A dozen years ago, when SF Classical Voice interviewed financier Warren Hellman, he laid out the spirit and scale of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival he’d inaugurated in 2001. “It’s looking at hundreds of thousands of people enjoying themselves in the sun, smoking something they’re not supposed to, and not getting into fights,” he said, sitting behind his desk high above the Financial District, in an office adorned with banjos, his instrument of choice. “And it’s also like a family party, with artists coming in, spending the weekend, meeting each other, and sitting in on other people’s sets.”
The year after Hellman’s unexpected death in December 2011, several of his offspring made the family feeling literal, forming the Go To Hell Man Band, which will again be performing at HSB this year. The group plays Saturday morning on the Rooster Stage, one of six set up along John F. Kennedy Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 2023 festival, which runs Sept. 29 – Oct. 1.
Mick Hellman, who followed his father’s footsteps into both finance and bluegrass, will be featured alongside his sisters Frances, Judith, and Tricia (Gibbs), as well as Tricia’s children Ruth, Katie, Matthew, Frankie, and possibly Sam. Joining the band from outside the family will be Austin de Lone, David Noble, Stevie Coyle, Rob Anderson, Barbara Higbie, and likely Amber Morris.
“There’s a variety show feel to us,” says Mick, 62, who plays drums and sings. “We’ll be doing bluegrass songs, a B-52s pop hit, a Heart song, maybe a little Brandi Carlile, and something by Lennie Gallant from Prince Edward Island.” Over the three days of the festival, there will be other family performances: Mick and his siblings in the rock-friendly Marco and the Polos, one of his daughters (under the name Olivia Wolf) doing “outlaw country,” and Tricia and Katie Gibbs in the more truly bluegrass Purple Glaze band. Mick’s daughter Avery, under the name Ismay, records for her grandfather’s Neanderthal Records label, as do other members of the extended family.
As always, HSB is admission-free and will feature 75 acts this year, along with ample food vendors. New in 2023 are a general store and a poetry set under the aegis of the City Lights Foundation. The tantalizing musical variety will showcase niche acts and up-and-comers as well as luminaries like rock songstress Rickie Lee Jones, soul icon Irma Thomas, sui generis performer Rufus Wainwright, and alt-country veterans Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, and Buddy Miller. And of course, there’s the beloved eternal festival closer, Emmylou Harris.
“Part of the genius of the festival is how things get mixed around,” says Mick, referencing the coming weekend’s roster. “You may show up to listen to Vetiver and find yourself also listening to Dry Branch Fire Squad or Peter Rowan. Or you might come for Jason Isbell and find yourself ending up with Emmylou. But I feel that the younger generation definitely wants to keep ahold of a strong bluegrass thread, and you’ll see artists representative of that generation, like Margo Cilker, Cassandra Lewis, Sierra Hull, and Sunny War.”
For the full festival information, including printable schedules and maps, go to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass website.