Warren Hellman Memorial. 2/19/2012.
The founder and sole sponsor of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival passed away in December. Last year had been the tenth festival. It had grown to an incredible size. Many said it was the best music festival in the country. Hellman had inherited a fortune and built one of his own. He called Hardly Strictly his selfish gift to The City. It was something he really enjoyed. “Why buy another expensive painting?”
Hellman was a generous benefactor for The City. He has been credited with saving many San Francisco City workers pensions. There were many sides to him, but the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival may be his legacy. We hope.
Hellman looked frail at last year’s festival. He still showed his sense of humor by wearing a large coat with The Star of David. “I wear my religion on my sleeve.” He sounded hoarse. After his death it was said he was diagnosed last year, but put off the surgery to tour with his band, The Wronglers. There had been a service for him at a synagogue. The public had been invited, but there had to be an outdoors music tribute.
Winter rain made it impossible to have it in Golden Gate Park. A crowd of any size would damage the wet fields. It would be held on The Great Highway along Ocean Beach on the West end of San Francisco. JFK Drive and Lincoln. It was an odd site. The Bay to Breakers race ends there, but I can’t remember any music event being held there.
John and Tree Stuber were gracious enough to pick us up on their way. We parked on Sutro Heights. We could see the tents and stages set up down by the beach. After a brisk walk we came up to a large sign. I wish I had taken a picture of it. It warned us that we were entering federal property. There were ominous warnings about breaking federal law. There were “dangerous conditions” in the parking lot. Someone said they were trying to protect against lawsuits that might result from someone tripping in one of the numerous potholes in the pavement.
Saturday had been windy and rainy. Light rain was forecast for today. We couldn’t believe it was sunny and clear. It was early and still a bit cold, but again the Hardly Strictly weather gods were with us.
An MC got things going. “Warren Hellman had a great life. He was a real, true Christian, although he was Jewish.” The necessary announcements were made. There would be no smoking, no alcohol and no dogs. “That’s right,” said the MC, “just about anything fun is banned.” “This is federal land, so a violation would be a federal case! This is not Warren Hellman Speedway.” Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park, once the home of historic music events in the Sixties, had been renamed Hellman Hollow, shortly before Hellman passed away. “We can’t practice the primitive customs we’re used to here.”
Then there was another abrupt message. “I’ve been informed that THE BEACH is federal property.” This really confused the legality of any reversion to “primitive customs.” We were on the street. Was that technically, legally City property? Park Rangers did circulate in the crowd. Things did get more lax as the crowd grew.
There were two stages today. Action alternated between The Arrow and The Banjo stage. It meant there wouldn’t be the agonizing choices that had to be made during Hardly Strictly with its six stages.
We settled down near the back of the crowd at The Banjo stage. We arrived early, but spaces were already filling up. We were sitting in the parking lot, which meant we were sitting on pavement. It would be a trial as the day went on. I sure missed the damp soft grass of Golden Gate Park. Our spot is on the left near a pair of cyclone fences. A path is kept clear so golf carts can whiz people back and forth to the stages. A great view of Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean stretch on our right.
The music started at The Arrow Stage. It was the stage farthest south. Poor Man’s Whiskey was usually the first act to play the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. They play a show for school kids on the day before the festival starts. So it was fitting that they started the music today. They use the acronym PMW for the kid’s show, so the school kids won’t hear the W word. They could use their real name today.
The singer from Poor Man’s Whiskey gets things started. “Here’s to Warren Hellman, the man who completely revived the music scene in California, especially San Francisco!” The first of many tribute songs today is, “There Won’t Be Whisky in Heaven.” The second song, “Sierra Girl” mentions spots in California including the Truckee River.
“For this song, we want you to give us your biggest Yee-Haw! We want it to be heard all the way across the ocean to China.” This was a hoe down number, “Let’s Go Out Tonight!”
We could hear the other stage. It was a couple of hundred yards away, and it was easy to walk over and get a distant view of the stage. There was still much open area between the stages.
“Here’s a song about Warren Hellman, ‘Let Me Die With a Banjo In My Hands.’”
It was time for music to start at our stage, The Banjo Stage. John Doe would play with Cindy Wasserman. They played a slow song to start: “You Are the Aching In My Heart.”
