The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival may be the biggest free party in the history of San Francisco — last year’s drew about a half-million fans — and it’s nearly party time again. Hardly Strictly No. 7 kicks off October 5, one week from Friday, in Golden Gate Park for three days of mostly traditional music, courtesy of Warren Hellman, billionaire investment banker, bluegrass aficionado, and, yup, banjo picker.
“Some people have likened it to Woodstock, but without the violence and drugs,” Hellman says, displaying his low-key humor. “Although it may be the one place in the city where the smog consists mostly of cannabis.”
On five stages — star, banjo, arrow, rooster, and porch — a dizzying variety of acts, from bluegrass to, well, hardly bluegrass, will cut loose. Among them are popular festival “family” members such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Hazel Dickens, and Gillian Welch. There’ll also be locals including Boz Scaggs, the Mother Hips, the Secret Life of Banjos, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands, and Jefferson Airplane founder Jorma Kaukonen. You’ll have your Knitters, your John Prine, your Mekons, your Los Lobos, your … can this really be free?
“There’s nowhere else you can get such a variety of music for any price,” says Jody Stecher, who’ll be back for his fourth appearance. “The story I hear was the first year it was called Strictly Bluegrass, but purists carped because 30 percent of the acts weren’t bluegrass, so they stuck in the ‘hardly.’ That said, you could come for two days and hear nothing but bluegrass, if you just wander from stage to stage.”
The spirit of the thing, he adds, is typically San Franciscan: “No fistfights and no arguments. The worst things that happen are sound-system incidents, but that gets better each year.”
He and fellow banjoista Bill Evans are presenting The Secret Life of Banjos, an act that includes comedy, theater, and readings — everything you wanted to know (or didn’t) about banjos — in addition to tunes. “SLOB covers the entire range of five-string banjo music,” Stecher explains. “From early minstrel shows and ragtime to Beatles songs, covering the African influences and played on a variety of instruments with skins of animal and plastic, strings of steel, gut, nylon, brass, and copper, and a new nylon called Nylgut that replicates gut strings, but doesn’t unravel in the weather.”
Boz Scaggs, not widely known for bluegrass, will perform with a supergroup called the Blue Velvet Band: It includes guitarist/songwriter Buddy Miller, New Orleans pianist Jon Cleary, and other top-notch players. “It’s a chance to get with some crackerjack musicians and play songs that fit the intent of the festival,” Scaggs says. “The set list is a surprise, but we’re drawing primarily from the ’50s in the country, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll, and honky-tonk traditions.”
Master guitarist Jorma Kaukonen has played folk music all his life, except for a few years in the 1960s when he helped found Jefferson Airplane, named after a pseudonym a pal once gave him (Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane). “I started playing Carter Family songs, graduated to Cash, Holly, and other ’50s whatnots. Then I got into Reverend Gary Davis,” Kaukonen recalls. “Looking back, the Airplane turned out to be a side trip.”
Now head of a guitar camp in Ohio called Fur Peace Ranch, Kaukonen says the outsider aspect of folk always appealed to him. “It wasn’t hip in the ’50s, before the big folk scare, and it isn’t hip now. It’s a timeless art form, and the subject matter, no matter how you frame it, is about real things people can relate to. It’s not fad driven. You can sing and play about everything from the erection to the Resurrection.”
He’ll be playing with Barry Mitterhoff, who handles tenor banjo, mandolin, tenor guitar, ukulele, and other stringed instruments. “A free show of this quality is unbelievable, an only-in-San Francisco type of thing,” Kaukonen says.
Hellman is delighted with his festival’s success and the attention it draws to traditional music, but he says the genesis wasn’t part of any grand scheme. “For many years I had a fantasy of putting on a festival. I love bluegrass and asked Jonathan Nelson, one of the owners of Slim’s, how he’d go about doing it.”
Nelson introduced the financier to Slim’s booker Dawn Holliday and Sheri Sternberg, whose company, Mercenary Productions, has handled the technical side of ESPN’s X Games and KFOG’s annual Kaboom. And the rest is history. “My friends collect expensive toys, statues, and art,” Hellman says. “But my wife is an artist, so I don’t have to collect art. I collect musicians.”
Hardly Strictly’s main man says he enjoys the family vibe that traditional music, especially bluegrass, generates. The fest, he notes, is run by a committee that agrees on the acts and works out the logistics. “The hardest thing for me is saying no,” Hellman says. “Everybody plays in a band, or knows someone in a band, or has a relative in a band and I’d like to invite them all. Part of Dawn’s job is to keep me from saying yes to everyone I meet.”
Over the years, corporations have offered to sponsor Hardly Strictly, but Hellman turns them all down. “I want to keep it entirely free and noncommercial,” he says. “The festival is still in the middle of its birth process and I’m looking for ways to make sure it can go on after I’m gone. I want to be able to look down on it from above — or up at it from below, as the case may be,” Hellman says, only half joking. “I suspect it will be the latter, since I’m a banjo player, and there are some things even Jesus can’t forgive.”