Hippies. Homeless. Hipsters. Heaven. These may seem like some incongruous terms, but they actually add up to produce one incredible thing: the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
Hardly Strictly is a free festival put on annually by multi-millionaire and bluegrass aficionado Warren Hellman. His “gift to the city,” now in its 11th year, drew over 600,000 people to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park last weekend.
Attendees heard music ranging from bluegrass legends like Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and Emmylou Harris, to less “old school” artists, like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Bright Eyes, Kurt Vile and Broken Social Scene. The variety of music could only be matched by the depth of the experience.
I am thrilled to say one of those attendees was me. I drove through the night to attend my fourth Hardly Strictly, and though I had to miss Friday due to silly obligations like, you know, class, two days was certainly better than nothing.
Despite having grown up in the Coachella Valley and being very attached to my hometown’s famous music and arts fest, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the one yearly music event I would not miss for anything, ever.
Part of this has to do with the fact that some of my favorite memories were formed during summers camping in Lyons, Colorado while attending RockyGrass. Throughout my childhood I got to see — and often meet in person — bluegrass greats like David Grisman, Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mike Marshall and Nickel Creek (not to be confused, under any circumstances, with Nickelback).
But bluegrass’s charms lie in more than the music. As with Coachella Fest, it’s about the experience. Only you’re not surrounded by sweaty hipsters whining about the weather, or that Warpaint had to conflict with Odd Future or blah blah blah.
Instead, the people I’ve met through my years attending these shows were enthusiasts, filled with joy just to be able to take a week off from their everyday lives and dance without reservation.
Listening to these instrumental geniuses was not some sort of entitlement; it was an honor. Even if you did not know the name of the band up on stage or the song they were playing or even the instruments they were using (Appalachian dulcimer, here’s looking at you), the music filled you with lightness, with the unshakable urge to grab the nearest person and spin.
Thanks to Warren Hellman and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, this experience has finally come to California in a big way.
On Saturday, I caught the end of Hugh Laurie’s act and then watched one of Broken Social Scene’s last shows. Though I do not listen to the group regularly, this is my second time seeing them. I have found their shows consistently excellent, featuring just the right amount of danceable songs with slower but beautiful music.
On Sunday, my favorites were Hot Buttered Rum, Ralph Stanley, and Emmylou Harris, who, like usual, ended the festival with her ageless and sorrowful voice. Hot Buttered Rum kept us dancing with their traditional combination of banjo, guitar, mandolin and double bass.
We watched Ralph Stanley next who verified that bluegrass artists do not necessarily play just to please an audience either. He and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, played plenty of upbeat songs and beloved hits, but every once in a while the band stepped off stage and Stanley just stood and sang.
The music was like a prayer. Almost as beautiful as the songs was the fact that people’s attention did not wane. They stood and listened. That kind of respect for an artist is something to see.
I fell in love with the Hardly Strictly at 16, and though the people I dance with, the floors I sleep on and the artists I watch are always changing, I am sure my love for bluegrass never will.