Strictly speaking

LEFT OF THE DIAL When Slim’s booker Dawn Holliday first met with Warren Hellman in 2001, she had no way of knowing that the quaint little music festival the investor wanted to organize would grow to be one of San Francisco’s most fiercely cherished traditions.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which runs this Friday, Oct. 3 through Sunday, Oct. 5 (featuring this rather impressive lineup of bands, whose music you’ll find in the YouTube playlist below) is special for a number of reasons. It’s free, thanks to an endowment from the late sir Hellman. You can’t buy alcohol. You won’t find huge video screens projecting tweets about the festival in real time. To get distinctly San Francisco on you and use a word I generally avoid, its vibe — yes — is about a solar system away from certain other huge music festivals in Golden Gate Park that shall remain nameless. And it just couldn’t take place anywhere else.

Little story for ya: Four years ago this week, I moved back to the Bay Area from New York. I was unemployed and aimless and temporarily living with my parents again at 26, and the future was terrifying. I was regrouping, but I didn’t know if I was back here for good. The day after I landed — hungover, disoriented by the smells and sounds and lack of sensory overload of not-New York City — I headed to Hardly Strictly with a few old friends. I remember foraging our way into the park, just pushing toward the music, and literally stumbling out of a wall of shrubbery to find Patti Smith just starting her set.

The crowd was insane: people tightly packed in, drinking, passing joints, hollering, bundled in seven layers each, sitting on each other’s shoulders, stepping on each other’s army blankets full of microbrews and organic rice chips and apologizing as they tried to push up closer to the stage.

My eyes darted from the older woman with flowing batik-print pants, eyes closed, swaying joyously by herself, to the young couple with matching dreads who were tripping on god knows what, to the balding-but-ponytailed and potbellied man who seemed to be trying to get a hacky sack game going to the beat of “Because the Night.”

I don’t want to speak for all Bay Area kids, but I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about large groups of hippies — there’s just a saturation point when you grow up here. Unlike so many of my transplant friends, I have never found the remnants of the Summer of Love overly enchanting; this is what happens when you are forced to watch the documentary Berkeley In the Sixties in high school history classes. I am also, for what it’s worth, not the biggest fan of crowds.

I knew I’d been gone a while because I was in love. I’d never been so happy to see ridiculous, stoned, absolutely beside themselves weirdos all doing their own weird things next to each other and nobody caring. Little kids dancing with grandparents; teenagers making out. I felt like I’d stumbled onto some sort of magical island, one where nobody talked about the stock exchange and everyone was incredibly, almost purposefully unfashionable and the thought of waiting in line to get into a club was ludicrous. I wanted to live in this smelly pile of humanity forever, and that was a new one for me. I knew I’d been gone a while because I was seeing SF the way transplants see SF. And I also knew I was home.

That atmosphere, I learned while talking to Holliday last week, is absolutely by design.

“I think of it more as a gathering of music lovers than a festival, really,” says Holliday, who’s booked Hardly Strictly every year since its inception. “I think having no fences — you can walk away at any time — and not selling alcohol makes a huge difference in people’s attitudes.”

As for the task of putting together a lineup each year that appeals to everyone from teenagers to folks in their 70s and 80s — the announcement of Sun Kil Moon, Deltron 3030, the Apache Relay, Sharon Van Etten, and others had many pronouncing this the hippest (read: appealing to folks under 40) lineup in years — Holliday says she actually keeps it relatively simple.

“When it started, and I kind of still do this, it was just with Warren in mind,” she says. “I was thinking about what he hadn’t heard yet. I knew he didn’t start listening to music until later in life, so I wanted to book music that I thought he should be turned on to. As long as there was some kind of roots in it. The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gogol Bordello, all stuff that he would really love to hear, but he’d never go out and see because he went to bed at 9:30. That was my goal for 12 years. ‘What would blow Warren’s mind?'” She laughs, noting that Hellman’s early bedtime is also the reason for the festival ending not long after dark.

“I don’t think [my booking] has changed that much with his passing,” she says. “It’s still music that I feel doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. Nothing’s bigger than the Fillmore. A lot of the bands don’t fill our rooms [Great American Music Hall and Slim’s], so a lot of people get to hear music they’re not normally exposed to. The age range is all over the place. And with bands that usually are a higher ticket, it’s a an opportunity for fans to go see $60, $70 shows for free.”

The park itself also has a lot to do with how she books: “I walk through it and see what I hear,” she says. “The contours of the meadows at different times of the year speak differently to you. Sometimes when I walk down JFK, I still hear Alejandro Escovedo singing, and that was eight years ago now.”

She also has a long-running wish list of artists; Lucinda Williams and Yo La Tengo, both playing this year’s fest, have been on it for some time. And she’s especially looking forward to the annual tribute to those who’ve passed away, which happens Saturday afternoon at the banjo stage — Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, and the Ramones will all be honored this year.

“It’s the best gift,” she says. “I mean if someone were able to give us world peace, I’d say that was the best gift. But since no one’s going to — yep, this is the best.”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is all day Fri/3 through Sun/5, for free, of course, in Golden Gate Park. Check www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com for set times, and visit our Noise blog at www.sfbg.com/noise for more coverage of the fest. Until then — we’ll see ya in the park.