Warren Hellman is the kind of billionaire investment banker who makes it hard to hate billionaire investment bankers. Every year, Hellman — a successful venture capitalist and an amateur banjo player — organizes something called the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, a three-day celebration of picking and strumming in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s open to all and 100 percent free — and every year, Hellman picks up the tab. Since its inception eight years ago, with two stages and nine bands, HSB has grown into perhaps the largest free festival in the country: Over the weekend an estimated 500,000 fans crammed into this year’s installment, more than Coachella, Lollapalooza and All Points West combined.
Emmylou Harris was the fest’s very first headliner back in 2001, and Hellman named the thing Strictly Bluegrass hoping to guilt her into playing some. (She didn’t, so they had to add the “Hardly” later.) Now the lineup is a cross-section of almost every kind of American roots music — from R&B legends like Booker T. and Allen Touissant to NPR folkies like Steve Earle and Aimee Mann to young indie-rock Turks like Okkervil River and Dr. Dog. And, of course, banjos, banjos, banjos.
The weekend began with MC Hammer performing “U Can’t Touch This” for a bunch of schoolkids and ended, as is now customary, with Emmylou Harris. In between were even more highlights: the neo-old-schooler Gillian Welch turning the Band’s “The Weight” into a Kentucky hoedown; the actor Steve Martin, in his moonlighting gig as a banjo picker, cracking wise throughout his set; revered British proto-punk Nick Lowe breaking out the acoustic guitar for a gorgeous solo version of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” just as the Saturday sunset was at its most golden. The weather held out all weekend — chilly at night, but mainly sunny and warm — and at least one concertgoer could be heard discussing the competing Austin City Limits festival, at that very moment drenched in rain and mud, with not a little schadenfreude.
Lots of festivals talk about creating a sense of community, but HSB might do it best. Artists love it — the pay is reportedly very generous — and there wasn’t an unhappy face in the laid-back crowd, thanks surely in part to a ban on outside alcohol so lax it was nonexistent. There were babies on leashes, dogs who weren’t and amiable old stoners who didn’t even bother to hide their roach clips. This is San Francisco, after all: Golden Gate Park was the site of the famous Human Be-In of 1967, the massive hippie get-together that kicked off the Summer of Love, a time to which several acts seemed to pay tribute. Robert Earl Keen, a Texas country vet best known for singing about beer and outlaws, ended his set with a cover of Cream’s psychedelic freak-out “White Room.” Folk strummer Richie Havens, sporting a dashiki and TV on the Radio-quality beard, recalled the ’60s with his very presence (the man played Woodstock, for goodness’ sake), but also a blistering version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Gospel queen Mavis Staples — in the middle of taking the Sunday crowd to church — also covered Buffalo Springfield’s Vietnam-era protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” striking just the right note of a promise yet unfulfilled.
The latter was a rare suggestion of politics on a weekend largely free of them. (It was telling that the singer-songwriter Todd Snider got a much bigger cheer for his song about a baseball player pitching a no-hitter on acid than for his song about bringing home the troops.) Maybe it was an unspoken truce, a must on a weekend where the bluest of blue American cities collided with the reddest of red music of the heartland. As it turns out, though, bluegrass enthusiasts and Bay Area hippies have an impressive amount in common. Both appreciate lengthy jams. Both dislike shoes. And neither uses washtubs for their intended purpose.
It wasn’t a perfect weekend: Blustery winds wreaked havoc on the sound, and the hills and meadows were generally way too packed to be truly comfortable. (It was free, after all.) But it’s hard to get too bummed about such inconveniences in a park on a sunny afternoon in October, listening to Neko Case and drinking beer that wasn’t even smuggled in. Robert Earl Keen might have summed it up for most when he announced, “There’s not a better festival in America, as far as I’m concerned.” Plus, best of all in the middle of a recession: At the very least, everybody got their money’s worth.