That Time at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass that Lucius Made Me Cry


From my post guarding backstage access to the Porch stage, I watched the festival gates open at 10:00 am and release a torrent of eager concert-goers who surged down JFK drive like the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, trotting stiffly but with fierce determination, trailing foldable fabric wagons full of festival and picnicking gear, sparse but longish grey hair floating behind like the sputtering flame of a rocket past its prime, and focused with unwavering steely-eyed squints on that perfect lawn spot they couldn't yet see but knew the exact location because they had promised themselves that this year, by god, it would be theirs. The goal for all these dedicated concert-goers was to be in their spot with festival gear set up in time to see Emmylou do her soundcheck. This was Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2022, a local, free, and, in spite of the fact that people fly in from all over to be there, very San Francisco music festival.

As the title clearly explains, the music played at the festival is mostly bluegrass but other genres are also welcome. That being said most of the other types of music heard at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB from here on out) are bluegrass adjacent like folk, Americana, and blues. You aren't likely to find any Norwegian death metal or EDM, for example. The festival has been going on annually since its creation in 2001 by Warren Hellman, a hedge fund manager who is sadly no longer with us. The crowd is all over the map, demographically speaking, but tends toward older and crunchier, tie-dye and gray beards are in abundance. Dan Gentile of SF Gate ( Source ) described the vibe as "Never in my life have I seen so many people over the age of 60 smoking weed." However, don't take that to mean that the crowd was all old or all intoxicated - there are no alcohol sales at HSB- in fact, there are probably more children than at any other music festival. And dogs. Children and dogs both contribute to the homey atmosphere.

"Never in my life have I seen so many people over the age of 60 smoking weed."

At its best, a music festival is more than just a concert. It's more than just a gathering. It's a communal event where the participants are not just entertained but also share a special moment. They have seen, heard, felt, and been involved in something of the goodness of being human. The music, of course, is the key to this. Live music brings people together. You hear an amazing thing and then cheer, clap, whistle, and share your joy with the person next to you via smiles, high fives, or even a leaping chest bump, depending on the requirements of the genre (leaping chest bumps not generally the celebratory interaction of choice for bluegrass adjacent music-but you do you).

A festival takes a live music event to the next level - to 11, if you will. It not only has the powerful effects of a live concert, but back-to-back-to-back concerts and layered on top of that the shared struggle of festival logistics. Possibly even shared misery. In fact, there may be an inverse relationship with shared misery and the importance of the festival. I mean, the most famous music festival in history was beset by bad weather, difficulties getting the artists to the stage, and dangerous brown acid. HSB 2022 had none of those problems, but shared logistical challenges of multiple acts and stages, and coordinating with friends are inevitable:
"Who are you seeing next?"
"Well I was thinking of seeing the Sparkly Bonbons but it's a hike to get there and after that, I want to get back to see Fred the Monkey Tamer which means I'd have to rush back, but, you know, I need to make sure I'm early to the Flying Halo Stage because I HAVE to get a great spot for Mark's Dead Grandmother's House because they're absolutely the BOMB! I also have to meet up with Duggy and Sheena at 2:00 at the Greener Grass Stage, and then Ted, Bob, and Alice at 5:00 for food trucks."

During the COVID years, 2020 and 2021, HSB had virtual events. It was nice that they could still share the gift of music but 'streaming' and 'music festival', I think, are almost opposites. That the world shut down for those two years isn't news to anyone. We heard about the virus at the end of winter in 2020. We sat and watched with growing apprehension as it slowly destroyed its way around the world. First, it was China, then Europe, then it started killing people in Seattle and New York. We became more and more isolated as we watched refrigerator trucks on TV manage the overflow of bodies and sat helpless as our government screwed up one thing after another. We couldn't see our families; we couldn't gather; We couldn't hug; we couldn't go to work or hang out with friends. Events were canceled. All of them.

Humans aren't solitary creatures. We need our contact. Health, happiness, and even longevity are strongly correlated with community and interaction with other humans. The virus temporarily broke our ability to be human.

