No controversy at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass — only revelry

Warren Hellman has what he calls a “simple” question. “Why can’t the United States be more like Speedway Meadows?”

Speedway Meadows is the Golden Gate Park venue that hosts the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the free, widely attended three-day concert in The City that attracts very little controversy.

While complaints of noise, litter and general unruliness follow popular city events such as Bay to Breakers and Outside Lands, the exponentially larger, 10-year-old bluegrass festival draws almost only praise.

Hellman, the wealthy San Franciscan who personally bankrolls the concert, said he plans to pose this question during the usual “lack-of-wisdom speech” he delivers at the end of this year’s bluegrass festival.

In its inaugural year, the event featured eight bands and 20,000 fans. Last year, Mayor Gavin Newsom said attendance at the three-day festival exceeded San Francisco’s population of more than 800,000. The numbers are expected to remain high for the 10th anniversary, with more than 80 bands playing on six stages.

Despite the massive draw, Hellman said the main complaints he hears about Hardly Strictly are from the fans — some who think a particular show might be too crowded, and others who are torn between bands playing at the same time on different stages.

“We don’t get many noise complaints,” said Hellman, who is a banjo player himself and jokingly admits to hosting the festival so that he can play in front of massive crowds with his band The Wronglers.

What The City does get at Hardly Strictly is hundreds of thousands of people with vastly varying backgrounds and opinions in the same space — and somehow, they get along, Hellman said.

“There are no fights, no negativity, no anything.” And none of the musicians would ever tell a fan not to go watch another musician play, he added.

“I think we have people running for [political] office who do that,” Hellman quipped.

Hellman attributes the continued success of Hardly Strictly to organizers such as Dawn Holliday, the Slim’s and Great American Music Hall general manager who has produced the event since the beginning.

Holliday said the main reason Hardly Strictly is a success without controversy is that it is a daytime, family-friendly event that prohibits alcohol sales.

“We don’t have heavy rock bands,” Holliday said. “There’s more kids and dogs than there are banjos.”

Hardly Strictly is clearly not a political hot potato for city lawmakers, many of whom attend with their families.

“I was out there last year, and it was an amazing experience,” Supervisor David Chiu said. “This festival continues to establish San Francisco as a musical destination and its musical economy.”

To lessen overcrowding at stages this year, Holliday said the most popular acts will be more efficiently scheduled and spaced out. She was surprised at the attention Steve Martin’s performance received last year.

“To me he’s a banjo player, and banjo players are not that popular,” Holliday said.

The “wow factor” performance at this year’s festival could be Mike Patton of Faith No More’s act Mondo Cane, a 20-piece orchestra performing old-school Italian pop and folk songs, Holliday said.

For those who want to avoid fighting through crowds, Hellman’s advice is simply to show up and stay put.

“Go one place, settle in and don’t move,” he said.


Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

Where: Speedway, Lindley and Marx meadows, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 10:30 a.m. to noon and 2 to 7 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.
to 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Free

*On the Richmond side of the park, access 5-Fulton, 31-Balboa and 38-Geary lines. On the Sunset side, take the N-Judah.
*Bike parking is offered at three monitored self-parking areas near each meadow; valet bike parking is also available from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Hardly’ headliners

Here are some top names among the 85 acts on six stages:


MC Hammer
11:30 a.m. Star Stage
(Lindley Meadow, JFK Drive
near 30th Avenue)
Also appeared: 2008-09

Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
4:05 p.m., Banjo Stage (Speedway Meadow, near JFK Drive)
Also appeared: 2004-05, 2008-09

Dukes of September Rhythm Revue
with Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald & Boz Scaggs
5:45 p.m., Banjo Stage
Also appeared: 2007, 2009

T Bone Burnett
with Punch Brothers and special guests Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters
5:45 p.m., Rooster Stage
Also appeared: 2006-07


Steve Earle & The Bluegrass Dukes
5:45 p.m., Banjo Stage
Also appeared: 2004-09
The Flatlanders
with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock
5:20 p.m., Arrow Stage (Speedway Meadow, near JFK Drive)
Also appeared: 2003-05, 2007-09

Robert Earl Keen
5:45 p.m., Rooster Stage
Also appeared: 2004-09


Hazel Dickens
12:35 p.m., Banjo Stage
Also appeared: 2001-09

Umphrey’s McGee
1:15 p.m., Star Stage

Elvis Costello
and The Sugarcanes
3:30 p.m., Star Stage
Also appeared: 2006, 2008

Yonder Mountain String Band
4:20 p.m., Arrow Stage

Avett Brothers
5:45 p.m., Arrow Stage
Also appeared: 2006

Emmylou Harris
5:45 p.m., Banjo Stage

Also appeared: 2001-09

A decade of ‘Bluegrass’

2002 An added day and stage allowed for growth; some 12,000 people heard music from Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes, Hot Rize, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and more.

2003 “Hardly” in the event’s new fame recognized more performers and genres, including Willie Nelson, Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show. 

2004 Attendance increased with an added fourth stage; notable acts included Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Nick Lowe, John Prine and Jon Langford.

2005 An added fifth stage brought 60 acts to the event, during which  Joan Baez performed Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

2006 Elvis Costello’s appearance drew about 500,000 people, but sets by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock — two of the three Flatlanders — were touted as festival highlights.

2007 Blue Angel jets took a break from Fleet Week to fly over the festival’s five stages and 72 acts, with memorable sets by Poor Man’s Whiskey, Los Lobos and Bill Callahan.

2008 Dedicated to Daniel Pearl, the journalist killed by terrorists in 2002, the festival lived up to its “hardly” title, kicking off with MC Hammer. Other notable sets were by Iron and Wine, Gogol Bordello, and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.

2009 A sixth stage is added, MC Hammer raps and does a Michael Jackson tribute in a show with other extraordinary sets by Steve Earle, John Prine, Lyle Lovett and a rare appearance by Steve Martin.

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