It may have been the biggest Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival ever, as an estimated half million people descended on Golden Gate Park this weekend for the glorious return of one of the largest free music festivals in the U.S.
It feels cliché to describe the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival as “mellow,” considering the median age of this festival’s attendees is probably about double that of Outside Lands'. But as the largest free music festival west of the Mississippi returned in-person for the first time in three years this weekend, the Chronicle's post-Hardly Strictly Bluegrass writeup notes the pent-up demand for the big ol’ free hoe-down still produced a kind crowd, even less rowdy than expected. The Chron describes the three-day event with superlatives like “a mellow and happy mood,” “like a family reunion,” and with the festival’s executive producer Sheri Sternberg saying “The fans have been kinder to each other.”
And this despite some very large numbers, as festival organizers estimate that more than 500,000 people showed up over the course of the three days. Sternberg said Saturday’s crowd “was as many people as we’ve ever had” (a sliver of Saturday’s crowd is seen above), and while Elvis Costello was seen as the sort of “headline” act for the day, he may have been upstaged by the act that followed him. (See a full photoset over at Hoodline.)
Elvis Costello was so, so good today at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass! #HSB22 pic.twitter.com/n53y8Hhqvv— Shut down the Red Hill Tanks NOW (@aldentanaka) October 2, 2022
Elvis Costello took to the Towers of Gold Stage at 4:45 p.m. Saturday, in a set rich with old favorites like “Alison” and “(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.” (The Chronicle has a detailed review of Costello’s set, if you’re interested). And he wasn’t done yet, as on Sunday, he made a surprise appearance in Marcus Mumford’s set and belted out “Pump It Up” from the late 1970s Elvis Costello & the Attractions era.
But Saturday’s highlight, certainly from a crowd size perspective, was the sort-of Talking Heads “reunion” with their founding member Jerry Harrison and their often-collaborator Adrian Belew. (No, there was not a surprise appearance by either David Byrne or Tina Weymouth.) But the duo ripped out several Talking Heads hits, mostly from the 1980 album Remain in Light, and the largely over-40 crowd could not have been more thrilled.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is just talking to random people with wise mystical tree energy for 6 hours pic.twitter.com/Zh7LZ8AgMp— Paul Thomas Atreides (@PhilipMyBrother) October 2, 2022
There were a few drawbacks to the weekend. The Travelin’ McCourys had to cancel over flight complications caused by Hurricane Ian (so ironically, the Travelin’ McCourys could not travel). The British funk band Cymande also had to cancel their Sunday set due to an illness.
Good night! Thank you! See you next year! pic.twitter.com/NVuVsTbHiJ— Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (@HSBFest) October 3, 2022
There is always the question of how long this free festival will continue. The late billionaire philanthropist and banjo picker Warren Hellman paid for the whole thing out of his pocket until his death in 2011. It is often reported that there is an endowment that will fund the festival forever, but that is not accurate. Hellman’s son Mick Hellman told SFist in 2016 "The 'endowment in perpetuity?' It's just a matter of fact that does not exist."
But the Hellman Foundation does still pay for the whole festival. Hellman’s niece Jessica Galloway told the Chronicle this weekend, somewhat definitively and somewhat coyly at the same time, “It was done in a way so that it might go on and on into perpetuity,” adding that the Hellman Foundation remains in very solid financial shape.
Related: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Bans Coolers, Adopts Clear Bag Policy For The Mass Shooting Era [SFist]
Image: @BrianWCahill via Twitter