With its ninth annual celebration of free music in Golden Gate Park, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival embodies the spirit of San Francisco.
The lineup is eclectic, providing a platform for such non-mainstream artists as bluegrass elders Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens and Doc Watson, and crossover artists like Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg and Boz Scaggs.
The magnificent setting of the park, with stages cradled in leafy groves and on sprawling fields, is another of the shows stars.
No tickets are required; the festival is a generous gift from San Francisco financier Warren Hellman. What a contrast to the $225 price tag to spend the weekend at last months Outside Lands festival. And the mellifluous sounds of Hardly Strictly are ideally suited to the parks natural ambiance.
Hellman, 75, a managing director at the San Francisco private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, is a bluegrass aficionado and banjo player. His band, the Wronglers, plays on one of the smaller stages, getting rousing cheers from music lovers who appreciate Hellmans generosity.
With the economy in tatters, Hellman says the festival faces a conundrum. Should we lower our prices? he joked. Should we pay people to come?
Hellman says the festival is on fine financial footing for at least the next decade, and hes set up an endowment to ensure it goes on at least 10 or 15 years after I croak.
Hes been approached by prospective buyers who wanted to charge people for attending, but is unambiguous that the festival isnt for sale. Hellman evokes the old saying that money is like manure: if you pile it all in one place it stinks, but if you spread it around, you can make a thousand flowers grow.
The festival began modestly as a one-day show in 2001 called Strictly Bluegrass. We booked Hazel (Dickens) and thought 13 people would come, said festival co-producer Dawn Holliday. So we thought we better hire Emmylou.
As the roster diversified this years performers include Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, The Chieftains, Mavis Staples and Gillian Welch the name evolved.