One of the greatest virtues of San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival - aside from the fact that it's free, in a gorgeous setting and laden with legendary talent - is its propensity for special guests to show up.
But even knowing that trait of the festival (and having already successfully predicted special guests earlier in the weekend, like Emmylou Harris joining Buddy Miller on stage), it was a welcome shock when Howe Gelb began his Giant Giant Sand set by welcoming John Paul Jones to the stage.
The Led Zeppelin bassist lent his mandolin skills to Gelb's ever shifting project and it fit right in.
Jones jammed with the band, starting off with "Shiver" and "Forever and a Day" before joining again at the end of the set.
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is my favorite - an annual trip to San Francisco that features legendary performers in that genre, some of who don't have long left in this world. Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, who both passed away this year, were perennial performers I got to see. And as its name indicates, there's the "hardly strictly" end of the spectrum, with performers coming from such varied backgrounds as traditional Irish music (The Chieftains), New Orleans brass (The Soul Rebels), Latin-flecked "erosion rock" (that would be our very own Giant Giant Sand) and rock 'n' roll legends like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello.
That the festival is free to all is amazing, and that it's the generous gift of just one man is even more amazing. But better still is the fact that Warren Hellman, the financier, philanthropist and banjo enthusiast who founded the festival, so loved sharing music with his city that before he passed away last year at 77, had the loving foresight to create an endowment to continue the festival.
An atmosphere of good will - toward Warren, toward the performers, toward everyone - permeates the festival and aside from the music itself is what Hardly Strictly is best known for.
So when Giant Giant Sand was announced in the first batch of bands for this year's event, I was thrilled to see a Tucson representative at my favorite festival. The band played through much of this year's "country rock opera" Tucson.
Howe's newest bandmates - Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and Jon Villa - got the chance to shine on the big stage, with Jones pitching in again on "Caranito."
It was a long weekend for me, starting with the great Chuck Prophet early Friday afternoon and ending as always with Emmylou on the big stage in what's now named Hellman Hollow to close out the festival Sunday night. Kudos to Giant Giant Sand for a wonderful performance - and hopefully a host of new fans. I'll be back at Hardly Strictly again next year.