Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017, which ran from Oct. 6 to 8, had just about the best lineup yet, with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst headlining Friday and The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach Saturday. Other prominent performers throughout the weekend included Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Brandi Carlile.
Started in 2001 by a San Franciscan equity firm founder, the festival has grown from an intimate one-day gathering of strictly folk music lovers to a weekend-long festival full of both young and old fans.
As demonstrated by the schedule, the event has moved away from its original intent to showcase only bluegrass and folk music. It now incorporates many grunge rock and indie artists as well, which is not surprising, seeing as less and less people seem to be interested in a purely bluegrass music base.
San Francisco has a rich history of bluegrass music, with many prominent second-generation bluegrass-influenced bands sprouting in the 1960s, including The Grateful Dead and Old and in the Way. So it makes sense why there was a push to create a festival that celebrated bluegrass and its history in San Francisco. Even so, bluegrass is currently not regarded as a popular type of music in the city, with movements towards indie and rock driving the scene instead, which explains why what started as “Strictly Bluegrass” ended up becoming “Hardly” that.
Like the music, the event’s audience has moved from being solely the more traditional, middle-aged blues lovers to including everyone from senior Haight hippies to curious high school students. Even families and millennial tech workers enjoy the laid-back environment of Hardly Strictly, as there is a little something for everyone. This diversity is representative of San Francisco itself, and the festival has found a way to open up their doors to everyone in the community and connect them through music.
Golden Gate Park itself is beautiful and sprawling, and Hardly Strictly has grown to take up a majority of it. There were seven stages to choose from, ranging from large-scale performers to local bands, lasting all day. Although, the larger stages tended to get overcrowded by the time the headliners came on, and the volume on the speakers was not turned up as loud as it should have been for such a massive crowd. The festival has always been a laid-back event, but this year the acoustics created problems for the concert-goers. Most attendees prefer to sit on a picnic blanket with friends rather than get up close to the stage, causing the crowd to spread out so much that it becomes difficult to reach everyone with the speakers.
Again, the vibe of the festival was relaxed and carefree, partially because of the crowd makeup and partially because of the type of music playing. It was not the hectic, overcrowded, young atmosphere of Outside Lands, but rather it was in its own calm element, with most people enjoying picnics or laying down in the warm afternoon sun while listening to the folksy rhythms that echoed throughout the hollow.
One interesting aspect of the festival was the two-channel silent disco put on by Hush. A somewhat new concept that still has yet to be introduced to many, a silent disco is a concert that everyone attending must hear through specific noise-cancelling headphones, and the listeners can choose whichever channel, or DJ performance, they like best. While it might sound strange to have a disco at a bluegrass festival, it works out because one channel of more traditional rock music and one of pop and punk techno mashups was played. The disco was a fun place to be more energetic and dance around in, with small details like colored lights and a bubble machine making it comfortable and welcoming to people of any age or musical preference.
Overall, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a unique and fun event that people travel from all over the Bay to attend, and although its popularity and music choices continue to develop, there is a good chance that it will remain free of cost and open to all — the way such a trademark festival should be.