An estimated 15,000 people and a handful of carefully selected artists celebrated the life of billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman at a memorial concert held alongside San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on Sunday. Hellman’s musical heroes – including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Boz Scaggs and the Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore – all memorialized and eulogized Hellman from stage, as well as behind it.
They celebrated the life of a man who, for the past decade, hired them and hundreds of other artists to perform at a free three-day festival he threw in Golden Gate Park every October. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass saw daily crowds that topped 100,000 and Hellman paid for all of it out of his own pocket, insisting that the festival remain free to the public and free from any corporate sponsorship, advertising or tie-ins of any kind. It cost him millions of dollars every year and it was a joy for him to be able to do. He saw it as his gift to the city and his contribution to music. He simply loved music. Hellman passed away on December 18, 2011 due to complications from leukemia, at the age of 77.
A banjo player himself, Hellman was often invited by various artists to sit in with them during their sets – both at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and elsewhere. While that couldn’t happen on Sunday for obvious reasons, that spirit was alive and well at the memorial as many of the artists sat in with each other during their sets. At the end of Harris’ set, she invited all of the day’s artists onstage for a group sing of the Band’s “The Weight.” Hearts were heavy, indeed – yet there was no denying that this was a celebration.
“He’s my favorite capitalist,” Steve Earle told Rolling Stone backstage after his set. Earle performed at ten out of the eleven Hardly Strictlys to date and said that Hellman, who became a personal friend, always overpaid all the artists – but “for the right reasons,” he said. “When you have a lot of money, you have choices as to what you can do with that, and Hellman did this. He also saved the pension plans of a whole bunch of the City of San Francisco workers – you don’t run into that very much among investment bankers.”
Earle opened his set with a brand new tune which he wrote on the airplane on his way to the memorial concert. The song was called “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.”
Boz Scaggs had equally reverential words about the late benefactor. “Warren was a humble man and he studied banjo under some pretty good teachers for a number of years,” he told Rolling Stone. “He actually got to the point where he was playing with a number of us who are featured performers in this festival and he was welcome because he really learned his instrument. He managed to get to know a lot of the performers who played, but it wasn’t like a hush came over the crowd when he came; Warren just was hanging and he seemed to be enjoying it more than anyone.”
He certainly would’ve enjoyed the program on Sunday, especially during some of the more unexpected moments such as when Old Crow Medicine Show, perhaps in a double-nod to another fallen spirit, transformed Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” into a bluegrass breakdown. Or when Emmylou Harris invited Gillian Welch and David Rawlings out for a cover of Rosa Watson’s “Your Long Journey.”
Often called “the heart of Hardly Strictly,” Harris – who has performed at every Hardly Strictly since the event’s inception – reiterated what many of the other artists confirmed from the stage throughout the day: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will return to Golden Gate Park this October and for many Octobers to come. Hellman set up an endowment to ensure that the festival would continue long after his death.
“We love you Warren,” said Harris, who was one of Hellman’s personal favorites and a beloved friend. “We will see you in October every year for as long as we can stand – and, after that, in a wheelchair.”