Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Written by Liam McCarthy

Waiting for the seventy-one. I’d remarkably remembered everything I needed out of the car, a good night’s sleep is underneath me and I’m sober. I watch as an eclectic crowd of tattered shirts and suits begin dismantling the order of the bus system, way down Market Street. It’s damn hot. It’s my first year at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival; I’m getting in for free like everybody else; all this is bringing on an elated smile.

By the top of Haight Street the dismantling is beginning to look like a full blown urban aneurysm for the poor seventy-one bus and her unshakable driver. Spanish and German words fill the air, a conservative looking woman sits beside her wildly misfit deadhead husband in a dull purple shirt. They’re talking about John Prine. I think the Germans and a zenned out pit-bull are talking about Prine too. Our driver, in thick Asian accent, just wants everybody to “get the fuck off the doorsteps!”

Immediately my shoes and I are separated; I’m slipping, descending through what is likely the worst of all possible entrances, stumbling sideways into hundreds of thousands of people with a beer in my hand, panting. I slurred over countless blankets, through intimate make-out sessions and makeshift sandwich boards, not a single dirty look coming my way. Dripping beer and apologies over a line of people, I imagine all this behavior would have thrown me far off the social vibrations at Outside Lands, or Treasure Island. It must be the divine plan for this stripped roots music echoing in my inebriated ear—a stress-reduction therapy offered from Emmylou Harris or Jeff Tweedy—which emits from receivers out into the cypress trees.

Hardly Strictly is brimming with a peaceful feeling missing from festivals half the size, festivals which advertise themselves in deceptively kaleidoscopic banners and wavy- gravy fonts. In the best sense, I begin to feel like John Prine and Dave Rawlings had really decided the previous night to play a show with a load of friends in the most obvious place on earth.

When Deltron 3030 hip hop (hardly) offsets the beat—people keep a rambling grin.

A tangle of trees offers sanctuary from the harsh, unseasonable San Francisco sun; a long bent trunk draws a line between the sounds of Built to Spill closing up and Mavis Staples’ thunderous cover of “The Weight.” My blood alcohol content has peaked and troughed, I’m experiencing a slight tingle in my legs and patches of light in my vision (here it comes, ma)—“The Weight” was written for this feeling. Sitting beside me is a man in mid 30s, smoking (merely) a cigarette. In soliloquy-form, I express to him my feeling for the cadence of this festival, the sense of ease in people, the fenceless feeling.

“A hippy isn’t usually a hippy,” he says back to me. “A hippy only feels like one when you can see they’re gravitating towards benevolence.”

For a brief moment, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was sounding like 700,000 people doing just that.

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