Dirt spills into my sneakers and puffs up in small, dry whorls as I slide down the hillside grove of fragrant eucalyptus. Dust mingles with the vegetal bite of pot, filling my nostrils and laying a soft film over my hair and clothing. In the meadow below, waves of bodies surge and swirl.
Atop rumpled blankets cordoning off nebulous territorial claims, girls in flowing floral skirts and crop tops dip and sway. Wending my way through the crowd, I settle for a corner view of the stage and pop the cork of my 7-Eleven $5 bottle of sparkling wine. Two sips and halfway through a Deltron 3030 song, a man with shockingly blond dreads leans over and asks if I know anyone interested in buying some shrooms. I tell him I don’t, but that he’s sure to find several takers without too much trouble. We chat a bit and he introduces himself, but the name gets tangled in the noise of the crowd and never reaches my ear.
Liquid brass and the sweet strain of strings from the 3030 Orchestra pours from the stage. A powerful chorus builds, buoying the steady stream of hip-hop coursing out of the speakers and across the crowd. The cheap wine fizzes and flows through me in measured step with the music. The final notes hang in the afternoon haze, prickling like static. There’s an eruption of cheers and whistles.
The staccato pluck of guitar strings seeps through the trees and churn of bodies migrating to different stages or rummaging through coolers. A buddy of my new friend, the dreadlocked blond, takes a swig from a flask bottle of Jameson, throws his arms up and his head back roaring, “This shit is still free! This SHIT is still FREE!” People around us laugh and clap. Inspired, Dreadlocks pulls out his ukulele adorned in wood-burned swoops and begins swinging:
Cigarettes and whiskey and wiiiiild, wild women. They’ll driiiive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane…
A few verses in and the lot of us are holding our bottles aloft, belting out the chorus like crusty barflies. As the song subsides, a tall, thin man with a chipped front tooth and a face swallowed by oversized sunglasses ambles over and makes an offering of a blunt to the group. Jameson eagerly partakes, but Dreadlocks, eyes closed, continues softly strumming and humming.
I set to wandering and head past the concert thoroughfare where the crowd converges and flows past one another. Distance-warped voices projected from speakers on one stage collide with the fading, rapid flutter of banjo strings on another. Sun oozes through the eucalyptus as it dips lower in the sky, casting a gilded veil across the park and the crush of revelers in the meadows below.
Fully subsidized by Warren Hellman since its inception in 2001, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an annual free concert in Golden Gate Park stretching over three days and multiple stages. No sponsors, no obnoxious signs and giveaways. Although it started as a “strictly bluegrass” music affair, the range of performers over the years brought with it the addition of “hardly.”