They’re probably the least famous band at this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Some didn’t take up instruments until a year ago. But chances are, when the Go To Hell Man Clan takes the Rooster stage in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, it’ll likely get a response as enthusiastic as any of the big name stars.
This variety show band of adopted bluegrass is courtesy of the children, grandkids and musical friends of the late Warren Hellman, the billionaire investment banker/banjo player who founded the free festival 14 years ago. As a tribute to Hellman, who died several years ago, the family has worked up a set of music he might’ve wanted to plunk along with.
“I like to think it was something he would’ve embraced,” said son Mick Hellman, who is also the band's drummer. “Especially seeing his grandchildren out there playing. I think it would’ve meant a lot, a huge amount to him.”
On Thursday night in a San Francisco rehearsal studio, the family band ran through a dozen tunes – with blocks of musicians rotating on and off the stage for each song.
“Everybody’s got their song,” said daughter Tricia Hellman Gibbs. “It brings us close to our father in a way, even though he’s not here, it feels like it is.”
The group will take its slot among more famous groups like Social Distortion, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. But there are no illusions the Go To Hell Man Clan would’ve made it to the bright lights of the big stage without the family connection.
“It’s because we’re his family and we know that,” said Hellman Gibbs. “But it doesn’t mean we don’t try really hard.”
An avid bluegrass fan, Hellman often called the festival the “world’s most selfish gift.” Though his prowess on the banjo was, shall we say decent, he happily took the stage to play along with some of the festival’s famous acts – including his own band, the Wronglers.
“I really think it was a way for him to express himself,” said grandson Sam Gibbs, “and get in touch with a different side of himself than he could do in investment banking.”
Hellman left behind an endowment to keep the festival going for years. His family now has taken–up the torch to see it continues.
“It wound up being really important carrying on the festival,” said Mick Hellman, “and carrying on the music.”
The festival runs through Sunday in what’s now officially named Hellman’s Hollow in the park. In addition to five stages – festival organizers has added a small museum of Hellman’s memorabilia – along with a small stage where family members will perform smaller sets.
“I think it kind of keeps him alive in a way,” said granddaughter Ruthie Gibbs. “It really moves me every year.”