Last weekend, nearly half a million people gathered in Golden Gate Park for a celebration of free music. “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” is one of San Francisco’s most renowned music festivals — and entry costs nothing. The weekend featured 75 artistic acts across six stages in Hellman Hollow, Lindley Meadow, and Marx Meadow in western Golden Gate Park.
Warren Hellman, investment banker and banjo player, conceived and funded the festival in 2001 as a one-day event called “Strictly Bluegrass.” Hellman died in 2011, but funding for the festival has continued through his foundation.
In 2003, the festival’s name changed to reflect the diversity of music genres in its lineup. While the festival has kept its bluegrass roots, it now also features funk, jazz, and rock. This year, folk icons like Emmylou Harris shared the lineup alongside the Saharan-based rock of Bombino.
Vendors in the crowd sold flower crowns, jugglers threw bowling pins to the rhythm, couples tangoed, children danced around the park, and music-lovers brought their furry friends to enjoy the festival.
Nick Ramos, a junior critical diversity studies major, attended the festival for the first time this year. “I love it,” he said. “I walked into the entrance and I just saw this beautiful crowd of San Franciscians. It grounded me right away. I was like, ‘Oh, this is why I love this city. It’s these people, this place.’ There’s love, love all around.”
Ramos said a highlight of the weekend was Irma Thomas’ Saturday evening set. The R&B singer has been called the “soul queen of New Orleans,” as reported in the New York Times. The 82-year-old closed out Saturday evening to a packed crowd at Rooster Stage.
“I was literally obsessed,” Ramos said. “I could just feel the different generations that were there to witness, to love, and to be a part of that history.”
While the festival drew in people of all ages, one act’s audience had a slightly younger demographic.
Many USF students went to see Thee Sacred Souls, a San Diego-based R&B group inspired by Chicano and Motown soul music from the 60’s and 70’s.
During their Friday evening set, they performed their song “Running Away,” which prompted lead vocalist, Josh Lane, to hop over the barricade and run around Hellman Hollow, where he serenaded fans.
Lane gave junior media studies major Nia Bossier a high-five during his sprint. “It was so impressive because he still sounded like a recording while he was running,” she said. “It felt a little surreal to put the face to the voice. I was just stunned…because this celebrity and amazing talent that I see on Spotify is just a few feet away, but also he’s just a person like the rest of us. It was a great performance.”
In addition to musical groups, other artistic groups, like poets from City Lights Bookstore and theatrical performers from the arts collective “Raining Chainsaws,” had their chance in the spotlight too.
On Sunday afternoon, folk-jazz musician Leyla McCalla performed her second set of the festival at the newly opened Horseshoe Hill. McCalla performed songs from her 2022 album “Breaking the Thermometer,” which started as a collaboration with Duke University. McCalla switched between the guitar, banjo, and cello while her collaborator, Shawn Myers, played hand drums.
McCalla used interviews from Duke University’s audio collection from “Radio Haiti-Inter,” Haiti’s first privately owned Creole-speaking radio station, to create the work. At her first set on Saturday, McCalla performed music from the album with a full band.
Senior international studies major Celeste Baird said, “Seeing Leyla McCalla was so amazing. She is an incredible musician doing such important work with celebrating her Haitian heritage and telling the story of Haiti. I just started playing cello, and seeing her play so beautifully was really inspiring. I even got to talk to her about it at the end of the performance.”
As McCalla ended her Saturday set, she thanked San Francisco and cried out to the crowd, “Listen to the voice that sings in your heart for liberty.”