You can't just go into a festival with more than 80 acts on the lineup willy-nilly. You need a plan, a strategy, a set of reasonable goals. But given the sprawling stages, and the musical variety at hand, how should you do that with Hardly Strictly? Let us help. Here are four basic strategies for approaching the festival, each with three days' worth of performers to catch. Whether you want to see young upstarts, big names, or Hardly Strictly regulars — or you simply want to maximize music while minimizing time spent wading through crowds — these agendas should help.
Younger and Rowdier:
You're not super into old-school bluegrass, but are in search of edgy lyrics, electric guitars, and performers who max out at twice your age.
Low: Twenty years into its career, Minnesota's Low remains as elusive as ever. Its music has been branded post-rock, slowcore, and straight-up indie-rock, but it doesn't easily submit to simplistic labeling. Expect gorgeous vocal harmonies, moments of pin-drop quiet escalating through crescendos of thundering drama, and incredible musicianship. Also, humorous and humble banter from the members themselves. 2:35 p.m. at the Arrow Stage.
The Evens: Ian MacKaye is best known for leading straight-edge punk legends Minor Threat and Fugazi, but the Evens is his somewhat more relaxed duo with Amy Farina. MacKaye plays baritone guitar and Farina plays drums, they both sing, and the result is a quietly tense, negative-space-filled take on the rock duo. 3:20 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
First Aid Kit: If you're inclined to be skeptical of a twentysomething Swedish duo playing haunting, heartworn Americana, relax. First Aid Kit comes co-signed by Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, and deservedly so: The songs on its U.S. debut, The Lion's Roar, propel forward with an ache and tenderness that belies both the Söderberg sisters' years and their homeland. 4:30 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Sonny and the Sunsets: Sonny Smith is like contemporary San Francisco's Jonathan Richman, a funny, fearlessly creative singer, songwriter, and visual artist whose songs veer from tear-in-beer country-western to straight-up rock 'n' roll, with lyrics about science-fictional romances, murderous skin cream, and the travails of life in East Oakland. 11:40 a.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
Mark Lanegan: Lanegan was playing with Kurt Cobain before Cobain was Cobain. Co-founder of the Screaming Trees, he channels the darkness of familiar tropes — weird family, drug problems — into rock and out in stranger directions still. You may recognize Lanegan's whispered baritone from his work with Queens of the Stone Age, but his most interesting stuff is the solo work, as deep and lonesome a sound as you can hope to get — blues, really, which is where all rock musicians end up if they live long enough. 1:25 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside: Approximately 74 percent of what makes a throwback rock outfit memorable is the sound of its vocalist, and by that standard, Sallie Ford has a bright future. Her voice can slide from low and seductive to high and stinging in a measure or less, and always wears a shred of vulnerability. Her band summons an energetic grit to match. 1:25 p.m. on the Porch Stage.
Allah-Lahs: There's a brand of vintage rock 'n' roll that pretty much couldn't exist without the help of spring reverb from old Fender amplifiers, and that's what the Allah-Las specialize in. Their reliance on the damp, iconic echo effect is almost a crutch, but the pop tunes that result are so surfy and crisp that you can't help but let the L.A. quartet get away with it. 11:45 a.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
The Devil Makes Three: Ragtime, rockabilly, bluegrass, blues, folk punk: No matter what you call it, the Devil Makes Three has honed its skills over the years into a lively, foot-tapping, dance-inducing acoustic band. The Santa Cruz trio is made up of guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino, and guitarist and tenor banjo player Cooper McBean. While their ode to Jack Daniels whiskey, “Old No. 7,” remains a crowd favorite, keep your ears peeled for “Shades,” “Bangor Mash,” and “Do Wrong Right.” 2:45 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
The Brothers Comatose: One of San Francisco's best young folk-bluegrass bands, the Brothers Comatose are building a national name for themselves on the strength of songs that are alternately raw, rowdy, mournful, and sweet. See our interview with the band on Page 7. 1:25 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
The Big Names
Hardly Strictly is free, so of course you want to see the most famous and/or worthwhile performers you can. Not all these artists are huge, but many are, and the rest deserve to be.
