Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a huge free concert that is held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park each year on the first weekend of October. Even if you are not a fan of Bluegrass Music, you can still enjoy Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The lineup includes a wide diversity of musical genres.
The festival was the brainchild of Warren Hellman, billionaire, venture capitalist and amateur banjo player. Hellman financed the entire festival out of his own pocket from 2001 until his death in 2011. Hellman joked on-stage at HSB 9 that his motivation for holding the festival was so his band would have a place to play. He has said that being at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was the closest he could get to heaven. Hellman has left an endowment to fund Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for 15 years after his death.
The original concept was for it to be a Strictly Bluegrass festival. However, when Emmylou Harris played at the festival the very first year, she did not stick just to bluegrass music. Musicians from a variety of genres were invited to play in the following years and the name was changed to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2004.
There are six stages at the festival all with performances going on at the same time, so you’re sure to find something you like. I like to pick the stage I’m going to spend most of my time at and set up there. Then make little side trips to other stages.
Last year, in addition to some world class bluegrass music there were fantastic artists from other genres as well. The list includes (in no particular order):
Robert Plant, Reignwolf, Elvis Costello, Chuck Ragan, Jon Lanford, Lloyd Cole, Nick Lowe, Todd Snider, Patti Smith, Dwight Yoakam, Luther Dickinson, Son Volt, Lucero, Jerry Jeff Walker, Moonalice, Amanda Shaw, The Lumineers, Reckless Kelly, Robyn Hitchcock, Patty Griffin, Dave Alvin, Cowboy Junkies, and many more…
San Francisco is very crowded during the weekend of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Finding parking is difficult, if you drive you may have to walk several blocks to get to the festival. We have gotten lucky sometimes though, I think the south side of the park is less congested. Just make sure you are legally parked. If not your car is very likely to get towed.
Festival organizers recommend riding the Muni bus. That can be fun, you meet lots of cool people, but it will be crowded so you will need to be patient. If you’re planning on taking the bus back to your hotel afterwards, buy your bus ticket ahead of time. Sometimes when there’s a long line they will let the people holding a ticket on first.
Riding a bicycle can be a good way to go too. They bring in plenty of portable bike racks for the event.
There are not many rules at HSB. Since it is a free event, it’s just the rules of the park. I really love the relaxed attitude. You can even bring your dog if you want to (just be sure he’s very comfortable in crowds).
You can bring blankets and chairs to sit on. Cameras are fine. There are booths selling food, but no alcohol for sale in the park, so if you want to drink you’ll have to bring it with you. It’s OK to bring ice chests with food and drinks.
I’d recommend a hat, sunscreen, and some warm clothes for evening. Fall weather is variable in the Bay Area, sometimes it’s hot, sometimes very brisk.
Other than that, bring your good attitude and a smile.
In the year between HSB 2011 and HSB 2012, besides losing Warren Hellman, two other regulars of the festival passed away, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. At HSB 12 there was a wonderful and moving musical “Tribute to the Founding Fathers” on Saturday afternoon.
This was an amazing set by Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Victoria Williams, Robert Plant and Jim Lauderdale, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2012. That’s Robert Plant on the far right playing the harmonica.
There is no camping allowed in Golden Gate Park. The price of a hotel room in San Francisco rises sharply during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. If you don’t mind paying, and you can afford it, it’s fun to stay in the city. If you are planning on attending the festival and staying in a hotel in the city, make your arrangements as soon as you decide to go. The most desirable rooms go fast.
If you can’t afford to stay in San Francisco, or you’ve waited too long, try getting a room outside of the city itself. We stayed at a hotel by the airport. Nothing fancy, but it was cheap and just a short drive away.