A Hardly Strictly Blueblood Hosts a Fabulous Fest

  

In 1962 at age 28, Warren Hellman became the youngest member of Lehman Brothers. Since then, he has co-founded Matrix Partners, Hellman & Friedman in 1984, helped take Levi Strauss private for $1.8 billion in 1985, placed $224 million into ad company Young & Rubicam in 1996, and bought into Formula One Racing for $312 million in early 2000, notes a 2006 article in Forbes, "Made Money, Makes Music."

But what does Warren Hellman really like to do? Every year since 2000, Hellman has thrown a free music festival in Golden Gate Park. It began as "Strictly Bluegrass" but eventually added the "Hardly" to accommodate Emmylou Harris, the Forbes story quotes Hellman: "I thought if we called it Strictly Bluegrass, then she'd be forced to play bluegrass, but no."

And what a festival it is: no tickets required to see some of the biggest names in music over three days in one of the most beautiful settings in California. Hellman told Forbes he provides the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival because he has no interest in collecting and maintaining objects, like expensive art or Lamborghinis. "What does move me is philanthropic stuff ... I describe the festival frequently as the world's most selfish gift. It's a fantastically selfish gift, but it is a gift. There are hundreds of thousands of people there who are appreciating it. ... How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn't for something like that?"

This year was the 10th anniversary of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and the first visit for me and my husband, Gary. Through a lot of legwork and hustle, we were able to catch complete sets, a few songs, or sound checks from Steve Earle, the Flatlanders, Joan Baez, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Richard Thompson, Hot Tuna, Kinky Friedman, and numerous other top-notch musicians.

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Steve Earle plays during a pre-show sound check.

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Texas-based wordsmith James McMurtry (son of Lonesome Dove writer Larry McMurtry), accompanied by a bassist and drummer, turned in a power-trio set of his profane and melancholy songs, including his family-reunion-from-hell rant set in "the North Texas-Southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry," "Choctaw Bingo."

It'll be one great big old party like you never saw
Uncle Slayton's got his Texan pride
Back in the thickets with his Asian bride
He's got a Airstream trailer and a Holstein cow
He still makes whiskey 'cause he still knows how
He plays that Choctaw bingo every Friday night

You know he had to leave Texas but he won't say why
He owns a quarter section up by Lake Eufala
Caught a great big ol' blue cat on a driftin' jug line
Sells his hardwood timber to the shipping mill
Cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell
He cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell
You know he likes his money he don't mind the smell

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Accompanied by the Guilty Women, Dave Alvin got the crowd up and dancing with an abbreviated version of the set they played at the Cascade Theater on September 29.

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Fairport Convention alumni and Brit folk-rocker Richard Thompson showed off his rock chops with a blistering electrified set, including "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" and "Can't Win" ("The nerve of some people/ I don't know who you think you are"), along with the hardest-working drummer around, Michael Jerome.

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"You don't need to feel guilty about missing church," the announcer said softly at the conclusion of Peter Rowan's Sunday morning set. "That was spiritual enough to bring tears to your eyes."

Once a member of psychedelic band Earth Opera (along with HSB alumni David Grisman), Rowan had opened for the Doors in the late 1960s, and later a member of Marin County-based fusion band Seatrain. Rowan has turned back to bluegrass - he was once vocalist and guitarist for Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. For us, it was one of the best shows at HSB.

If this all sounds enticing, next year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is slated for Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and 2, 2011. A few caveats if you plan to go:

  • Hotels near Golden Gate Park sell out fast as HSB approaches. Book early.
  • Bring a blanket and/or tarp, and low-rise sand chairs or back rests.
  • There are plenty of concessions available with every kind of food imaginable, but we saw lots of picnic lunches too. Alcohol is not for sale at HSB but is permitted per Gold Gate Park regulations.
  • It can get cold, damp, rainy or windy, and the ground and paths can get slippery muddy even if it doesn't rain. Dress in layers and wear appropriate footwear.
  • You can easily walk a couple of miles going back and forth between concert stages. There are fenced-off viewing areas reserved for disabled concert-goers, but it can be a bit of a hike across meadows and down hills to get there.

Check the HSB website next summer for the lineup and more details. http://www.strictlybluegrass.com/

Barbara Rice is a native Igonian. Upon discovering the Beatles at age 9, she picked up an atlas and figured out how far England was and how long it would take to get there (5,371 miles, 12 hours). Though gainfully employed, she regards work as a necessary evil to finance vacations. In her spare time she looks up cheap airfares and daydreams about her next trip. She never did meet Sir Paul, but she knows where his office is.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

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4 Responses »

  1. Great report, and your love for music shines through!

  2. HSB has hosted some fabulous and well storied (mostly) bluegrass bands over the past ten years. Thanks for the reminder. I'm planning, even as we spea . . . uh . . . write!!

  3. Great article Barbara! This was our first visit, too. We booked an apartment in the Haight through vrbo.com, which worked out great! McMurtry's set was one of our favorites of the weekend. Another treat was seeing T-Bone Burnett, who was joined on stage by Patti Griffin, The Punch Brothers, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Buddy Miller (whose set was another great moment). Patti Smith's set was another highlight. What an amazing spirit she has!

    Oh, by the way, you left out the best part of "Choctaw Bingo".... Something about an ol' Beau D'arc fence post....

    • I had to choose which of that song's litany of sins should get the spotlight (there are plenty to choose from). Meth won out this time, but who knows next year?

      Thanks for reading.

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