Bonnie Raitt: Does Bonnie Raitt really need an introduction? Is there a more famous female blues guitarist? Is there a more respected one? Are you really going to pretend that you won't enjoy hearing “Something to Talk About” live in Golden Gate Park? Do you not remember how great a singer Raitt is, too? Geez, why don't you just get out there already? 5:45 p.m. on the Banjo Stage.
Calexico: The city is in California, but the duo named for it is based in Tucson, where Joey Burns and John Convertino rope together a panorama of influences — American folk, Ennio Morricone, Latin brass, and way more — into a music as diverse and lively as the Southwest itself. Atmospheric, evocative, and always surprising, Calexico certainly deserves its spot closing things out on Friday. 5:45 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
Father John Misty: You'd have to be crazy to quit the super-popular beardo-folk outfit Fleet Foxes in order to go solo, and J. Tillman is certainly crazy. But as Father John Misty, he's also shown himself to be possibly brilliant. His 2012 solo debut, Fear Fun, is less sappy and more compelling than most recent Fleet Foxes material, and Tillman himself is a quirky and unpredictable presence onstage and in interviews. He's right to want the spotlight for himself. 4:15 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
Nick Lowe: If you know nothing about Nick Lowe, know this: He's the British songwriting genius who wrote the 1979 power-pop smash “Cruel to Be Kind,” as well as Elvis Costello's hit “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” along with dozens of others. His songs are much more famous than he is, so trust us when we say you shouldn't need any more reason to go see him. 3:05 p.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
Natalie Maines: Along with writing tons of hit songs, former Dixie Chick Natalie Maines deserves credit for sticking to her guns in the face of tremendous pressure from the country music establishment. She spoke out against the Iraq war, was blacklisted from country radio, and went on to sell millions of records anyway. Her new album, the Ben Harper-produced Mother, leans more on rootsy rock than mainstream country. 5:45 p.m. on the Star Stage.
Los Lobos Disconnected: The unplugged thing may seem at first off-putting to fans of Los Lobos, who maintain a Ouiji line direct to Buddy Holly and Richie Valens (count on their “La Bamba” cover to be way more satisfying than you might think) while still having a great big rock sound. The solid bet here is that by disconnecting, the more traditional strains of Mexican folk — that bright, quick, dancey sound — will rise up, and we will, too. 4:45 p.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
Gogol Bordello: A brilliant choice for a festival that caters to mutations of traditional music, Gogol Bordello is folk through the looking-glass — the looking-glass here being the Iron Curtain. Swirling gypsy fiddle, marching-band bass drums wielded by lithe women, the near-chaos of New York punk cultivated by madman/frontman Eugene Hütz, it's that rarest of live music experience: visceral jump-around noise that still allows you to hear the complexity of a whole other world's folk traditions. 5:50 p.m. on the Star Stage.
Billy Bragg: Few figures combine the spirit of populist folk with the fury of punk rock like British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. He's released dozens of solo albums, many of them excellent, and won the prize of reworking a trove of unfinished Woodie Guthrie songs with Wilco for the landmark Mermaid Avenue album. He's a vivid lyricist and a charming fellow to boot. 3:10 p.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
Chris Isaak: Well, it's Chris Isaak, whom your mom loved in a way that made you uncomfortable when you were younger, and you thought there was no way you were ever gonna get it, the whole Chris Isaak thing, but by God he never did disappear from the cultural radar, he was always there, suggesting deeper things about your own dear saintly mother that you wouldn't ever quite accept, but knew that it suggested a whole constellation of deeper things about people in general, which is that desire, often terrible, lives behind all the everyday things we present to the world, and when you get that, you get Chris Isaak, finally, you get “Wicked Game” and “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” and “Somebody's Crying,” and you think how dangerous it is that they let this guy around the housewives of America in the first place. 4 p.m. on the Star Stage.
You want a taste of the core group of Hardly Strictly performers. With these folks coming back year after year, you know they must be doing something right.
