The 12th installment of the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival kicks off today in Golden Gate Park, marking the first edition without the event’s founder, Warren Hellman.
Hellman died in December 2011 at 77 due to complications from leukemia.
Just two months before his final days, he played at the festival’s 11th volume, plucking his banjo with his group, The Wronglers.
As many as 225,000 people were estimated to attend each day of the 2011 festival, putting Hardly Strictly high in the running for the nation’s largest outdoor music event.
However, the festival had quaint beginnings. It began as a two-stage, single-afternoon event in Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow in 2001 and included some of Hellman’s favorites, such as Emmylou Harris and the late Hazel Dickens.
And widen it has. The word “hardly” was tacked onto the front in 2004 to reflect the event’s widening scope. Now a three-day gala, Hardly Strictly boasts six stages and a roster of artists from a variety of genres.
True to the wishes of the co-founder of a private-equity firm, the show will go on thanks to his largesse and an endowment he created to fund it for no less than a further 15 years. Hellman remained mum on the event’s price tag.
He was a venture capitalist who founded Hellman & Friedman, as well as what is known today as Matrix Partners, an investment firm.
In 1985, Hellman & Friedman helped take jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co. private, a deal that netted a cool $1.6 billion. In 2001, the firm bought a 15 percent ownership stake in the Nasdaq stock market, which the firm grew before selling it for a profit in 2007.
Matrix Partners, meanwhile, helped start up SanDisk as well as a tiny Silicon Valley fruit company you may have heard of, which, apparently, does not actually deal in produce, named Apple.
In his 60s, Hellman launched the festival, later learning banjo and performing with The Wronglers. During the festival, he was known to hop on a golf cart and dart between stages to see as many acts as possible.
In tribute to Hellman, earlier this year, San Francisco city officials renamed Speedway Meadow, where the festival’s first edition took place, to Hellman’s Hollow.
It’s an appropriate tribute to a man who didn’t just bring the festival to the city, but was involved in other political and philanthropic efforts in the city.
Another tribute takes place at the former rehearsal studio of blue-eyed soul singer and San Francisco music icon Boz Scaggs at 1479A Folsom St. in San Francisco. It has turned into a museum to Hellman and is open to the public through Wednesday.
The festival’s 2012 installment features mainstays such as Harris, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, but also newer artists such as The Lumineers, The Civil Wars and Swell Season’s Glen Hansard in a lineup that includes more than 70 artists.
In addition to remembering its founder, this year’s Hardly Strictly also pays tribute to one of its regular performers, banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who died of natural causes in March, and Doc Watson, a bluegrass luminary who died in May at 89 after complications from surgery.
As it was the first 11 times, the festival is free and open to the public. It comes in the midst of a frightfully busy weekend for the city of San Francisco, including the America’s Cup finale, a Columbus Day parade, the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Week, the annual Castro Street Fair, a 49ers regular season home game and a Giants playoff game.
Festival organizers are encouraging the use of public transportation due to San Francisco feeling like a city of 400,000 people and 4,000 parking spaces, but even BART and MUNI are sure to be packed, too.
For more information, visit www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.