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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Shows That a Free, Down-Home Festival Can Outshine the Competition

on October 04, 2018, 10:00am

Golden Gate Park is a city unto itself, with over 1,100 acres of fields, lush and foggy forest, museums, lakes, and even bison. It’s a place to explore, escape, relax, and, of course, get into some weird shit. So, naturally, San Franciscans have used this rectangular stretch of land between the Haight Ashbury and the Pacific Ocean to party for decades – from the counter-culture genesis that was the Human Be-In to Day on the Green, the annual unofficial 420 gathering on Hippie Hill, and, more recently, Outside Lands. Yet, the most San Francisco event held in Golden Gate Park is, undoubtedly, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

The free, three-day festival is held annually during the first weekend in October (this year Oct. 5-7) and has become a cornerstone of Bay Area culture since its inception as the Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2001. During its 18 years, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB) has drawn some of the biggest names in roots and Americana music while also providing stages for lesser-known groups, up-and-coming names, and legends that don’t often get a chance to shine. The beloved festival draws over 500,000 people each year who come for a uniquely curated lineup that offers a smorgasbord of sound.

HSB might have the most diverse festival lineup in the country, an increasingly admirable accomplishment as once-independent festivals get scooped up by concert conglomerates and descend into a homogenized electronic glory. Yet, how does a free festival, which has booked everyone from singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant to Ana Tijoux, Graham Nash, and The Greyboy Allstars (the latter three will perform on the same stage this year) manage such a robust and singular lineup?

“To me, putting together a festival is an art,” said talent buyer Chris Porter, an industry veteran who joined HSB this year after longtime buyer and co-founder Dawn Holliday stepped down. “The essence of a great festival is music and arts discovery, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass certainly does that. But it has its own vibe. Something on this level that is free is very rare … I can’t think of another example in North America.”

Cultivating Roots Music: In All Its Forms

Strictly Bluegrass Inaugural Poster (2001)

Strictly Bluegrass Inaugural Poster (2001)

Hardly Strictly’s genesis is exemplary of San Francisco’s groovy, pioneering, and community-oriented spirit. The late investment banker and philanthropist Warren Hellman approached Holliday in 2001 with the idea of producing a multi-act bill to showcase lesser-known folk singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens. Hellman loved bluegrass and would later become an accomplished banjo player; co-founder and producer Sheri Sternberg said Hellman also wanted to put on a festival that honored the interests of his sister, a musician who had fallen ill.

“We cultivate roots music in all of its forms, and there’s a lot of offshoots of that. We don’t need a certain amount of this or that to feel relevant or fill our quotas,” Sternberg told Consequence of Sound. “We want a well-rounded event. Even when it was Strictly Bluegrass, we wanted to mix it up.”

Holliday – also the former general manager of popular local venues Slim’s and The Great American Music Hall —  was instrumental in expanding the festival’s definition of roots music. Aiming to showcase bands that greatly influenced or otherwise reflected the roots of soul, blues, and punk (HSB doesn’t discriminate, but generally does not host hip-hop, metal, or EDM groups), Holliday got major names from across the board. She secured Elvis Costello and Rosanna Cash, tapped legends like Primus bassist Les Claypool and Richie Havens, and offered space for up-and-comers like the Allah-Las, Ben Miller Band, and Fantastic Negrito.

“I don’t think we ever had a vision,” Holliday told The San Francisco Chronicle. “I think Warren just wanted to hear live music and wanted it to affect people. There’s still a guiding principle, but it doesn’t need to have a banjo attached to it.”

Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Willie Watson (Photo by Jon R. Luini)

David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Willie Watson (Photo by Jon R. Luini)

At the same time, HSB grew a stable of country and bluegrass pillars who would return to the festival’s main Banjo Stage year after year. Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, T Bone Burnett, Gillian Welch, and The Flatlanders anchor the weekend of performances. These artists try to do something special each time they perform at Hardly Strictly, “so you’re not necessarily seeing the same show as you did last year,” Porter added.

“It’s the most free live music reaching the largest number of people on a yearly basis anywhere in the universe that I know of … and I get to see my friends,” Earle, a preeminent country-folk singer-songwriter, told Consequence.

