The bluegrass invasion swarmed over the west end of Golden Gate Park again this weekend as financier Warren Hellman threw his million-dollar bash, the 10th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and the park was filled with people playing fiddles, mandolins and banjos — way past the legal limit.
Impresario and banjo enthusiast Hellman opened the Saturday morning session with his own band, the Wronglers, at the small Porch Stage right by the festival entrance.
Wearing a coat embroidered in sequins by his granddaughter, with Stars of David and "Tenth" across the back in Hebrew, Hellman said city officials told him they want to talk to him about his future plans for the free music festival, with more than 60 acts and spread across six stages over three days.
"I told them if they want me to change anything, I have two words for them," he said. "And they ain't 'Happy birthday.'"
As the inevitable chill of the ocean fog swept through Speedway Meadow at sunset Sunday, signaling the end to the idyllic weekend, Emmylou Harris, as she has every year, brought the extraordinary festival to a close, as Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Boz Scaggs watched from the wings. Hellman joined with a handful of the musicians and played one final song for the weekend.
Costello, featuring accomplices on banjo, mandolin and fiddles, caused pedestrian gridlock during his set Sunday afternoon at the far end of the festival site on the Star Stage, appearing back-to-back with rock poetess Patti Smith, who name-checked William Blake and Lawrence Ferlinghetti before she got through her second number.
If Patti Smith doesn't sound even remotely bluegrass, she joined a program that mixed the finest performers of traditional folk music such as Joan Baez and Ralph Stanley with odd ducks as far from the Appalachians as Trombone Shorty, Jonathan Richman, Fountains of Wayne ("Stacy's Mom") and Michael Patton of Faith No More singing in Italian in front of a 20-piece string section.
Police estimated more than 600,000 attended the festival over the three days, including 350,000 Sunday, the festival's traditional top attendance day. Between the high-caliber talent and breadth of musical styles drawn from inside and outside the acoustic music world, the festival has undoubtedly become the greatest outdoor music festival anywhere.
Almost half of the acts return virtually every year. Dawn Holliday, general manager of Slim's and the Great American Music Hall, who devotes more than half her workload to throwing Hellman's clambake, says somebody will have to die before she books a new act for the Banjo Stage on Sunday, and robust 87-year-old Doc Watson didn't look like that was going to happen anytime soon.
Buddy Miller, guitarist for Harris on Sunday, played an outstanding set on Saturday with his own band and, if he wasn't sitting in with acts such as Kinky Friedman or Patty Griffin, could be seen wandering the grounds and watching from the audience. Harris and Griffin likewise joined Miller for his Saturday set at the Rooster Stage, as did Jim Lauderdale, the Nashville-based songwriter who also played Sunday with Costello.
The festival started Friday afternoon with the Ebony Hillbillies, a group of African American bluegrassers from Queens, New York, who were touted to Hellman by one of his scouts who caught the group in a Manhattan subway station.
With so many attractions competing for attention at the same time on the schedule, festivalgoers on Sunday were forced to make hard choices: Rosanne Cash at the Rooster Stage or Elvis Costello at the Star Stage? Randy Newman played the Towers of Gold Stage, while Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women were rocking leafy Marx Meadow from the Rooster Stage, including an impromptu reunion with his brother, Phil Alvin, who used to sing in their rock band, the Blasters.
Nobody has a better time than Hellman, who played banjo Sunday with Earl Scruggs on the Banjo Stage and backed up clog dancer Heidi Clare at the Porch Stage. "I could put on Hardly Strictly," he said at the cast-and-crew dinner Saturday night, where he, once again, played more banjo. "Or I could buy a Renoir."
The look on his face said it wasn't even close.