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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: A guide to San Francisco’s favorite free music festival

Theresa Vitanza buys a headband from Alvaro Ramirez during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 2022. | Brian Feulner for The Standard | Source: Brian Feulner for The Standard

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, San Francisco’s favorite free music festival, is like slipping into a pair of old Levi’s: familiar and perfectly worn in.

But that’s not to say there’s nothing new this year at the three-day, not-only-bluegrass festival that draws some half a million spectators to Golden Gate Park.

For the first time, the festival will have its own general store selling sundries, in addition to food and drink vendors. And the all-new Horseshoe Hill Stage will replace the Bandwagon Stage to include non-musical entertainment—like puppet shows and poetry readings—organized by founder Warren Hellman’s grandchildren, the festival’s Executive Producer Sheri Sternberg said. 

The 34 confirmed acts so far include returning favorites such as Steve Earle, the Dustbowl Revival and Carrie Rodriguez, as well as big-name first-timers like Rufus Wainwright and the Heavy Heavy. Two additions to the lineup announced Wednesday morning are a medley of artists celebrating Doc Watson’s 100th birthday and the Brooklyn outfit the Lone Bellow.

While not yet officially included in the festival’s series of teasers announcing artists, festival stalwart Emmylou Harris will also be performing this year.

“She is our bedrock,” Sternberg said. “She keeps this on her calendar for us every year.”

Sternberg is also excited for Irma Thomas, the 85-year-old legendary soul singer from New Orleans, Americana singer John Craigie, and Leyla McCalla and Rickie Lee Jones, who are both performing for the first time at the festival.

After virtual festivals in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, the festival exploded back with pent-up enthusiasm in 2022 with a lineup that included Elvis Costello, Talking Heads guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison and, of course, Emmylou Harris.

“It was so amazing to be there last year,” Sternberg said. “It was like a big sigh of relief.”

Organizers hope to keep that momentum rolling in 2023 by building on the success of last year. So dust off your boots and roll out your tie-dye blanket—here are the essentials for planning your weekend of free music.

Michael (no last name given) dances in the crowd as Moonalice performs during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2019 in Golden Gate Park. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

When To Arrive

You can gain access to the park as early as 11 a.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Plan to arrive early if you want a choice spot.

Where To Enter

With the addition of new fence lines, the festival will not be accessible via side paths. Instead, there are four possible entrances: John F. Kennedy Drive and Transverse Drive, Fulton Street and 30th Avenue, John F. Kennedy Drive and 36th Avenue, and the South Polo Fields. Insider tip: For shorter lines and faster access, head to either the less-subscribed John F. Kennedy Drive and 36th Avenue and South Polo Fields entrances.

If you have mobility issues, visit the Accessibility Ambassadors, who will set up in a tent at 36th Avenue and John F. Kennedy Drive. They will be distributing accessibility wristbands to allow for transit by golf cart for individuals with mobility issues.

Stan Vilensky writes poems for concertgoers at a typewriter during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 2022. | Brian Feulner for The Standard

How To Get There

Don’t drive to the festival, unless you want to spend your day circling for parking instead of hearing the acts, with closures along John F. Kennedy Drive further complicating your route. There is limited parking—and a shuttle service—for those with disabilities along John F. Kennedy Drive.

Paid parking may be available at local schools on a first-come, first-served basis. The following locations were open last year and are expected to be options again this year: George Washington High School, Jefferson Elementary School, Lawton Alternative School and Lafayette Elementary School.

But your best bet is to ditch the car altogether and take public transit or your bike. While the bike valet service is no longer available and you can’t ride your bike onto festival grounds, you can lock up in a designated bike parking zone.

Ride-sharing will have specific pick-up and drop-off zones. Drop-offs will be around Washington High School on 30th Avenue between Anza and Balboa streets and on Balboa Street between 30th and 31st avenues; pickups will be at the same locations as well as Irving between 25th and 27th avenues.

What To Bring

Don’t forget your blanket! The best way to enjoy the festival is to spread out a soft landing and park in one spot for the day. But make sure your spread is no larger than 8 feet by 10 feet—and don’t leave it unattended for more than an hour, or it could get confiscated.

Toting a clear backpack will allow you to move more quickly through security, and you can bring in one that’s larger—up to 22 by 15 by 10 inches. Regular bags are also allowed, but you’ll be limited to a smaller size: 6 by 8 by 3 inches. Small coolers, hydration packs and refillable water bottles are also permissible. You are allowed to bring alcohol—beer and wine only—into the park, as long as it’s not in glass containers. There will be food and beverage vendors inside the festival but no alcohol sales.

You can also bring Fido, as long as your canine is on a leash and comfortable around large crowds and loud music.

Allison Russell performs during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. | Brian Feulner for The Standard

What To Leave at Home

Don’t bring large coolers (they’re not allowed) or high-backed folding chairs (you’ll piss off your neighbors). Low-profile camping chairs and small, soft-sided coolers get the OK.

No need to bring cash, since the festival has officially gone cashless (all major debit and credit cards are accepted at merch and food vendors).

Can’t take the crowds? The Swan and Towers of Gold stages will be streaming live on HSB TV and also on the festival’s website.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 

🗓️ Sept. 29, Sept. 30, Oct. 1
📍 Hellman Hollow, Lindley Meadow and Marx Meadow, Golden Gate Park
🔗 Visit website