The Felice Brothers: This is a young country/folk band from upstate New York that cut its teeth performing in the New York City subway. The Felice Brothers have played with Levon Helm and Dave Matthews Band, but their sensibility is rougher and their lyrics more modern than you might expect. 2:10 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Peter Rowan: Peter Rowan encapsulates everything Hardly Strictly is about: keeping a long-running American style of music — in this case bluegrass — vital. A major figure in the progressive bluegrass movement, Rowan has had a tremendous solo career, played with Jerry Garcia in the influential but short-lived Old & In the Way, and remains both a formidable guitarist and songwriter. Check out “Girl in the Velvet Blue Band” for a haunting tale set in San Francisco. 4:15 p.m. on the Banjo Stage.
Conor Oberst: Now in his fourth consecutive year of performing at Hardly Strictly, and his third year of curating his own stage, Conor Oberst might seem like an old hand. You should still see him: The warbling, vulnerable folk-punk voice of Nebraska pulls from his vast catalog with Bright Eyes and the Mystic Valley Band, and often plays some of the most nakedly emotional and vivid songs of the whole weekend. See our interview with him on Page 4. 5:45 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
The Flatlanders: Anybody with a guitar and a head for rhymes can be a singer-songwriter, but to be a troubadour, you have to be prone to wanderings, both inner and outer, and be willing to carry some sadness. The Flatlanders — Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock — are troubadours, carrying the rhymes and the stories and all that, but the Lubbock-born band is also quintessential Texas country, the essence of moving through a big place and needing to tell of it. 5:35 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
Patty Griffin: Some people just have the voice, and pensive folk singer Patty Griffin is one of them. She's played Hardly Strictly every year since 2010, and when Robert Plant shows up, he usually gets her to sing with him. This year Griffin is billed on her own, but that impeccable voice doesn't need any competition to shine. 4:05 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Holler Down the Hollow Tribute: Hardly Strictly is known for the surprises that result when dozens of famous musicians converge on the same 49-square-mile city, and this set will be one of them. Ostensibly a tribute to the festival masters who've passed on, like Hasil Dickens, Doc Watson, and of course founder and benefactor Warren Hellman, there's really no telling what could happen here. But if you're a die-hard fan, you probably shouldn't miss it. 2:45 p.m. on the Banjo Stage.
Buddy Miller: A mainstay of this festival, Buddy Miller is a virtuosic guitarist who plays with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, a record producer, and a much-lauded songwriter. He also has a habit of showing up on stages all throughout the weekend of Hardly Strictly. 4:25 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: If you've never seen a genuine old-school bluegrass band perform, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with 86-year-old Ralph Stanley and his family band. This is raw, energetic, intensely heartfelt music — they call it the “high and lonesome” style of bluegrass — and the banjo-slinging Dr. Stanley is a true pioneer of it. 4:25 p.m. on the Banjo Stage.
Emmylou Harris: Perhaps no one is as closely identified with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass as Emmylou Harris, the Americana giant who got her big break performing with Gram Parsons. Harris has been at Hardly Strictly since the very beginning, and yet her Sunday closing sets are still, for many, the main event of the weekend. But then, the smoothness and power of her voice is undiminished, and at 66, she's still writing vital new songs. 5:45 p.m. on the Banjo Stage.
The Warren Method:Warren Hellman knew that with the massive crowds his free festival draws, bouncing from one stage to another isn't easy. That's why the late festival founder's advice was to simply pick one stage for each day, build your blanket empire in front of it, and hang out. Here's our choice for where to spend three full days this weekend.
Friday Arrow Stage: Conor Oberst and friends on the Rooster stage are tough to pass up, but with Calexico, Father John Misty, and Low all playing the Arrow Stage, hanging out there is a sure bet for a great and varied afternoon of music.
Saturday Towers of Gold Stage: Reasonable minds can disagree, but we'd spend our Saturday with local weirdo Sonny and the Sunsets, fiery soul singer Bettye LaVette, songwriter par excellence Nick Lowe, and the veteran Latin rock band Los Lobos.
Sunday Star Stage: Picking just one stage for all of Sunday is terribly painful, but if forced, we'd explore the youngish side of the lineup, catching Dry Branch Fire Squad, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Justin Townes Earle, local big-name Chris Isaak, and the fiery gypsy-punk outfit Gogol Bordello.