Warren Hellman’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concerts have been a staple of the Bay Area music scene for a decade, so it was only fitting that when Hellman passed away late last year, his team of organizers set about signing artists for a commemorative concert that eventually took place this past Sunday at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. On the shore of the Pacific Ocean, bluegrass legends like Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris paid tribute to Hellman alongside contemporary bluegrass superstars like Old Crow Medicine show.
The eclectic range of artists and their unpretentious music reflected the spirit of the festival, which was refreshingly free of the rampant corporate sponsorship that seems to clutter the stage of every other large music festival. Instead of thanking some faceless corporate sponsor, artists like Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show were able to thank Hellman, the crowd and even the migrating bidts, whom Secor asserted had flown up from Monterey Bay to pay their respects. It was a down-to-earth display for a man, who, even as a highly paid venture capitalist for the now infamous Lehman Brothers, never lost sight of the workaday lives of his fellow citizens. Hellman famously campaigned to save the pensions of thousands of City of San Francisco workers.
The performers themselves played superb sets, many had clearly established a rapport from previous festivals. Gillian Welch invited Emmylou Harris on stage at the end of her set for a sublime, earthy performance of her “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” taking the audience from the shores of the Pacific to the banks of the Mississippi on their mellifluous harmonies.
Old Crow Medicine Show provided energy with an up-tempo set, turning the all-ages crowd into an old-school hoedown with their hit “Wagon Wheel” and a cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” honouring music’s most recent fallen hero. I overheard a friend saying that “it’s the sort of music that makes you want to pack up and move to the South tomorrow.” I couldn’t help but agree with him.
It is perhaps reassuring for future Hardly Strictly festivals that, for the moment at least, the organizers plan to continue this wonderful tradition of a corporate-sponsorship-free festival. It is a fitting legacy for Hellman, who represented at least a single “one-percenter” who had his eye on something other than blind profits. Hardly Strictly is a festival with no intrinsic value but the celebration of music. This might not have changed the world, but our cultural lives are certainly the better thanks to Warren Hellman.