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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a free three-day music festival that draws 750,000 people to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park each year. The festival is held over the first weekend of October.

In 2023, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will take place on September 29, 30, and October 1.

Originally called Strictly Bluegrass by billionaire venture capitalist/philanthropist/banjo player Warren Hellman started the festival in 2001. His one-day festival featured two stages of his favorite music.

Each year the festival has grown, adding stages and days. By year three they added “Hardly” to the festival name to reflect that the music was branching off well beyond its bluegrass roots. Warren quickly realized that this festival could become much more than his personal bluegrass vanity project. It became his gift to the City of San Francisco. There are no sponsors. The Hellman Foundation covers the entire cost of the event.

What Makes Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Special?

The Location

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is held in a stunning location – Golden Gate Park. Bands play on six stages in three meadows separated by groves of Monterey pines, cypress, and eucalyptus trees just east of the Bison Paddock (yes, the buffalo still roam here) and north of the Polo Fields where the Outside Lands Festival is held. The largest meadow was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor the festival’s benefactor.

The Culture

Artists, particularly Hardly Strictly regulars, are known to share their stage with guests, and on occasion, some will even develop a special set for the festival. A couple of favorites: In 2022 Elvis Costello split his set between his hits and covers of Grateful Dead and Neil Young tunes. Back in 2012, Boz Scaggs assembled an all-star band to perform a set of Doug Sahm songs. Many of the artists performing know the festival’s history and reputation. The festival is a bucket list event for many performers.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2016. John Doe, John Paul White, and Rosanne Cash lend a hand to T. Bone Burnett.

The communal vibe at Hardly Strictly also leads to numerous guest appearances. One year John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin came to town with his mandolin. He sat in with a couple of acts. Two years later, Jones was back on a mini tour of the West with Hardly Strictly regular Dave Rawlings. They played an epic set capped off with a cover of Zep’s “Going to California.” Jones was beaming as he left the stage. You could tell it meant a lot to him, nearly as much as it did for the audience.

Bob Weir and Gillian Welch backstage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2006. Photo: David Gans

Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead has made several appearances at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, most unannounced. In 2019, he joined fellow Wolf Bro Don Was for a good portion of his set. A few years earlier he participated in an acoustic set with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Buddy Miller.

Photography of Jim James performing at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2016. James is singing into a microphone in his right hand as he looks to his right toward his guitar which is seeming levitated in its stand. He has his right hand raised and open.
Jim James did an amazing solo set on the Rooster Stage in 2016 and then joined Conor Oberst and M. Ward for a surprise Monsters of Folk reunion.

And It’s Free!

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is more than free, it’s FREE. Freedom extends to just about everything. Entry is not only free but there are no tickets, no RSVP, you just show up. You can bring almost anything you want – food, drinks, chairs, blankets. This freedom creates a very cool, communal vibe at Hardly Strictly.

Don’t take my word for it:

“there was a wave of joy over the audience…
it was one of the most remarkable evenings of my life.”

Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads
Remain in Light – 40th Anniversary Tour, HSB 2022
on the Bob Lefsetz Podcast, January 26, 2023
Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads and Adrian Belew performing their album Remain in Light at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in  2022. Harrison and Belew are each playing guitar and looking at each other as bandmates look on.
Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew Remain in Light, Swan Stage, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2022

Check out the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass archives for the roster history. Also, much of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is live-streamed. Many sets are also available for viewing on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass website after the festival. If you search the internet, you can still find a lot of video content from prior years.

Festival Tips

Make Plans Early

During the summer, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will begin unveiling the roster of performers with a weekly montage of songs. The full schedule with stage and set times is typically not announced until a week or so in advance. Don’t wait for the full schedule to book your travel arrangements. Plan on spending the full weekend in San Francisco. If 3-days of live music is too much, there are plenty of things to do in San Francisco on a day off from the festival.

Download the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass app to have everything at your fingertips.

Arrive Early

Plan to get to the festival early each day, well before the first acts. Gates now open at 9 am on Saturday and Sunday, 11 am on Friday. A small crowd begins lining up around an hour prior to opening. An early arrival will allow you to set up a base close to your preferred stage. Lay out a blanket and set up your low-backed chairs. Get to know your neighbors. You will find lots of kindred spirits among the early crowd.

