Tango on 16th Street," which, as he implicitly noted, sounded like it had been written about the recent gentrification battles there but was actually penned years ago.
And he finished with an energetic Fats Domino song, "Sick and Tired," leaving the stage for Mavis Staples, the final performer of the day.
Earlier at the fest, Nick Waterhouse, former member of the marvelously named Allah-Las, got fans going with a well-received set.
The audience seemed to be in a terrific mood (except for the dude who sprayed me with Pabst! Grr!), looking like a cross between a Bernie Sanders rally and the extras used in concert scenes in Robert Altman's "Nashville."
The big difference between the Hardly Strictly fests of the previous decade and the current one is the crowd size, which has grown exponentially. In the Oughties, one could easily stroll up to the front of the stage on a Friday afternoon and take photos of such greats as Jeff Tweedy, Robert Plant and Elvis Costello. But in recent years, one really can't get much closer than the soundboard island unless you're willing to arrive around five hours early.
One solution might be to schedule big name acts like Jackson Browne, slated for Saturday, at, say, nine in the morning, so that the show attracts a crowd that's there specifically to hear the music of that artist (rather than attracting hordes in the nabe who like to hang in the park at mid-afternoon).
And perhaps the Hardly Strictly budget could be used more creatively. Instead of staging the same formulaic multi-stage concerts on opening day, why not have one unique kick-off event? Say, Bob Dylan solo acoustic for forty five minutes. Or the surviving members of Led Zeppelin doing acoustic versions of Zep and blues a la their famous Earle's Court shows of the mid seventies. Or a reunion of the members of REM (minus the drummer) for a folk show.
And how about bringing aboard some newcomers to the fest that people would love to see -- like Steve Forbert, Ronee Blakley, Marti Jones, Suzzy Roche, Gary Lucas, The Decemberists, Lucius, Steve Nieve? Instead, we get too many re-runs, artists who've played the fest a dozen times or more.
Then again, the crowd on Day One seemed to have no complaints. A very successful Friday.