A million or so music fans and sun seekers found themselves in Golden Gate Park this weekend listening to the likes of Emmylou Harris, Steve Martin, Hazel Dickens, Earl Scruggs, Boz Skaggs & the Blue Velvet Band, and a long list of other music makers you will recognize if your bluegrass credentials are up to date. There were about 75 bands in all, on six stages scattered around several meadows. I missed The Brothers Comatose, and Booker T & the Drive-by Truckers, and I worried a little about The Flatlanders tooling around these San Francisco hills, but for sheer exuberant free entertainment, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 9 could hardly have been beat.
The free part is thanks to local billionaire Warren Hellman, a banjo-picker, bluegrass enthusiast extraordinaire and one-man stimulus package — he does a little investment banking on the side — who has thrown this party for the past nine years and has now endowed it so it will be around in perpetuity. The fact that much of the music sung by these musicians is pure anti-billionaire dampens no spirits, Hellman’s least of all.
(The top ticket, of course, was our weekend houseguest Don Betts, faithfully YouTube’d by his wife Annie as he performed that great American classic “I just don’t look good naked any more.” Betts was introduced by Hellman, whose group The Wronglers kicked off Saturday on Porch Stage. In addition to making money and playing banjo, Hellman is an an avid champion of the sport of Ride & Tie, and Betts is current R&T Association president… but that’s probably another blog. )
A little bluegrass celebration has never been needed more. What with the world having pretty much gone to hell, there is something immensely comforting in hanging out with a few thousand fellow sufferers grooving to songs about bad whiskey and love gone wrong — problems you can identify with and get your mind around. Not to mention damning corporate greed and evil rich guys, pausing every now and then for a standing ovation for one of Them who just dropped a few million in household change on your glorious weekend out. It all somehow fits right in with a tanked job market and universal political comedy.
A few decades back this music — or what sounded exactly like this music — was called Country. It was rousing and redneck and not cool. Bluegrass is cool. Hellman’s buddies came in every race, creed, color and national origin, ranged from in utero to way-80s, recycled everything and smiled whiled jostling for dancing space. I submit bluegrass as palliative care for the world.