Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Image courtesy of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

This past weekend marked the tenth anniversary of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. The outdoor music festival, held each year at Speedway Meadow inside Golden Gate Park, began as the "Strictly Bluegrass Festival," but has since evolved to encompass a broader range of sounds and styles. Founded and funded entirely by impresario and banjo enthusiast Warren Hellman, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass attracts both acclaimed musicians and thousands of avid music-lovers -- and what's not to love? It's a three-day event with six stages, over sixty musical acts, and free admission. Sign me up!

Congested walkways foretold the madness that awaited us at each stage...

This year's line-up was impressive in quality and quantity, but I knew I'd have to choose my sets wisely. I singled out Joan Baez as my goal on Saturday, but was only able to make it to the tail end of her performance -- if only because the crowds were insane! An estimated 600,000 people attended the event over the span of three days. Hundreds of people (men, women, children and pets) flocked around each stage; many camped out at one location for the whole day, while others braved the pedestrian traffic to get to their next destination.

A mere fraction of the crowd gathered at one of the stages. Each stage had a kitschy name like "Banjo," "Rooster," or "Porch."

After our hit-and-miss with Joan Baez, my friends and I decided to try and head over to Conor Oberst's set. We may have underestimated the wilderness that is Golden Gate Park, as the paths between stages were long and winding; luckily, the faint soundtrack of folk and bluegrass from other acts helped us along our walk. When we finally arrived at the Star Stage, there was no chance of getting through the dense forest of people so that we could get close enough to even see the performers. Nonetheless, we were content to sit in a grove on the far side of the stage, enjoying our packed lunches and listening to a few of Conor's songs from his solo act. At the end of his half-hour set, we happily wandered around the other stages and then trekked back home with many other satisfied concert-goers.

Our view (or lack thereof?) of the stage during Conor Oberst's performance.

All in all, it was a great experience that I would recommend to anyone with a fondness for folk. The natural open space, buzzing energy, throngs of friendly people and live music make for an exciting, free (!) event that's hard to come by in these times. Be warned, however, if you are crowd phobic, prefer more intimate shows, or are more of an "indoor" person -- this probably isn't the place for you. If you decide to go next year, my only word of somewhat fashion-related advice? Arm yourself with a picnic blanket, warm outerwear (it gets pretty chilly out in the Sunset district), and a good pair of heavy-duty shoes, and you're all set to enjoy Hardly Strictly Bluegrass!

My trusty Doc Martens at the end of the day: a bit beat up, but well worth it. All photos by the author.

Julie Dinh
BARE Reporter

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