An estimated 15,000 jammed two parking lot stages between the edge of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Park, and at least another 30,000 tuned in to a webcast streamed on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass website.
Plans for the public celebration were put into motion shortly after Hellman’s unexpected death Dec. 18 from complications of his treatment for leukemia, according to the Bay Citizen, the digital newspaper he also founded. Organizers decided against holding the concert in Hellman Hollow, the GGP meadow named for him, fearing damage to the park from a potential combination of a big crowd and wet weather.
They needn’t have worried – after a cold, windy day of rehearsals, the sun broke through the day of the concert for near-perfect conditions for the show headlined by HSB mainstay Emmylou Harris. “Warren has connections,” one musician quipped from the stage.
Harris was joined by Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, Boz Scaggs, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Dry Branch Fire Squad, the trio of Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane & Fats Kaplin, John Doe, Poor Man’s Whiskey, and Hellman’s own band, The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, alternating sets between two stages so nobody had to miss a beat.
Keen, who also performed at an intimate memorial celebration of Hellman’s life at S.F. nightclub Slim’s a few nights earlier, ripped into what became the theme of the bash: “The Road Goes On Forever.”
Harris performed the final set with “The Go To Hell Man Clan,” composed of Hellman’s grandchildren and other family members, and was joined by the rest of the show’s artists for a sing-along of “The Weight,” one of many highlights. Old Crow Medicine Show paid tribute to not only Hellman, but the late Whitney Houston with a twangy rendition of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore provided an emotional midpoint for the concert, performing several songs from last year’s Heirloom Music and adding “The Big Twang Theory,” written by Hellman and completed in his hospital bed just days before his death.
Hellman funded and organized Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for 11 years before his death, intending it to be a gathering of some of his favorite bluegrass artists like Hazel Dickens, who also died in 2011. It quickly grew from one day and nine artists to become one of the premier festivals in the country, spanning four days, including a kid’s day, and six stages – always free to the public. More than 90 artists performed in 2011.
Despite the loss of Hellman, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will continue thanks to an endowment the billionaire financier left behind, until “they have to roll us all in on wheelchairs,” Harris quipped. This year’s edition takes place in Golden Gate Park’s Hellman Hollow Oct. 5-7.