As the saying goes for many experiences — you never forget your first.
Three days, six stages, hundreds of thousands of fans and a wide variety of music for no cost make the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival hard for any music lover to resist.
What began as the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in 2001 has expanded to welcome artists of many different genres, who in turn have drawn bigger, more diverse crowds. Since adding the “hardly” in 2004, acts like Los Angeles-based duo The Milk Carton Kids — on the Towers of Gold Stage at noon Oct.7 — have been given a chance to join the lineup.
“It’s affording us to do this tiny thing and have a place,” said Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids, who was reluctant to describe his own music as anything other than “impossibly quiet.”
Not only is it The Milk Carton Kids’ first time performing at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, it is also Ryan’s first time at the event. Despite attending UC Berkeley for four years, he was embarrassed to admit he’d never been to the festival, but looks forward to finally being a spectator.
“I’m looking forward to seeing people we admire perform,” he said. “I think it’s great. It’s a huge philanthropic effort. I wish there were more things like it.”
Seattle-based soulful rock band Pickwick will make its Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival debut this year as well. Vocalist Galen Disston has his own list of performers he’s excited to see during his down time.
“I’m looking forward to Reignwölf, Conor (Oberst Brings Friends for Friday) and of course Elvis Costello,” Disston said. “We just played with Heartless Bastards in Colorado. They’re awesome. I’ve liked what I’ve heard of The Milk Carton Kids, too.”
This will be Pickwick’s second time playing in San Francisco, and band members are looking forward to getting to know the city better.
“I expect to have a fully formed opinion of your city by the end of the month,” Disston said. “We’re really looking forward to the show and hope to meet some San Franciscans.”
Those who are regular attendees of the festival have learned that it is much more than something to do on the weekend that won’t break the bank.
“Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the finest free event in San Francisco,” said Michael Zavala, a theatre arts major. “I want to see everyone perform.”
It’s a chance to see all sorts of people, San Franciscan or otherwise, converge for the sake of enjoying great live music. Some fans can’t fathom a reason not to attend.
“I’ve gone to the bluegrass festival for the past three years,” Richelle Cullen, a sociology major, said. “It’s convenient, it’s close and it’s one huge party in the park. Who wouldn’t go?”
The festival also gives new San Franciscans — particularly new college students — an exciting and affordable opportunity to get a taste of the city’s culture and sound. Roommates Victoria Vajgrt and Ana Mora have never been to the festival and don’t really have a game plan, but are excited nonetheless.
“I hope to kind of see San Francisco, what it really is,” said Vajgrt, a first-year business and marketing major at SF State. “Just the diversity and cultures there, and just hear different types of music I haven’t been subjected to.”
Neither Vajgrt nor Mora would call themselves bluegrass fans, but going in with open minds, they expect to find something they’ll enjoy.
“I’m just looking forward to kind of discovering,” said Mora, a kinesiology major. “I’m not really used to listening to bluegrass, so I’m just kind of wanting to expose myself to it.”
The accessibility and free entry are certainly features of the festival that college students appreciate. Having attended the California Academy of Sciences’ free admission day, Vajgrt recognizes how valued free attractions are in the city.
“It kind of shows how bad the economy is,” she said. “People don’t have any money for extra things, but if it’s free, then people are way more willing to go to it.”
First-timers at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival should grab a map when they arrive and try to hit all six stages. Festival coordinators advise attendees to take public transportation, as parking will be limited.
For more information, download the HSB app for iPhone or Android or visit hardlystrictlybluegrass.com.