There was certainly a taste of the bittersweet as I walked through Golden Gate Park and toward the gates of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival yesterday afternoon. Last year's event was a turning point for me personally as relationships started to change with great significance that weekend. Madame Merle was no longer in the picture and my relationships with Penelope and the Femme Fatale started to take on different shapes as a result of her absence in ways that are still playing out a year later.

Originally I was going to attend it with Penelope, who always gets a Friends and Family pass, making it an extremely pleasant way to take it all in. When that changed I seriously thought about not going at all, since there is so much other music happening all over the Bay Area this weekend and the thought of the dealing with the huge crowds was a turn-off. It's hard to go back to being among the rabble. But after lounging around my apartment for a good part of yesterday, I finally got on the bike and rode it over to the park.

The festival's set-up was exactly like last year's, creating an unwelcome sense of déjà vu for me, but the glorious weather kept the shadows at bay. I made my way through the crowd (diverse by even San Francisco standards) over to the Arrow Stage to catch Southern Culture on the Skids, arriving too late to hear some of the bands I really wanted to see (Blame Sally, the Mekons, Kurt Vile among them). Singer/guitarist Rick Miller and bassist Mary Huff led the band through an hour-long set that hit high gear about mid-way through and didn't let up. Their sound reminds me of a Southern, souped-up version of the Cramps but with much better guitar playing and subject matter that hits closer to home. "69 El Camino" and "Dirt Track Date" were highlights of the set for me.

Southern Culture on the Skids

Then I made my way over the Banjo Stage to check out John Prine. The crowd was already immense in anticipation of Robert Plant's closing set which was to follow, and I didn't try to make my way close to the stage. I found a spot in the middle where I could hear okay, but the crowd was just too chatty and it was really difficult to pay attention so my mind just wandered. Prine would have benefited from being on one of the smaller stages- his music is too subtle for a crowd of 50,000 people, if not twice that many, many of whom (at least away from the front of the stage) were too busy getting stoned to pay any attention to him. There were two women sharing a fifth of Ancient Age near me which I found pretty amusing, as I've always wondered who would willingly drink that stuff. Prine's voice sounded good, but after half an hour I went and got something to eat and made my way back to the more manageable crowd at the Arrow Stage to hear Thurston Moore.

Sonic Youth was one of those bands I knew I should be paying attention to at the time but didn't- they're one of the many significant gaps in my musical experience, so getting the chance to hear Moore was something I didn't want to miss. His band included a drummer, violinist, harpist, and another guitar player (acoustic- as was Moore's) and for an hour they went through some extraordinarily heavy music considering it was all played with acoustic instruments. Most of the songs devolved into thick walls of sludgy sound and seemed out of place under the warm, sunny, late afternoon sky but that didn't prevent it from being a captivating set. He said after one song's conclusion his guitar (a 12-string) was probably way out of tune but he didn't care anymore- and it didn't matter- the next one sounded equally good. I would definitely go see another show of his and maybe the next time (if) Sonic Youth tours again I'll get off my ass and finally go see them.

Thurston Moore at the Arrow Stage

Finally, I made my way back to the sea of humanity at the Banjo stage to catch some of Plant's set, though knowing I had to get out of there relatively fast to make it to the Symphony by 7:30 I stood way off to the side. He began with a funked out, down-tempo version of "Black Dog" which sounded really great. In fact the one thing I can say about Plant and The Band of Joy is they sound better than I thought they had any right to. Usually I'm totally disinterested in what former members of bands I enjoyed in my youth are doing now, and I haven't paid any attention to what Plant's been recording since 1988's Now and Zen, and that only caught my attention because of the brilliance of "Tall Cool One" (though I'll admit the Plant/Page acoustic collaboration on "Kashmir" a few years back was pretty captivating). There's just too much music to explore and keep tabs on to keep track of whatever the members of Led Zeppelin or The Who are doing on their own 30 or 40 years after the music which made them important in the first place, unless it's a project that brings the past and present together in a meaningful way, like the brilliant documentary It Might Get Loud.

An immense crowd awaits Robert Plant and The Band of Joy

But Plant and the Band of Joy greatly impressed me, in fact I watched more of their set than I expected to, finding myself so impressed with each song that I wanted to hear what came next. Plant and Patty Griffin sounded great together, and Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott's musicianship added deep textures to each song. I was pleased they didn't lean heavily on the Zeppelin catalogue (at least while I was still there) and I have to admit they banished my skepticism that they would be something of a nostalgia act for aging Boomers who refuse to listen to anything but the music they grew up on. After a gorgeous rendition of "Thank You" I forced myself to leave, reluctantly, and wondering what I was going to miss, but there were still a few hours to go before the music of the day ended and I needed to get back to my side of town, where something entirely different was going to take place.