In the green, wooded grounds of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, in an area recently renamed 'Hellman Hollow,' the stages of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival rose this week from the dewy meadows.
Some 800,000 people are expected to turnout this weekend to watch 60 top bluegrass-and-beyond acts playing on six stages – in what’s become one of the world’s most unique musical events. But amid the hubbub, one absence will be acutely noted.
This will be the first festival without the festival’s founder, benefactor and occasional banjo player, Warren Hellman. The billionaire financier and former president of Lehman Brothers died in December of leukemia, leaving the festival without its champion and biggest fan.
“It’s very bittersweet -- mostly bitter -- doing this without Warren Hellman,” said Jonathan Nelson, who co-founded the festival with Hellman. “We miss him terribly.
Hellman and his family left behind a parting gift for the thousands of fans who flock to the meadows every October -- an endowment to keep the festival going for at least several more years. But the 12-year-old festival, which Hellman bankrolled himself, will be without its jean-clad, banjo-playing founder who was beloved by attendees, while obliterating all notions of what a one-per center looked and acted like.
“He didn’t have any other ulterior motives,” said Hellman’s sister, Nancy Hellman Bechtle. “He wasn’t trying to run for office. He wasn’t trying to earn money. He just was doing it as a gift to himself and everybody else.”
Hellman often called the festival, “the world’s most selfish gift,” because he got to rub elbows with his musical idols like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Earl Scruggs and Gillian Welch. In past years, Hellman would even take the stage himself, playing banjo with headliners and his own group, the Wronglers.
“I don’t think he cared there were 250,000 people out there watching him,” said Hellman Bechtle. “I think the only thing he cared about was playing the banjo well.”
Hellman’s beloved banjos are on display this week in an exhibit devoted to the festival’s fallen founder, behind Slim’s Nightclub in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Interviews with Hellman from throughout the festivals years played on a video loop. Walls were lined with festival posters and photos of the many musicians who played the festival. In a glass case, Hellman’s stage jacket decorated with a Star of David, sat next to a Gibson banjo imprinted with his name.
For three days starting on Friday, in the woods recently renamed for Hellman, hundreds of thousands will turn-out to once again enjoy Hellman’s “selfish gift.”
“I think that’s a great thing he gave us,” said festival operations manager Eliote Durham, “a tribute to his spirit.”
The bluegrass festival is Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Golden Gate Park. The "Warren Museum" is at 1479A Folsom St. and is open until Oct. 10 from 2 p.m. to 2 p.m.