With so many great bands, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is a music lover?s paradise, but it can be challenging to decide whom to see. For insider advice, we asked Dawn Holliday, the co-producer and talent booker for the festival, for some tips.
Naturally, Holliday, co-owner of Slim?s and the Great American Music Hall, likes all the bands or she wouldn?t have booked them, but still offered these highlights. For stage locations, check the festival program or see www.strictlybluegrass.com:
1. Boz Scaggs? tribute to the late blues guitarist Jimmy Reed: Scaggs assembled an all-star band (see main story) for the festival, Holliday said. ?He?s spent a lot of time in Texas and wanted to play with Jimmie Vaughan,? the guitarist and brother of Stevie Ray. Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
2. Steve Martin ? yes, that Steve Martin ? with the Steep Canyon Rangers. The actor and comedian takes his banjo playing seriously with this Asheville-based bluegrass band. In a typical festival conundrum, Martin plays almost the same time as Boz Scaggs. ?There?s a shortcut, a path through the woods between the two stages so you can catch them both,? Holliday said. Saturday, 2:40 p.m.
3. The Chieftains, founded in 1962, are Ireland?s leading folk band. ?There are many special reasons to see this band,? Holliday said. Asked if there might be a special guest, she didn?t say no. Sunday, 1:15 p.m.
4. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band are meant to be seen live, Holliday said, and there?s nothing like kicking off the weekend by hearing him in a beautiful setting; Friday, 5:45 p.m.
5. John Prine is about as gifted vocally as Bob Dylan, but his poignant folk ballads are an ideal fit for the festival. Prine appears Friday at 4:15 p.m., a compelling reason to leave work early.
6. Mavis Staples, the legendary Chicago gospel and R&B singer, will turn the park into a revival meeting with her uplifting vocals. Holliday said that with the cancellation of San Francisco?s blues festival, she wanted to showcase such artists as Staples (appearing Sunday, 4 p.m.) and New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint (Sunday, 2:05 p.m.).
7. One of last year?s best-received acts, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, is back for an encore. Alvin, a founding member of the Blasters, will be joined by Americana all-stars Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Christy McWilson and others, but it?s at the same time as performance by Scaggs and Martin. Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
8. Just 20 years old, Jessica Lea Mayfield blends bluegrass traditions with Seattle sonic sensibilities. She sounds a bit like Gillian Welch, her songs evoking longing and muted desire. Sunday, 2:15 p.m.
9. ?Without Hazel Dickens, this festival wouldn?t exist,? Holliday said. ?She hits me emotionally.? The 74-year-old coal miner?s daughter and bluegrass singer from West Virginia was on the bill of the inaugural festival in 2001. Sunday, noon.
10. Tom Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine frontman, at a bluegrass festival? Yes, indeed; there?s plenty of room under Hardly Strictly?s big tent. Morello appears as his folk alter ego, The Nightwatchman, Friday at 3 p.m. and joins a songwriters circle with Dar Williams, Steve Earle and Alison Moorer on Saturday at 3:45 p.m. ?He?s a crazily insightful songwriter,? Holliday said. ?People will be blown away.?
11. Amadou and Mariam, a duo from Mali who met at a school for the blind, play a sundown set on Sunday. They are known for their rhythmic, uplifting music, Holliday said. ?The whole field will be dancing and booty-shaking.?