These anchor acts have become an accidental tradition. “Bringing them back every year wasn’t necessarily intentional — we weren’t sure if we’d have a second year — but it seemed to be a natural fit as we evolved,” Sternberg said. “Warren really wanted to maintain relationships with these artists; loyalty was important to him.”

Following Hellman’s death in 2011, HSB continued to be funded by an endowment through the Hellman Family Foundation. Speedway Meadows, the part of Golden Gate Park that hosts HSB every year, was renamed Hellman’s Hollow.

An Unyielding Commitment to Music Discovery

Pick a Stage (Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski)

Pick a Stage (Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski)

“Dawn did a really great job of coming up with the next big thing or finding something that had been around for a while and highlight it,” Sternberg said. “It was amazing to see people’s careers blow up – from Justin Townes Earle to Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Sharon Jones really took off around the time she performed at our event [in 2010].”

Hardly Strictly is notable not only for the diversity of its artists, but for a high quality of musicianship. Even a first-time attendee navigating the massive matrix of stages and showtimes will be able to find familiar artists they like and expose themselves to something phenomenal that might be outside their wheelhouse. That level of exposure, and the promise of quality HSB provides, is all in the name of music discovery.

“Sound diversity and the demographics that they draw are important to me. I love putting newer acts and older acts that are very complimentary to each other back to back. HSB gives me the opportunity to stretch out and be creative with the lineup while staying true to the roots of the festival,” Porter said of his first year booking HSB.

“People will be surprised walking by a stage,” Sternberg said, mentioning Bollywood-meets-blues singer Aki Kumar, who performs Sunday. “It happened to me a couple years ago with Gregory Alan Isakov, who’s coming back this year. I was blown away; he was on the Rooster Stage, and it was an amazing experience.”

In a world where festival tickets are expensive (passes to Another Planet Entertainment’s Outside Lands, which is held on much of the same park space as HSB, cost hundreds), Hardly Strictly has the serious advantage of being free. When attendees aren’t spending significant cash to see top-billed acts, they’re more likely to give those names in smaller print a chance.

Booking “timely” artists – those who have a new record but have flown under the radar or have contributed heavily to a genre but haven’t performed much – is important to Porter, who spent 18 years as the talent buyer for Seattle’s Bumbershoot! Festival. He pointed to Kacy & Clayton, who have been performing for years but recently released a record produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and honkytonk legend Dale Watson, who will perform at HSB for the first time this year.

Porter was excited to book Ween, Robyn Hitchcock (who typically performs solo but will have a full band this year), and Matador! Soul Sounds, a soul-funk supergroup that’s “a real gem that’s not going to be on a lot of people’s radar but should be.” From his home in Washington state, Porter said he was most excited to showcase a rare performance by Roky Erickson, a singer-songwriter and founder of psych rock band The 13th Floor Elevators.

“He seemed like a really cool act to put there, and it would be very complementary. He’s from Texas, but there are bootlegs and records of him playing live in SF in the ‘60s, so there’s a historical tie to the Bay Area,” Porter said.

The ability to host so many acts without relying on one or two big names to draw a crowd isn’t common among festivals of similar size. HSB’s unique abilities stand in stark contrast to the increasing corporatization of the festival industry.

Concert Consolidation

hardlystricklybluegrass 2018 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Shows That a Free, Down Home Festival Can Outshine the Competition

In years past, festivals had more of a localized identity, drawing from local scenes or ascribing to fewer genres that would entice a more specialized crowd. With the commodification of festival culture well underway, major music promotion companies began snapping up once independent festivals. AEG Live purchased Coachella in 2004 and likely gave rise to what The Outline described as a “corporate dystopia” (to say nothing of the incredible talent booked on its multiple stages). Similarly, Live Nation owns Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Sasquatch, and Lollapalooza. The result: festivals across the country now have strikingly similar lineups and vibes. In 2016, The New York Times opined it would not cover such big-name festivals in favor of “smaller festivals with purpose.”