Doe says they don’t have a long time to play. Most of the acts only had a half hour. “The songs aren’t sad songs. They’re love songs,” he says.
The sound is great. It must be tough to get such good sound at an outdoor show next to the ocean. The wind would pick up during the day. I wanted a break from sitting on the cement. We had arrived early and waited over an hour for things to start.
So, I took a walk and stretched it out a bit. Across the closed Great Highway there were enlarged photos arranged on a cyclone fence. The photographic retrospective showed Warren Hellman at different points in his life. There was a shot of him from 1954 in his U.S. Army uniform. There was a shot of him in a Rasta wig with long draids. He did have a self deprecating sense of humor. The photos were a nice tribute.
It was still early and there were only a few people checking out the photos. I noticed a guy looking at them. He looked like a Vietnam vet. Maybe he was a roadie. He was balding with strands of black hair combed back. He had a grizzled, intense look. There are no shortage of these guys in San Francisco, I thought, especially on Market Street. I thought he looked like Steve Earle. He was a bit furtive. I had a hunch he really had known Warren Hellman. I looked at the rest of the photos. Maybe he is Steve Earle, I thought, but he was gone.
Doe and Wasserman were playing a nice little set. “Here’s a real old C&W song.” “Don’t Forget How Much I Love You.” “I’m Painting the Town Blue” “Pressing On” was a Gospel song. “Pressing on to spread the word of the Lord.” When I got back to our group Stuber told me there were reports that Steve Earle had been spotted wandering the area.
Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplan began playing on The Arrow Stage. “Long Gone from Kentucky.” “Jersey Devil”
I have to admit that when I heard the bad news about Warren Hellman, my first thought was, what will happen to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass? In 2010 it had been announced that Hellman had created a foundation to pay for future festivals, but what will happen after he’s gone? I heard today that the fund for the festival’s future had five hundred million dollars in it. A provision of the will says that if any heir even tries to change the arrangement they will be totally cut out of the will.
Welch, Kane and Kaplan play a Hazel Dickens favorite, “Banjo Picking Mama.” When they had finished playing it at last year’s Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman had given them a big thumbs up signal.
“Too Old to Die Young.” “Postcard from Mexico” Good fiddling.
The MC from The Banjo Stage announces, “Now it’s our turn again.” We see many acts by chance at Hardly Strictly. I saw Dry Branch Fire Squad perform early hours of the festival years ago. They’re a “real” old fashioned Bluegrass act. They sound like a Bluegrass band from way back, but they all wear suits and ties. The singer and narrator Ron Thomason has a dry understated sense of humor, and he tells great tales between songs.
During the first song, “Little Old Church By the Road” guitarist Brian Aldridge breaks a string. “We’ll just play without him. We may be out of time and out of tune, but that’s what makes it Bluegrass.” “Rovin’ Gambler.”
“Warren enjoyed old Gospel songs, and he was Jewish. Just goes to show, it’s what you believe, not what you hear.” They do a rollicking “Father Found a Stone.”
Thomason mentions the passing last year of Hazel Dickens. She was one of Hellman’s inspirations for starting the Hardly Strictly festival. “Hazel was a great singer. Not having pitch or timing never stopped her.” She was a tough woman. “Hazel got the snot beat out of her” several times while fighting for the unions.
Thomason asked Hazel if she would record with Dry Branch Fire Squad. She said she would, “If they didn’t hold back.” So, on this next Gospel song, “Blood of Jesus” there would be no holding back.
There is a merchandise tent, we’re told, where we can buy CDs and “thought repellant hats.” Thomason says it sounds dumb, “But just think about what you’ve been thinking about.” This gets some laughs. “I didn’t mean to put you in existential angst.”
Thomason cracks: “T.S. Elliot said you have to bring some knowledge to the poem.” There is some applause. “I don’t know what band he played in.”
“I’m not talking too fast for you, am I?” Thomason said in his slow drawl.
