An Ode to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco

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Ah yes, that time of the year again, that time in the Fall musical season when the hordes from the outer lands of the Bay Area pour into the already bursting at the seams streets of San Francisco to enjoy some free music, shake their fragile hips to, fro, do-si-do, so to enjoy Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival 2019.

Warren Hellman at Hardly Strictly

Founded by Warren Hellman in 2001, Warren stated in an interview, I want to keep it entirely free and noncommercial“. Some 18 years later, the festival itself is holding true to Hellman’s creed. There are no sponsors, commercial advertisers, poor college freshman handing out vouchers for Boba tea, or Bud Light Lime girls. All the food provided is cooked by local chefs and restaurants. For all the overvalued tech that has been taking over the city the last 15 years, walking down Divisadero from lower Haight to take the 5 down to 30th ave in the Inner Richmond, and stepping into that thin bay fog twisting with smoke rolling from the countless vendors, vape pens, and monstrous blunts, I was reminded why I love San Francisco.

I remembered why I love San Francisco as I watched a scraggly Santa Clause deadhead with neon pink socks hand dance and two-step all by himself. I remembered why I love San Francisco passing an impromptu game of hug tag at Rooster Stage. I remembered why I love San Francisco after running into an old friend running the iced coffee tent after he gave me a delicious extra large chilled latte with a gigantic corndog. I remembered why I love San Francisco sipping on a cold Lagunitas I’d bought from a guy with a rolly cooler dodging security. I remembered why I love San Francisco seeing us weirdos together, jammed shoulder to shoulder, cheering as the performers spoke to us as both individuals and as a unified whole.

Also, it’s free, completely free, void of downloading an app to get a coupon or encryption texted, copied, and pasted into some QR code to get in for half price.

The concerts go from Friday afternoon through the weekend and let me tell you, it’s quite a ride with the crowds, the SWAT teams bussing about, and the general air of rushing to see that name on that stage at that time.

It’s a goddamn festival though so if you were expecting ballet crowds, get a grip.

Friday afternoon with a plastic bag of 7 Bud Lights and a dream, I plowed through all the industrial-sized backpack chairs and new age hippes trying to sell me brightly colored flower lanyards, to make my way to see Tanya Tucker at Banjo stage. She is one of the definitive voices in country music and a tour de force to watch. The crowd cheered, rocking their fists up into the air in the bowels of the Hellman Hollow valley as went through her hits Delta Dawn, High Ridin’ Horses, and Texas (When I Die), the opening line being, When I die, I may not go to heaven, I don’t know if they let cowboys in. Her gritty attitude and voice, along with her studded cowboy hat and swagger, proved to everyone that day that legends never die, they just moved onto the next bar because it ran out of whiskey.

Delta Dawn – Tanya Tucker at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, October 4, 2019

Saturday afternoon, my girlfriend and I tried to brave the sea of people flooding the Tower of Gold Stage. Calexico, Iron and Wine, and the infamous Englishman himself, Robert Plant, but the scene was just too heavy with festival shenanigans. I’m talking Swat teams, people hanging from trees, and masses all pushing just to get to the edge of hill to peak over each other’s heads. No thank you. We wandered to Rooster stage and settled in between a bush with people smoking DMT and a baby being nursed by their mother. 

Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley performed with a fusion of western swing and acoustic/electric guitar. As they covered A Friend of the Devil by The Grateful Dead, the suburban dads in their sand colored beige cargo shorts, teva shoes with socks, and wrap around Oakley sunglasses couldn’t help themselves. The amount of fist pumping and wooooo’s as the fiddle solo roared was insurmountable. Yola, “the queen of country soul” Hardly Strictly website states, had a powerhouse voice that possessed a level of soul, rhythm, and heart that caught me by surprise. The crowd embraced her lyrics full of heartbreaking narratives of love, loss, and redemption. With her debut album Walk Through Fire, produced by Dan Auerbach, Yola is definitely an artist to keep an eye on in the future.

World Full of Blues, 10-5-19, Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

As the festivities ended Sunday night, the heat turning to a cool hushed cold, I was at the top of a hill amongst the trees. I was watching a Jack Sparrow look-alike Hoola-hooping in the falling pink and orange dawn. Nipping at my now luke-warm Bud light, I admired how, amidst the high energy banjo, the crowd cheering all around him, and the dust perfuming the air, how his intense mental and physical focus was. He seemed to be dancing for only himself, yet in that solitude, that personal joy was somehow transmitted to everyone around him. As he arched his back and flailed his thick dreads in ketamine, chocolate mushroom induced euphoric flair, the bond of community, the truth of a society void of competition, violence, distrust, and greed, manifested from that weird wookies aura at that moment between the day and the night.

As every song must begin, it also must end. We all packed up our things, gathered our trash, our wears, our belongings – leave it cleaner than you found it they told us – and started the long trek home to start the week anew.

Robert Plant “When the Levee Breaks” at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass SF 10.5.19


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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.