Field Notes: The Outdoor Music Festival

The crowd pre-Gillian Welch & David Rawlings at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2011

San Franciscans love their music.  And despite the unpredictable weather–our fog, Karl, even tweets about it–we like to listen to it outside.  Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the prime example of a free, outdoor music festival in SF.  Held every year since 2001 in Golden Gate Park, HSB draws over 750,000 concertgoers over a weekend each fall.  The line-up is always impressive, with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and Emmy Lou Harris (among other bluegrass royalty) performing regularly, as well as less-bluegrassy acts–hence the “hardly.”  I went to HSB last October, and it was well worth the crush of people.

Outside Lands brings a mostly indie line-up to Golden Gate Park at the end of summer; last year, it hauled in an estimated $60 million in revenue for the city, with 180,000 tickets purchased.  And the Treasure Island Music Festival (held, unsurprisingly, on Treasure Island), another indie-ish fest, entices a slightly younger crowd–at least, that’s what a source, who ended up on the wrong side of a puking underage spectator, told me.  The free Stern Grove concert series, which has been running for 75 seasons, brings a slightly older, more staid crowd–with acts ranging from the SF Symphony to Neko Case.

Jerry Garcia street art in the Haight, by grahamc99, CC BY 2.0

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Summer of Love and Sixties rock-n-roll (but only a mention because I want to write about this in depth later).  The Grateful Dead performed numerous outdoor concerts in SF throughout the years, including in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and on Haight Street in 1968.  If you’re ever in Magnolia Brewery on Haight and Masonic, you can see an incredible photo in the bathroom depicting the latter.  Of course, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969 (sorry, Wikipedia is the best option) owed their size to the Counterculture’s epicenter in San Francisco.  And the punk scene thrived in the 1980s in an outdoor venue or two:

Stage diver at Rock Against Reagan at the DNC, 1984, in the empty lot between Mission, Howard, 3rd, and 4th Streets. Photo by Keith Holmes, courtesy of Found SF, CC BY NC SA 3.0.

Which brings us to last Sunday.  Financier and philanthropist Warren Hellman, the founder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, passed away in December 2011.  HSB held a free tribute concert for him out at Ocean Beach, closing down the Great Highway so that a number of incredible musicians could perform in his honor.  After a decadent brunch at Magnolia, I found myself wandering the Haight aimlessly, until a quick Twitter scan reminded me of the event and sent me, rushing and scatter-brained, to Fulton Street for the number 5 Muni.  I disembarked at the Pacific Ocean to a huge crowd swaying to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  I stayed for the rest of their set, Boz Scaggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show before heading home (I had more bluegrass to see that evening at Cafe du Nord).  It could hardly have been a better day, with a few wisps of cloud, enough sunshine to keep the wind chill bearable, and a calm, respectful crowd celebrating Mr. Hellman through the music he loved best.

Besides the music, the best part of big concerts is the people watching.  I jotted down a few field notes while sitting on the double yellow line in the middle of the Great Highway.  Based on these observations and others from around the city, here’s what you’ll find at a typical San Francisco music festival:

  • Hippies – the old and new kind.  There’s a difference, and it’s not always based on age.
  • Ex-hippies.  You just know when you see them.
  • Homeless people.
  • People who dress like they’re homeless.
  • Surfers, skaters, and their ilk.
  • Girls who dress like Penny Lane (guilty as charged).
  • Girls who think they dress like Penny Lane (ditto).
  • SWPL white people, and, goes without saying for this demographic, Patagonia apparel (guilty verdict continues).
  • People from the 1990s.
  • People from the 1890s.
  • Bicycles and dogs and strollers and coolers (oh my!).
  • Red-cheeked, blue-eyed children who are cuter than your current/future kids will ever be.
  • People who are taller than me.
  • Drugs and alcohol, cleverly concealed or not at all.
  • Piercings, obscure tattoos, and carefully sculpted facial hair (Bonus: dreadlocks).
  • Everyone else.  While traveling to an outdoor music venue, you can always pick out certain concertgoers based on their attire.  Upon arrival, however,  you’ll find that those regular-looking people you saw on Muni, the ones who look like they’d never be caught dead in whatever scene the concert line-up represents, were headed in the same direction, and now they’re passing a joint and rocking out with the weirdos.  They’re my favorite, hands down.

The place was jammed on Sunday.  It wasn’t until 7×7 released photos yesterday that I could even see what the artists had looked like–after Gillian Welch kept mentioning her rhinestones, I knew I was missing something.  But really, it’s about the music anyway, and I wasn’t disappointed to have skipped elbowing my way through thousands of people for a glimpse.   I’d’ve had to show up at 8AM to have a good vantage point; even a few rows back at general admission shows, all I can see are shoulder blades.  I opted instead to sit towards the back and let the music drift over me, where things were the calmest and least crowded.  The highlight for me was Old Crow Medicine Show, who put on a hell of a set.  One standout song?  A beautiful cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”


Video via SFist.


2 responses to “Field Notes: The Outdoor Music Festival

  1. Thanks Julia! Boy, would I love to walk the streets of San Fran with you. Some day I hope.

    Put a bird on it!

  2. Jen, I always put a bird on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s