Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (or HSB) is an annual festival held in Golden Gate Park, always on the first weekend in October and it is completely FREE. A guy named Warren Hellman started it all fifteen years ago just because he liked Bluegrass. He was a wealthy investor and used his wealth to bring the event to life. After a few years of “Strictly Bluegrass”, the festival morphed into “Hardly Strictly” and the diversity of the music expanded, but still had bluegrass at its roots.
This would be my first ever HSB. I was the tourist, following around my music lovers Kimberly and Kaila. Kaila has a special talent for making the most out of each day, especially when it comes to music, so is the know-all of musicians and how to get the most out of a day at festival. Kimberly brought the enthusiasm as a bluegrass fan. She has frequented this festival many a-time before so I was in good hands following these two ladies into the grass.
It all started Friday morning, I was feeling rubbish with a cold, so left the house early for a walk to clear my head. To make it a practical trip, I went to the shops and bought food for the day, which worked out perfectly. When I got back, Kimberly was frying me up some eggs (what a perfect housemate) for brekky. After getting my bike in Kimberly’s car, (thats a separate story altogether) we (me, Kimberly and Lizzy) were off to pick up Kaila on our way up to San Francisco. After we’d found Kaila, there were four people and a road bike in a Mazda 3 hatch. Needless to say, it was not the most comfortable. Our first stop once in SF was to Kimberly’s friend’s house on the north side of Golden Gate Park where we dropped the bike. For those readers who are out-of-towners, you don’t leave anything of value in a car in SF, especially not a bike, so this was essential. Bike safely stowed, we walked to the park.
We set up at the Arrow Stage which would remain our camp for most of the day. Shortly after we got there, friends joined us from Tesla expanding our blanket-camp and also provided beers. K&K had selected this stage based on the acts showing. First off was Jamestown Revival. These guys were exactly what you’d expect for the name, sort of country with a bit of rock. For an early band, they got the crowd moving. The next band, Delta Rae, were very good at making all of us walk away. They were a gospel-like group from North Carolina that were confused as to whether they were emo or good Christians. We only needed to hear a few songs to be convinced we weren’t fans. We wandered while others remained at camp. K&K had advised to enjoy the Friday because it would be the least crowded day by far.
Later in the afternoon, we hit the Band Wagon stage, which is literally just a caravan that has been converted into a platform (brilliant idea) to see Moon Hooch. These guys really were amazing. Consisting of a drummer and two saxaphonists, they really jammed. Kimberly and I were completely mesmerised by the drummer who was such a perfect doppelganger of our friend Luke that we were contemplating if he had a younger brother. These guys had so much talent and energy, they hardly stopped for their 45 minute set. The crowd was pulsing to their noise, us ladies included, so much so I feared for the caravan’s structural integrity.
After Moon Hooch, we were back to the Arrow Stage for the Rebirth Brass Band. Again, exactly as the name suggests, not much singing, but a lot of brass instruments making beautiful sounds. We all split ways after this set, us ladies to go to the Rooster Stage for Conor Oberst and the others to the Banjo Stage. We were seeing Conor at the behest of Kaila who is a big fan. Unfortunately the sound didn’t do the artist justice. There were a lot of elements to the band (piano, two guitars, base, violin, vocals, harmonica) but they all came out as noise so we couldn’t really enjoy it. Lizzy and I left before the end of the set to go retrieve my bike and the car and came back to get the other two girls, saving them the walk.
We said goodbye to Lizzy that night (and the bike) at the airport and afterwards had the most beautiful Chinese dinner at Gin Mon in Belmont. I had the best Wonton soup I’ve ever had and it was exactly what my ever-growing sore throat needed. We dropped Kaila off then Kimberly and I head back to her place, thoroughly exhausted from the first festival day.
Day two of the festival, I drove in separately to K&K because I was trying to coordinate the sale of my friend’s car (that’s definitely a story for another time) so met them at Arrow Stage at the end of the first act, KT Tunstall. You would have heard of her because of her song “Suddenly I See”. I walked onto the grass just as she finished her set with this song. I had just enough time to dance around with a drunk Kimberly before it ended. The girls had got into the Mamosas and were well-past tipsy before noon. I was having an alcohol-free day after regretting the beers of yesterday and fearing for my sickness.
I camped most of the day at Arrow while others wandered in and out of camp. Again, we were joined by friends of all who came and went all day. I got to see some ex-colleagues from Tesla and swap stories between sets. There weren’t really any acts that stood out for me today, all good music don’t get me wrong, but not anything that made me wanna dance. I sat through Doobie Decibel System, Hot Tuna Electric and Mother Hips. We elected not to try and see Cyndi Lauper (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fu-un”) at another stage because we assumed it would be packed with every girl and her shiatsu. Instead, towards the end of the day we left Arrow to go to Rooster and see Jackson Browne. The field was packed – very packed. We managed to find a spot halfway back through the valley and in the middle but couldn’t hear a thing! Most people were chatting away, snacking and drinking, not really listening to the music so the tunes were drowned out.
