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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass


Patty Griffin performed on the Rooster Stage in front of a backdrop commemorating Hazel Dickens, one of Warren Hellman’s favorite singers and an HSB staple until she passed away in 2011.

Photo: Steve Jennings

Warren Hellman was the world’s most generous music lover. The billionaire financier, philanthropist and banjo player founded and sponsored San Francisco’s massive, free music festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, giving it like a huge, joyful present to the city. When Hellman passed away last December, he was mourned not only by people who knew him, but also by those who benefited from his charitable donations to public schools, the San Francisco Free Clinic and more, and by the hundreds of thousands who flock to the meadows of Golden Gate Park every October.

The festival that Hellman called a “selfish gift” because he loved it so turned 12 this year, and offers three days of music on six stages. The first performances are designed as an educational program for middle school kids; this year, HSB kicked off the morning of October 5, when students heard Poor Man’s Whiskey and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The rest of the weekend, it was wall-to-wall music from morning till evening; 80-plus acts included Dwight Yoakam, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Patti Smith, Jenny Lewis, Del McCoury Band and Emmylou Harris, who closes the festival every year.

Another returning participant is Sound on Stage. The Hayward, Calif.-based company provides personnel, consoles, P.A.s, and everything else under the sun, or fog as the case may be, and general manager Wes Norwood has been involved with HSB audio on and off since 2006. “The only big change this year is everybody has switched to digital. Last year we provided a Heritage 3000 for Robert Plant, but this year we’re all-digital for the first time,” Norwood explains.

All FOH and most monitor boards for HSB were Avid VENUEs, while two monitor positions had Yamaha PM5DRHs. The P.A.s comprise mainly L-Acoustics V-DOSC loudspeakers—16 for the largest meadow, called Hellman Hollow, and 12 to 14 for the others.

“We’re an L-Acoustics house, which is a wonderful product,” Norwood says. “It helps us control the sound quite a bit.” However, trying to achieve any degree of isolation between six outdoor stages in a public park is no easy trick.

“Sometimes they stagger the bands, so that helps,” Norwood says. “The way we angle the P.A. or the way the stage is oriented can also help. Most stages have delays. When you’re at one stage, you’re not going to hear the other stages while the music is playing, but when a song is over, you might hear music from the other stages. But it’s a free concert, and it’s a wonderful festival, and it’s just the nature of the beast.”