I didn’t think they would have time for stories, but Thomason did give us the short version of the story of how the band had been discovered by Alan Lomax, “Back when we were younger rednecks.” Lomax had them play at the Washington D.C. Folk Festival. “We told him we didn’t know any Folk songs. He said that we did. We were amazed that he thought we knew something we didn’t know about.” Lomax took them to The Smithsonian where, “He was doing some curating.” They were amazed by the dinosaurs and airplanes hanging off the ceiling, but Lomax pushed them to some caveman dioramas that he had created. They were amazed that Neanderthals had camp fires with plastic light bulbs in them. “Take Me Back to Texas.”
“We only got one request, so we’ll play it. Really we got two requests, but we’re going to use all our stage time anyway.” “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Steve Earle starts playing at The Arrow Stage. It’s tempting to go have a look, but the crowd has grown and it’s not as easy to get over there. Buddy Miller will be up next on the stage that we’re camped out at. I’ve learned not to miss Buddy Miller.
Earle has a new song for Warren, “I wrote it on the plane,” he tells us. He plays “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” followed by a powerful “Copperhead Road.” Earle is alone onstage with an acoustic.
“Can I get away with another new song? We’ll have a new record sooner than we thought. This song should piss somebody off somewhere ... but not here.” “Thinking of Burning the Walmart Down.”
Earle is ecstatic about the weather. He mentions the wind and rain at yesterday’s sound check. “It could have been a challenge.” Earle thinks it was one of Hellman’s “connections” that gave us the great weather.
“My Old Friend The Blues” “Someday”
Earle says he grew up in Schurz, Texas. “Someone named Otto was always beating me up back then. “Hometown Blues.” “Nothing brings you down like your home town.” “The Mountain” “Pilgrim” “No need to cry for me, boys.”
At the end of the set Earle looks skyward. “I’ll see you when I get there, Warren!”
Earle gets a big response from the audience, but the MC explains that, “There will be no encores today. We’re not scrimping. We just don’t have enough time.”
Buddy Miller takes the stage with Chris Keys on bass and Ken Owens on drums. Owens is sitting in. “We just met yesterday.” They open with a rocking “ How I Got to Memphis” “Shelter Me Lord” “Roll Around Heaven”
Emmy Lou Harris joins for a Porter Waggoner song: “Burning the Midnight Oil.” She holds a piece of paper with the lyrics.
Harris tells a joke she heard from Warren. If a man locks his wife and dog in the trunk of a car overnight, which one will be glad to see him when he gets them out?
“Wide River to Cross” “I Worry Too Much” “It Don’t Matter Where You Bury Me”
Warren’s band, The Wronglers, will try to continue without him. It must be tough. They’re all family and friends. Heidi Clare explains that Warren had a “no jerks policy.” We’ve seen The Wronglers at Hardly Strictly and once heard them play in a high school auditorium during the San Francisco Folk Festival. (A great little event held in June.) Warren was a bit cautious about playing in public, but eventually did play before thousands at Hardly Strictly.
So far we’ve at least been able to hear what’s happening on The Arrow Stage, but now there’s something wrong with the sound. The wind is picking up a bit. Gusts coming off the Pacific Ocean seem to blow the sound away, but it’s probably a sound system problem.
“Time Changes Everything” “My Blue Eyes” (Hank Williams song.)
Jimmie Dale Gilmore joined The Wronglers a couple of years ago. He added a professional touch and took the band to another level. Heidi Clare plays fiddle. She and Warren became close enough in the last couple of years that they had to deny a romantic involvement. Bill Martin is on mandolin. Eric Pearson is introduced as, “Warren Hellman’s banjo teacher.” Colleen Brown is on bass and Nate Levine plays guitar.
Heidi tells us that they rehearsed at Nate Levine’s house late one night. The lights flickered. “Did that ever happen before?” “No, that was Warren.”
The band can still be ragged at times, but no one minds when they do a restart on “Way Downtown.” They do a murder ballad: “Frankie and Johnny.” The last song is one of the last that Hellman wrote. It showed Hellman’s sense of humor: “Big Twang Theory.”
Warren’s daughter, Avery Hellman, and his grandson, joined for “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Deep Ellum Blues”
The crowd at The Banjo Stage is excited to see the husband and wife team of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They’re dressed in matching white Cowboy outfits and hats covered in rhinestones. “We brought out the bling for Warren,” Gillian tells us. It brings up the perennial fashion question: “What goes with rhinestones? Everything!”
