Each year Warren Hellman sponsors this music festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Warren is a banjo player and bluegrass fan and has been hosting this event for 10 years! It has grown to be the biggest outdoor festival in the country. Not only that, but it’s all free!
Because it’s free, it draws all types of people from serious music lovers to families, to those on the fringe of society, and more. It’s almost as fun watching the people as it is the performers.
The performers are fantastic! I’ve never heard a boring show in all the years I’ve been going. This year there were well-known names like Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Doc Watson, and the show closer Emmy Lou Harris as well as many, many lesser known artists on a total of six stages.
I could only go Sunday and my goal was to see and hear Peter Rowan, Peter Himmelman, Indigo Girls, Randy Newman, and Rosanne Cash. Any other shows that I caught would be a plus. I did catch all of these except for Randy Newman. He was on a stage on the other side and with the crowd and time crunch I opted to get food instead at that point.
Peter Rowan and his Bluegrass Band opened up the Banjo Stage, the closest thing to a main stage at the festival. The performers on this stage always stay true to the bluegrass genre and are well-known artists. Being the first show of the day on this stage, I managed to find a small spot of grass half way to the front without much trouble. That’s one of the advantages of attending by yourself – it’s easier to squeeze through the crowds and find a bit of space for yourself. Many people go early, bring a blanket or tarp and claim their spot at their favorite stage, then come and go throughout the day. That’s a good way to do it if you have 2 or more people. They played a set of sometimes topical bluegrass. Very good!
From there I wandered past the Arrow Stage and caught a little bit of Moonalice. I first saw them a few years ago and was very impressed with them then. This year I wasn’t as much, but I only heard a couple of songs because I wanted to catch Peter Himmelman.
I did catch the end of Peter Himmelman’s show but sure wished I’d seen more. He is a fun entertainer! The guy had the whole crowd snapping their fingers and a couple of audience members dancing up on the stage – it sounds dorky but it was fun! Great show. I’ll have to make a point of catching his whole show next time.
There was a break before the Indigo Girls came up and I knew I wanted to see them. I had seen them at the Oakland Art and Soul Festival a few years ago and enjoyed them a lot. They did not disappoint this year, either. They always sound great. Joining them on the stage were Julie Wolf, who often performs with them, and members of Coyote Grace. They played the standards, such as “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo” as well as a few songs I wasn’t familiar with.
After their set it was mid-afternoon and that’s when I decided to get some food rather than hike through the mobs to see Randy Newman. (Next time I’ll catch ya, Randy.) We got a little treat during the break in the form of a performance by March Fourth. I don’t know how to describe them except as a funkilicious marching band like you’ve never seen. They were great fun. While I was eating my chicken quesadilla Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women took the stage. I enjoyed their music from afar but didn’t get to see them up close.
At the break I wound my way through the crowd and tarps and chairs hoping to find a small spot up close to see Rosanne Cash. I happened upon an area behind a couple sitting in lawn chairs. They weren’t the low slung style of chairs so visibility from right behind them wasn’t good but I figured since people were standing for the Indigo Girls show they’d stand for Rosanne Cash and it wouldn’t matter. It turned out they didn’t stand so I spent the whole time leaning right or left for a good shot, but it was still worth it to be close enough for some good photos.
I enjoyed her show tremendously. I love her mix of country, rock, and blues. Every song she performed was familiar, including “Burn Down This Town,” which is a favorite and also a song I recently wrote a clogging dance to. (I’ll be teaching that dance at the Late Harvest Stomp in Santa Rosa on Oct. 23rd.) Her husband, John Leventhal, played guitar with her plus a keyboardist, drummer, bass player and very young looking guitar and steel guitar player. The guy next to me and I agreed they put on a terrific show!
Her daughter, Chelsea, who just released her first album, also joined her on stage during one song.
I decided it was a good time to leave the festival – on that high note. There was at least one more set on that stage but it had already been a long day and I knew I had to work the next morning. On the way out I passed the stage where Patti Smith was playing. The crowd was so thick I couldn’t even catch a glimpse of her. Some people were still coming in as I was heading out and I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere close enough to even see performer at that point.
If you can deal with crowds, I highly recommend this festival. Great music and it’s just a fun experience. They’re also very green conscience. Thanks to Warren Hellman for the good times each year.