After meeting up with Kaila’s mum, we went adventuring through the bushes to find a better spot. After forcing our way through some trees, we perched ourselves on the side hill and enjoyed the sound of Jackson’s acoustic guitar and voice floating towards us, clear as day. Somehow, Vanessa found us amongst the crowd so all the NPI babes were together. We left just before the end of the set to try and avoid the crowds a little.
It was a short walk to Kimberly’s car and I swear we drove all around SF before stopping. First we went to V’s car to make sure she could park it all night without getting a ticket, then we went to my car to pick up my overnight stuff, then we hunted down a Peruvian restaurant which was too packed, so found a parking spot and went to Cha Cha Cha, a tapas bar that also had a thirty minute wait for a table. It didn’t matter, we sat at the rear bar in front of the kitchen where I could have watched the chaos for hours. There were people everywhere, plating up food, making salad, washing dishes, carrying food away, all working very fast and not dropping a thing. Fascinating. Once we were seated and ordered, our food came in minutes and it was absolutely devine. The fried platanos (bananas with black beans and sour cream) were the specialty and they were insanely good. We talked over the chatter of the crowd as we ate, catching up, making plans for the next day.
We dropped V off at another bar to meet up with her friends, then K, K and I went to the Hayes Valley Inn to check in. Kaila got ready for the birthday party she was going to while I booked a table at the bar Absinthe across the road for me and Kimberly. At this stage it’s near 11:30pm and there’s a 30 minute wait for a table here too! To pass the time, I took Kimberly’s “100 Hikes in the Bay Area” book and read while I waited. We ended up sitting at the bar while Kimberly had a Hot Tottie (a warm alcoholic drink made with bourbon and lots of spices) and a strawberry garnette. I ordered nothing, being conscious of the elaborate money spending that had been going on lately and my tiredness. I was definitely not feeling well and just wanted bed. We didn’t last much past midnight and I was asleep as soon as I lay down on the cushion-bed on the floor that the hotel provided for me. I didn’t even hear Kaila come in.
The next morning, we were up around 9am to enjoy the included continental breakfast after I’d had a shower in the communal bathroom. We chatted to a guy who was in SF visiting his son and was about to enjoy his last day in the city. The breakfast spread was plentiful and I made the most of it by stashing a muffin and a ham and cheese bagel for my lunch. We checked out and were at the festival by 10am, early enough to get a park only one block from the park.
We camped at Swan stage today, to see the very-much-looked-forward-to-by-Kimberly Bluegrass Opry. I wasn’t even sure what an Opry was, but I soon learnt. It’s a series of songs that tell a story. This Opry was called Tommy, written and originally performed by The Who, this rendition was performed bluegrass style by the Hillbenders. It was astounding. There were five band members, all on strings, no drums. They had a banjo, a small fiddle-style thing, a traditional acoustic, a stand-up electric base and a slide guitar. They told the story as they went along between songs, which were weird but wonderful. The slide guitarist was my pick, he had so much energy that at one point he shook his sunglasses off his head. The two singers in the group had beautiful voices and the talent of each of the players was out of this world. They worked so well together, they engaged the crowd, the music was upbeat and cheerful. Kimberly and I were definitely dancing, Kaila however wasn’t convinced, she thought it was a bit too weird.
We definitely got our fill of weird (and wonderful) from watching the crowd, it made me smile to see so many people losing themselves in the music, throwing any self-consciousness to the wind with their flailing limbs. There were people that new every word of the Opry and sang each one loud and clear with body actions to go with them.
I didn’t fancy the next act Buffy Sainte-Marie. A political activist from the 70s and 80s, she made a few mini-speeches between songs about her passions that were fair enough, but I wasn’t a fan of her voice. Unfortunately, I had to leave after she finished, with car errands to look after, but K&K stayed for the California Honeydrops which were high on Kimberly’s like-list so I’m sorry I’d missed them. No one was interested in staying for the main acts, Cake and Dropkick Murphys based on previous experience where the fields are packed and it is a nightmare getting out. Tricks well-learnt by the locals K&K.
The festival weekend over, I feel like I’d fully experienced HSB. It is a wonderful excuse for lots of different people to get together in a park, lay out a blanket, graze and drink, all while listening to live music. There were families, people with dogs, hoola-hoopers, jugglers, hippies and lots and lots of weed – kind of San Francisco at its best. One of our favourites that we saw each day was the dancing juggling man. An older guy with three balls that juggled as he danced with a seemingly dazed look on his face, despite the concentration that was probably necessary to coordinate all four limbs in time with music and three juggling balls. He was closely followed by the pin wheel man who entertained us on the last day, sporting a tie-died shirt and hat, he held a few pinwheels in each hand as he danced all around. There were men with long forks dancing around (not sure what that was about), a Trump supporter wearing skin-tight bright red (not sure what that has to do with Trump, or bluegrass). People were making bubbles all day long just for the hell of it, much to the amusement of fully grown adults.
I was sad to be sick for the whole of the festival, but I was glad I got to enjoy it. Even more so, I’m glad I got to spend it with Kimberly and Kaila, you ladies made the weekend what it was!