Only in the last decade has San Francisco reclaimed its reputation as a festival city, same as it was during the Summer of Love days. But now the stakes are higher, what with Outside Lands drawing a sell-out crowd of 180,000 fans over three days, and Treasure Island snagging such headliners as Death Cab for Cutie and Empire of the Sun. It's no longer sufficient to hire a few conscious rap groups, drag out some yoga mats, and throw together a clean-energy expo. If you want to compete in the big leagues, your festival has to be a gigantic, many-dimensional, multi-day affair.
The best one, by far, is Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which happens every fall during the first weekend in October. Organized and curated by the staff at Slim's and funded entirely by a generous contribution from private equity investor (and banjo player) Warren Hellman, it comprises three days of nonstop folk music in Golden Gate Park — "folk," in this case, being a pretty broad-ranging term. Artists last year included the inimitable Elvis Costello, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and Patti Smith. And this year's lineup is equally impressive, with such A-listers as Chris Isaak, Robert Plant, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and Hugh Laurie, the British actor from House, who, like so many of his peers, recently forayed into singer-songwriting.
And, as always, there are the perennials. Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, John Prine, and Ralph Stanley play Hardly Strictly almost every year. Twangy Texan baritone Guy Clark has also played the majority of the festivals. MC Hammer is running his children's program on Thursday for the fifth year in row. His shtick is to run through a half-hour set of hits, most of which came out between 1989 and 1992, though they remain recognizable to kids who were born in the new millennium. Best of all is Gillian Welch, who's clocked about eight festivals thus far. With her folksy alto, lovingly bent vowels, and lyrics about red clay earth (or other bucolic themes), she's clearly one of Hardly Strictly's largest draws.
Also on the docket this year: a special "Rooster" stage put together by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. It'll include a lot of Oberst's peeps from the indie rock and alt-folk scenes, such as M. Ward, The Felice Brothers, Jonathan Wilson, and Kurt Vile and the Violators.
But it's not the lineup alone that makes Hardly Strictly Bluegrass such a singularly wonderful event. It's also the time of year, which seems just cool enough, and crisp enough, for a mass gathering of banjos and acoustic guitars. Above all, it's the free admission, which attracted roughly 800,000 people over the course of three days last year, according to festival organizers. "That's almost the entire city of San Francisco," marveled Tracey Buck, the event's publicist. "But it's the park, so how can you put a limit on it? There's room for everyone."
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the children's program is on Friday. It is in fact on Thursday.