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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, SF’s midsummer festival, returns to Golden Gate Park in person

Alvi the Daisy Man sells flower headbands at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2019. | Jane Tyska/The Mercury News via Getty Images

For some, it is just a creeping realization that the days are getting shorter. For others, it’s the MLB All-Star Game or St. John’s Day. For many San Franciscans, it is Fogust.

But for as long as I can remember, the clearest indication that summer has crested and we are rolling inexorably into autumn is this question: Who do you think is playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?

The answer for 2022 is still TBD. However, we do know one thing: the festival is for sure happening in person this year—from Sept. 30 - Oct. 2. “We are thrilled to return to Golden Gate Park,” the official HSB website reads.

For the past two years, the Hardly Strictly guessing game has been largely moot. The long-running free festival—launched in 2001 by the late Warren Hellman, a financier and philanthropist who funded many local endeavors from The Bay Citizen to the San Francisco Free Clinic—was called off in 2020 and 2021 on account of the pandemic. Sure, organizers put together slates of streaming programming, but perhaps more than any other local music festival, the spirit of Hardly Strictly just doesn’t translate online.

That’s because while the festival regularly books a wide range of top-notch talent, the music is, in a way, secondary to the whole freewheeling vibe of the thing. Since it costs nothing to enter, and because you can bring all the beer, wine and food that you and your friends can shoulder, Hardly Strictly is more akin to a giant picnic than a music festival.

Michael 'The Coconut Guy' is a fixture at Dolores Park, but has also been spotted making the rounds at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. | Photo via Yelp

Even the die hards, who come with the intention of losing themselves in the performances, can easily get lost in conversation. Unless you’re right on top of the stage, the music being pumped through the festival speakers is often only as loud as a powerful boombox. The cool winds of the Pacific, the thick stands of blue gum eucalyptus and Monterrey cypress, and the steady hum of the crowd have a way of alternately dampening and drowning out all but the most raucous sets. Most attendees are simply there to socialize, bliss-out and hopefully flag down Michael the Coconut Guy for a deliciously potent rum drink.

All of this is to say that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is San Francisco’s official midsummer celebration—an occasion for all of the city and the wider region to come together, laugh, dance and generally be merry.

I'm stoked.

That’s partly because I’m a huge music fan. And in addition to the lesser-known and largely niche bluegrass pickers and folk-country troubadors that comprise the bulk of the bill, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival organizers always have a few delightful surprises up their sleeves.

When Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant took the stage in 2019, he opened with “When the Levee Breaks” and closed with “Ramble On”—two hard-rocking Zep classics. Back in October of 2013, Gogol Bordello tested the limits of the festival’s “Hardly Strictly” label, blasting out a set of high-energy caravan rock. And in 2014, Del the Funky Homosapien, DJ Kid Koala and producer Dan the Automator took the stage to perform songs from their 2000 masterpiece Deltron 3030.

But I’m also heartened by the return of the uniquely San Francisco HSB guessing game. I enjoy musing over who might headline this year’s party and reliving the wonderful times I’ve had in previous years. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve greatly missed this kind of low-stakes water cooler banter.

The folks behind Hardly Strictly seem to understand this sentiment. In keeping with tradition, they will once again reveal this year’s lineup via musical medleys posted to the official Hardly Strictly Bluegrass app. “We’ll give you a couple days to guess the artists before confirming their names,” the app says. “Challenge yourself not to cheat with Shazam/Soundcloud/etc!”

The practice is the festival’s way of playing along with what fans have always done over the later summer months here in the city. As we pass the time reflecting fondly on HSBs past, idly speculating about festivals future and making plans for staking out the perfect spot in Hellman Hollow or Lindley Meadow, something beautiful will happen:

The haze of Fogust will give way to the clearer skies and warmer nights of San Francisco’s magical Indian summer, and we’ll gather together for one last mega-picnic in Golden Gate Park before fall fades into winter.