Photograph of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Rooster Stage in the morning the day of the festival. Photograph shows small groups of people talking among beach chairs, blankets and coolers in front of the stage. These early arrivers are all very close to the stage.
Early bird crowd at the Rooster Stage, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2016.

Explore the festival grounds before the crowds arrive. You shouldn’t have a problem leaving your setup behind. While I have never known anyone to have a chair or even a beer stolen, carry valuables like camera gear with you just in case.

If you prefer to come once the music has started, I suggest traveling light. Between sets, you may be able to move up toward the stage as some people may be leaving their spots. This strategy works especially well if you are on your own or with one other person.

Check Out the Sound Checks

A Sunday tradition for many is heading over to the Banjo stage for Emmylou Harris’s sound check at around 9 am. Many acts soundcheck in the hours before the first sets, some are quick others can be special.

In 2022, a couple of songs into Charley Crockett’s soundcheck, he acknowledged the crowd’s enthusiasm and conferred with his band. He then launched into a blistering set of three songs including a soulful cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” which at the time had not appeared on his setlists.

Photograph of Charley Crockett performing at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2022. He is playing an acoustic guitar and wearing a cowboy hat, brown leather jacket and brown pants with a large belt buckle. His guitarist, also wearing brown, is playing a guitar in the background. The stage backdrop is an image of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mr. Charley Crockett, Towers of Gold Stage, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2022. Charley spoke of his fond memories of attending the festival as a spectator, at the time he was busking in San Francisco’s BART stations. It was our honor to finally have him on stage.

Wander the festival and check out the other stages, you may get to see a band sound check that you may not otherwise see. Be sure to stop by the Hellman tent which honors the history of the festival and the man to whom we owe thanks for this great gift, Warren Hellman.

BYO Food and Drinks, Definitely

As mentioned, you can bring food and drinks with you. The selection of food vendors has always been excellent, and historically I have enjoyed buying lunch at the festival. That changed for me this past year. A meal used to cost about what you would pay at any food truck, and it would be filling. This past year the prices were not only much higher, which was to be expected, but the portions were also much smaller.

Non-alcoholic beverages are available for sale at the festival. You will need to BYO alcohol though. Bring water to stay hydrated, but keep in mind with beverage consumption that bathroom lines can get long later in the afternoons. Also, tobacco smoking is not allowed in the park.

Get Back

For much of the festival, you can move around from stage to stage. This is especially true before 3 pm. I leave my blanket and chair at one stage if I go catch a set elsewhere. If you are set up near the stage, you will want to get back (usually) by the end of the next to last performer. If you wait too long, the crowds arriving for headliners may make it difficult to get back to your chair, especially on Saturday and Sunday.

Tip: The Swan and Towers of Gold stages are situated back-to-back in Lindley Meadow. Set start times on these stages are staggard such that bands are not playing at the same time. Audio from one stage is played through to the other, so you can enjoy continuous live music.

Transportation

Parking around Hardly Strictly Bluegrass can be a challenge, especially if you are arriving once the music starts. If you get there early, you can usually snag a decent spot if you are willing to drive around a little.

Within the city, muni is the way to go, especially after the festival. If you are coming from out of town, I recommend staying at a hotel along the 5 Fulton line. A line of buses will be waiting at the end of each day at 30th and Fulton Avenue to take you back toward your hotel.

Rideshare can be a good way to get to the festival, but I would not want to rely on it at the end of the day with well over 100,000 people exiting the park at about the same time.

Photograph of SUV with door open parked across the street from the entrance of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass  festival. A small line of people waits at the entrance.
Good as it gets. Friday just before the gates opened at the 30th Street entrance to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2022. Bus pickup is across the street at the red awning. Drop off is in front of my car.

Security Tips

Security at the entrance has increased in recent years (there used to be none). Adhere to the festival Do and Donts to avoid problems.

Photograph of Allison Russell at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2022. She is playing a clarinet with a banjo strapped over her shoulder.
Allison Russell on the Swan Stage, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2022.

Visiting from out of town? Check out the Trips ‘n’ Tunes San Francisco Travel Guide to get the most out of your trip.

Dead Head? Don’t miss my Grateful Dead North Beach Trip.