They start with an appropriate number for this business climate, “Hard Times.” “Hard times aren’t going to rule my mind no more.”
“The Way It Goes”
“We weren’t expecting sunny,” Gillian says. “We got a free micro dermabrasion at yesterday’s rehearsal.”
“Pass You By.” “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll.”
Steve Earle passes us on a go cart. No doubt about it. He’s the guy I saw at the photo tribute.
Gillian: “Here’s a sad, pitiful song, 'Dixie Line.’” “Elvis Presley Blues” “Six White Horses”
They get a big response from the crowd when they start “Look At Miss Ohio.” “I want to do right, but not right now.”
Emmy Lou joins for “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.” It’s the song the sirens sing in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” “I’ll Fly Away”
We had enough of sitting on the pavement and went to The Arrow Stage for Boz Scaggs. We had missed him at Hardly Strictly and he’s one of Kathy’s favorites. We found an OK spot near the family and friends section and could see most of the stage.
Boz came onstage and sat down behind a music stand. He’s joined by Jack Woolruff on harmonica and Gil Goldstein on keyboards, including a Wurlitzer electric piano. “Corrina, Corrina.” The next song was a surprising “Rainy Night In Georgia.” “This is a Nancy Wilson song,” “Save Your Love for Me.” Then a Jimmie Dale Gilmore song, “Sometimes I Fly Like a Bird.” Kathy commented that Bluegrass songs had many bird references. Ornithological Bluegrass? They did a great version of “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
Boz says, “We’ll skip the next one.” I wonder what we missed. Instead they do a Blues song: “As the Years Go Passing By.” Boz does a great set of Old Time Americana Roots music.
I had a job that night, so our plan was to get to the memorial early and leave early. The crowd wasn’t huge by Biblical Woodstock Hardly Strictly standards, but the afternoon wind was starting to whip off the ocean. People were still pouring in. The crowd was getting looser. The ban on alcohol and smoking was getting harder to enforce.
We had seen Boz at the southern stage. We would go around the crowd on our way out while watching Old Crow Medicine Show. The crowd is excited and lets out a loud cheer when the band is announced. “C’mon Home” “Cocaine Habit” “I Hear Them All.” The singer says that on his first day in The City, someone came up to him and said, “Welcome to San Francisco! Do you want a pot brownie?”
“I Want to Dance With Somebody” I heard them say something about Whitney Houston, but didn’t realize this was one of her songs. She had passed away the night before.
“Rockin’ in the Weary Land.” “Caroline” There are cheers after a shout out to Giants fans. “Take ‘Em Away”
The singer talks about how the group grew with the Hardly Strictly festival. When they first played, it was in front of a crowd of 10,000. The crowds grew to 100,000. “Rock Me Mama” “Johnny Get Your Gun”
We walked back along the closed Great Highway and jumped on a 31 Balboa bus. It was a MUNI bus trip we wanted to get done before the hordes descended. The event was being webcast. Sometimes live webcasts can be shaky, but the picture and sound were fine. It was weird watching an event on the computer that we had just been at. There’s nothing like being there for live music, but it was OK to get out of the wind and sit in front of the computer.
Robert Earl Keen did a tribute song to Levon Helm: “The Man Behind the Drums.” “Feelin’ Good Again” “Gringo Honeymoon” “I Gotta Go” “Lay Down My Brother”
Keen says that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the greatest festival in the world! He finishes with the theme for today’s memorial: “The Road Goes On Forever and the Party Never Ends.”
The grand finale features the sweetheart of Hardly Strictly Emmy Lou Harris. Buddy Miller is also a member of the “Go To Hell Man Club.” “Songbird.” “Grievous Angel.” “Black Hawk and White Dove.” Ken Owings is the drummer.
Emmy Lou mentions that her mother is here. “She’s an inspiration.” “Orphan Girl” (A Gillian Welch song.) “Your Long Journey.” Heidi Clare and Colleen Brown join for “When We’re Long Gone.”
Most of the performers from throughout the day join to sing “The Weight” the song by The Band. Warren Hellman’s son, Mick, thanks the crowd.
It’s been a fitting tribute and Hellman will certainly be missed at next year’s festival. No matter what, Hardly Strictly will be different next year.