News Column

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: huge crowds, mellow vibe

October 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 06--The 13th edition of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival might break attendance records over the weekend, as hundreds of thousands of people pour into Golden Gate Park for the free three-day concert that stretches over three meadows along John F. Kennedy Drive and features almost 100 musical acts.

Standing at the back of Hellman Hollow looking east on the Banjo Stage where Bonnie Raitt was performing Friday evening, the festival producer Dawn Holliday said: "It's the most crowded I've ever seen it."

There were people covering the lawn, crowded into the hills and even dotting the treetops around the meadow. "This even beats the year we had Robert Plant," she said.

Police at the festival didn't have official numbers but thought that more than 750,000 would fill in the west end of the park from 25th Avenue out before the concert's traditional finale by Emmylou Harris late Sunday afternoon.

Eclectic lineup

With nonstop performances happening across six stages between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., the music offers something for everyone.

The big names on the bill include Raitt, former Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, Steve Martin, Chris Isaak and Boz Scaggs, but there are plenty of other acts too, everything from the traditional bluegrass of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys to noisy garage rock of the Allah-Las.

"I don't know where else this could happen," said Holliday, who is also the general manager of Slim's and the Great American Music Hall.

The late billionaire investment banker Warren Hellman -- who created an endowment to ensure that Hardly Strictly would continue as a free event for the city of San Francisco after his death in 2011 -- approached Holliday to put the festival on in its first year and since then has cultivated it into an annual highlight of the San Francisco cultural calendar.

"We booked our whole tour around this," Raitt announced to the roar of the crowd, before slipping into her signature hit, "Something to Talk About."

Apart from the addition of a few food trucks, Hardly Strictly hasn't changed much over the years. There are no corporate sponsors. No alcohol is sold. No shuttles zooming around the park.

It remains a relatively congenial event. The neighbors don't complain about it nearly as much as they do the Outside Lands festival, which draws only a fraction of the Hardly Strictly crowd.

Minor brawls

With the bigger crowds this year came a bump in police activity, mostly involving minor brawls and arrests for drug-related offenses as of Saturday afternoon.

For the most part, the music is the focus.

The Banjo Stage is largely devoted to traditional country acts, with sets by Laurie Lewis, Steve Earle and the Dukes and the veteran Maryland bluegrass act Seldom Scene, who dedicated a song Friday to the late Hazel Dickens, the coal miner's daughter who inspired Hellman to put on the festival in the first place.

There was an all-star tribute to Hellman and bluegrass icons Saturday, featuring festival veterans Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, Vince Gill and Earle, who solemnly noted: "This is mostly about people that aren't here."

Across the street, Nebraskan singer-songwriter Conor Oberst curated the Rooster Stage in Marx Meadow, presenting a diverse lineup of younger acts including the Cave Singers, the Evens and harmonizing Swedish sisters First Aid Kit, who brought the audience to a standstill with their soothing take on Simon and Garfunkel's "America."

Arrow Stage oddities

On the Arrow Stage, meanwhile, there's an assortment of jam bands, indie rockers and other oddities, including the String Cheese Incident, Father John Misty and the Forest Rangers with Katey Sagal.

The "Sons of Anarchy" star appeared wearing a sheer black shirt that would have looked just right on Peg Bundy on "Married ... With Children" and, with her band the Forest Rangers, belted covers of rock and blues classics. Her version of the Band's "The Weight" won over any skeptics in the crowd.

On Friday, Minnesota rock trio Low apologized for its somber set.

"Sorry for all the dark songs," singer Alan Sparhawk said. "I know it's a sunny day."

Not that too many people complained.

Taking in a bit of shade backstage, first-time Hardly Strictly performer Jesse Dee said: "The weather. The venue. The talent. The whole thing is just incredible."

Online: Go to www.sfgate.com for photos and tweets from the festival throughout the weekend. You will also find a complete schedule of performances, viewable on your smartphone or tablet.

Aidin Vaziri is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop music critic. E-mail: avaziri@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MusicSF

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