Warren Hellman Public Celebration
February 19, 2012
Better than: Watching the live stream at home on your laptop.
Some of the nation's top roots musicians gathered together yesterday with Bay Area music fans to celebrate Warren Hellman, the billionaire bluegrassman who founded San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as a gift to the city. Hardly Strictly is a must-see event that draws more than half a million people to Golden Gate Park every October for performances by world-class artists like John Doe, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Emmylou Harris. These artists were also among the dozen acts who came to Ocean Beach yesterday as a tribute to Hellman, who passed away in December. An extraordinary individual who valued family, music, philanthropy, and independent spirit above all else, the banjo-picking financier was a true California pioneer.
At the Banjo Stage, Buddy Miller busted out his huge-sounding country blues with an intimate combo that featured an upright bass. Miller's a curious talent: His sound marries a kind of post-Skynyrd Southern rock with old-school country. His roots are raw, and his guitar-playing is rich with emotion. A number of concertgoers reflected on his epic jams at last fall's Hardly Strictly with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, a festival highlight.
Hardly Strictly queen Emmylou Harris joined Miller on stage for a rousing version of the Dolly Parton/Porter Wagoner chestnut, "Burning the Midnight Oil." She opened with a joke: "If a man locks his wife and his dog in the trunk of a car and comes back an hour later, who's gonna be happy to see him?" Ahh, country humor. Beats wanting to get beat by Chris Brown, I guess.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings suited up for the occasion in their "bling" outfits, as they put it. They looked like they could top a Grand Ole Opry wedding cake. Their music, as always, was potent. New tunes like "The Way It Goes," a dark ode to despair and resignation, felt like instant classics, deeply familiar (even to the uninitiated) and readymade for collective empathy (i.e., singalongs). Beyond this tune, the duo's set leaned toward their more upbeat material -- "Look at Miss Ohio," "Elvis Presley Blues" -- culminating with the soaring spiritual "I'll Fly Away." The thousands packed into the Ocean Beach parking lot waved their hands in the air and shouted to the sunny sky above: "When I die/ Hallelujah, by and by/ I'll fly away!" It was a transcendent moment for believers and nonbelievers alike.
Old Crow Medicine Show was the last band we were able to see before catching the N Judah back home. Arguably the hottest group on the roots scene today, Old Crow pared itself down to a quartet for this performance, but that didn't limit their fire. They punched up the energy with hot fiddle numbers like "Johnny Get Your Gun" and goodtime chuggers like "Virginia Creeper," which couples a countrified lilt with a doo-wop chorus. In a gracious nod to Whitney Houston, the Nashville homeboys gave her earliest MTV hit, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," a backporch treatment that made us realize how impeccable Houston's melodies really are (especially with mandolin in the arrangement).
There's something about this kind of music and how it's presented at Hardly Strictly events that brings people of all stripes together. Strangers share blankets, pass around flasks, ring arms, and kick up their heels as one. Even jaded hipsters get caught up in the sweetness. There's a spirit of humanity that can't be overstated. It's rare -- and it's a testament to the magnanimous personality of Warren Hellman, whose presence lives on in the music he so loved.