“Often I see notices for festivals and gatherings that are very narrowly focused thematically and almost completely ignored critically,” the Times continued. “Want to see LCD Soundsystem? You can catch them at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Panorama, and Way Home. Major Lazer? Coachella, Sasquatch, Firefly, and Panorama. ASAP Rocky? Coachella, Firefly, and Panorama. Gary Clark Jr.? Coachella, New Orleans Jazzfest, Governors Ball, and Way Home.”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Founder Warren Hellman

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Founder Warren Hellman

Some of this lineup homogeneity is a financial decision that’s compounded by the relatively short span of “festival season.” Only so many artists are touring at once, and it makes financial sense to do “block booking” of a major touring act. Those big acts are guaranteed to sell tickets and please sponsors.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass doesn’t have to worry about ticket sales, thanks to its endowment from the Hellman Family Foundation, nor does it have a problem drawing big-name acts. Porter said nearly 80 percent of the artists to whom he made first-round booking offers accepted. “That speaks volumes about how well-respected Hardly Strictly is in the music community and how well it treats the artists.”

Some festivals are playing both sides, hosting major artists while trying to expand their attendees’ tastes. Sternberg went to Goldenvoice’s Stagecoach Festival several years ago and said most of the bands she wanted to see was sparsely attended. “For me to see [Carolina Chocolate Drops founder] Rhiannon Gidden and only have a couple hundred people there was a travesty. It shows that the talent buyers want to educate people in music, but the average person who goes to these events is interested in seeing the big-name acts on the big stage instead of going to see something that’s more niche that they wouldn’t expect.

“Our folks wander around. Other festivals are giving the people what they want, and that’s their job,” Sternberg added.

 Yet, the plethora of music festivals and the group of acts supporting them has led to “festival fatigue” and many failures. Porter expects that “boutique festivals” – those with 15,000 people or less – are likely the future.

“I think there are always going to be people who want to put these things together, and there will be money and interest, but you have to be extra creative to rise above the pack and get the public’s notice,” Porter said, citing multi-venue Massachusetts festival The Town and The City and Oregon’s Pickathon.

Keeping Grounded

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Audience (Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Audience (Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski)

Hardly Strictly also adheres to the activist spirit that’s entrenched in local culture, offering several community-focused events throughout the weekend. For years, local MC Hammer performed a children’s benefit on Friday afternoon; this year, ukulele and vocal duo The Letterboxers will perform with over 50 San Francisco middle school students on Oct. 5. During the height of Sunday afternoon performances, survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and other tragedies will perform Raise Your Voice, an album of musical and spoken-word pieces that tackle issues of gun violence.

“These students are going to get a taste of very different styles of music, and I think a lot of them are going to love it,” said The Letterboxers’ John Mansfield, also a school district consultant for HSB. Mansfield and musical partner Winona Hendrick are continuing HSB’s educational mission by bringing HSB musicians into classrooms for performances, workshops, and lectures about protest music, songwriting, and improvisation.

HSB also iterates on its lineup by offering special events. The 2018 festival will feature a performance and taping of radio variety show Live from Here, as well as Tubes’ drummer Prairie Prince performing The Who’s Tommy.

All of this is heightened by the beauty of Golden Gate Park, which guides the layout of the festival and placement of artists. Bigger names like M. Ward thrive in the intimacy of the Porch Stage, located at the eastern edge of the festival; the Rooster Stage, located in a tucked-away meadow, offers impeccable sound for acoustic artists (though the incomparable Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings blew the lid off the place). “We try to work with the park itself and see what fits best in any location. The intimacy is really brought by the park,” Sternberg said.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is more than a festival — it’s a communal experience that manages to naturally satisfy, inspire, and pique curiosity. It’s a family atmosphere that encourages you to bring a lawn chair and camp out at the Banjo Stage for an up-close view of comedian Steve Martin playing bluegrass as the Steep Canyon Rangers. You’ll be equally at home bouncing around from stage to stage with a joint in hand, letting something new capture you. Whatever you hear will be good, and you’ll likely come away with a handful of new favorite bands. Hardly Strictly proves that free doesn’t always mean cheap.

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