People-watching at a free festival in San Francisco
THE SANTA CLARA
October 8, 2015
The rich buy a lot of things: yachts, mansions, political influence, etc. But the late Warren Hellman, a banjo-plucking investment banking billionaire, donated his dough to found the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as an opulent annual gift to his beloved San Francisco. Hosted in the resplendently verdant Golden Gate Park, the three-day affair offers a complimentary sonic smorgasbord of mid-major talent on intimate stages with cutesy names like “Arrow” or “Rooster.”
“How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?” Hellman said before passing in 2011.
On Sunday, after catching a bullet train from San Jose-Diridon, I zipped at blurry speeds along “The Wiggle,” an ingenious bike route through San Francisco that never asks you to ride uphill at more than a six degree angle. I brushed shoulders with indifferent busses, executed daring left turns and whipped through yellow-lit intersections spurred by the timeless motivation of not wanting my three fellow bikers to think I was a wuss. We checked our rides into HSB’s free bike valet, walked past a smiling staff member on a shell-shocked albino horse and crossed the threshold into the buzzing park.
“I love biking, it’s so much more efficient,” said senior Sean Reilly, my knowledgeable Wiggle guide. “You spend an hour and a half on public transportation or you park. In San Francisco, they’re going to ask you to pay $60 for a spot at some point.”
HSB overwhelms the senses. As I traveled between the seven stages, the notes of distant bands mingled in the upper limbs of towering trees. Salty bay breezes wafted sweat, eucalyptus and smoke from tobacco, marijuana and animal fat. A rollicking human ocean enveloped me.
Pretty girls with dyed hair wore flowy garments of disorienting patterns. Earthy hippies hawked mushrooms and molly like peanuts and cracker jacks. Trim older couples bumped hips unselfconsciously to whatever was playing. Single uptown ladies sat on plaid blankets, sipping white wine and eating crackly baguettes and cheese wedges. Single sunburned dudes wore sunglasses, drank beers and took their shirts off.
Toddlers with binkies in their mouths gleefully wobbled away from chasing parents. Retirees sipped from metal flasks the size of physics textbooks. Limber lovers did impromptu acrobatics. Giggly wives in flouncy skirts begged their sheepish husbands to dance. Blonde lesbians tongue-kissed in front of a portapotty.
A tan, smirking gal wore a sign around her neck advertising a 1990 Chevy Astro Van for sale. A mute, solemn prophet bore a sign warning of “Giant Robots in Society.” A man-bun proponent had the word “Imagine” tattooed above his left nipple in cursive. A kilt-wearer made botched balloon animals that rocketed limply through the air. A pale performer with flowers in her hair spun a hula hoop on her nose. A paunchy bald man wearing nothing but jorts jigged on a blanket.
“This is like San Francisco’s public holiday,” Reilly said. “It’s so mellow. If I ever strike it filthy rich, I’d give a city a free music festival.”
For lunch, I wanted to sample Arepas, a Mexican-Italian fusion of sweet corn masa and mozzarella, but when the visibly stoned vendor requested seven dollars for a beige disk in a steamy tin, I pivoted to purchase some greasily decadent lamb poutine (fries dressed in feta cheese and gravy) from a food truck with a sign that said “Stop, it’s Lamb-er Time.” I didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day.
Punny signs aside, HSB is stunningly non-commercial. Zero corporate ads or sponsorships showed their garish faces for the entire day. This event possessed no ulterior motives, striving solely to give the people of the Bay Area a lovely day in the park.
HSB introduced me to one man who will forever stick in my mind: Charles Bradley. The soul singer inked a record deal in his fifties after living a life characterized by odd jobs, hitchhiking and homelessness. Onstage, backed by a hip crew of beards and sunglasses, Charles Bradley rasped, cooed and bellowed, undulating between feathery whispers and gale-force crescendoes.
He wore an all-red Evel Knievel suit with his initials gleaming white on the lapels and a golden sarcophagus glistening on his back. He wailed, moaned and dropped to his knees. He thrusted, shimmied and did the robot. He nailed the finale and stode messianically into the crowd.
“Thank you for giving me this opportunity to show my love,” Bradley said to the entranced audience. “Thank you for letting me perform my dreams.”
HSB also walloped me with nostalgia. Los Lobos, a band I first heard on my dad’s black and white iPod that had buttons above the click wheel, closed the Golden Towers stage. The East-LA quintet performed their versatile repertoire, transitioning seamlessly from classic rock to Tex-Mex country to mariachi, even letting loose one of those wonderful, high-pitched staccato laughs.
They rode soft guitar licks and skittering drums into climactic frenzied harmonies that exhaled into bluesy riffs that gave way to an absolutely ripping saxophone or a peppy panting accordion. They eschewed their worldwide hit, “La Bamba,” but played the galloping lament, “That Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” that a little-used part of my brain remembered every word to.
They encored graciously for the reluctant-to-part audience and after they finished, the Wiggle crew joined the satisfied exodus. Bike valets sprinted to retrieve our transports as we listened to a brassy Louisiana trumpet wah-wah a melancholy goodbye. As dusk fell, we whizzed through foggy streets to the Caltrain station, downhill the whole way, San Francisco streaming by us.
Contact John Flynn at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.