We persisted though; science won out in the end. We had protocols and treatments. We got a vaccine and then another, and another, and then boosters. Now we're out of the pandemic. It was a shocking and sudden entry into isolation and a slower, tentative, jerky, apprehensive climb out. Many perennial events substituted virtual for live to varying, mostly limited, degrees of success.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival was enthusiastically welcomed when it came back live in 2022 and had, by all accounts, a joyous and neighborly vibe. People genuinely missed it the last two years. "Everything that happened before made this year so much more meaningful," Sheri Sternberg the executive producer of the event told Sfist (Source ), "The fans have been kinder to each other, the music has been sweeter, and everyone is grateful." Chuck Ponder, the emcee of the Rooster Stage said "The performers are happy to see each other. It's like a family reunion," as reported by the SF Chronicle ( Source ).

I worked security at the event. The first day I was away from the music as gate guard for the first responder HQ. Day two I guarded backstage access to the Porch Stage. The final day, Sunday, I was working at the Towers of Gold Stage and the Swan Stage. Those two stages were set up facing opposite directions with a big backstage area in between that contained facilities and room for the artists: bathrooms, picnic benches, piles of gear, entourages, and the all-important security (me). The schedule was such that while one stage was rocking the other would be setting up for the next artist. I had the very important and challenging job of making sure no one who didn't belong went up the stairs onto the Towers of Gold Stage. The hard part about this job was…well…nothing. The stair was already in a backstage area and only those legitimately working went up them. All I really had to do was stand there and look pretty, I mean, intimidating. The bands that played Sunday afternoon while I worked so hard were: The Seratones, Amythyst Liah, Lucius, and Marcus Mumford.

If you haven't heard Lucius you should.

If you haven't heard Lucius you should. The band has four members but the focus is the two women, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who dress alike (not sure that's an important detail, but it's part of their image) and have powerfully beautiful harmonies. Their music is generally indie or folk-pop with some disco infusion in their latest made-during-the-pandemic album.

I was dutifully stationed in my assigned spot while they warmed up. Once they started I drifted up the side of the stage towards the front and the crowds. I couldn't see much but I could hear clearly, I was literally feet away from the wall of speakers, albeit to the side. After playing a couple songs they announced that their good friend Marcus Mumford would be joining them on stage.

Mumford, who is best known for the theme song to Ted Lasso, was to be the next act after Lucius. Later, when he did his own set, he was very complimentary about HSB calling it "fucking awesome". He also said something I thought was consistent with the overall feel of the festival, "I'm feeling very grateful right now."

They stumbled a bit when starting the song with Mumford, and one of the ladies casually said "Let's start again." I thought that somehow made it more intimate, like it's just a bunch of friends hanging out in the living room in front of the fire having a bit of a sing-along. The restart drew us in, made us more of a part of it, and built up the anticipation of the song to come.

They started again.

They started again. The song they were singing was Strangers, a 50-year-old Kinks song with lyrics that were perfect for the context.

"'Til peace we find, tell you what I'll do, all the things I own I will share with you."

Great description of what musicians do, I thought. The sound of their three voices braided beautifully together, becoming something more powerful than the sum of their parts. They were sharing a gift with us. But it wasn't an us and them, it was all of us together. Lucius has been known for going into the audience and singing a song from amongst the crowd (which they did later in their set). With Mumford they sang,

"…strangers on this road we are on, we are not two we are one."

And it hit me. Lucius and Mumford weren't just entertaining us. It was as if they were telling us, showing us, inviting us, and giving us permission to be human again after the dehumanizing nightmare of the pandemic.

I was overwhelmed with several strong emotions but, surprisingly, the strongest of which was relief. I cried. I did. Not sobby, snotty, ugly crying, but there were tears. Standing near me was a woman who I had noticed earlier chasing after a beautiful child with bright blue eyes. I glanced over at her and saw that she was welling up as well. She looked at me and gave me back an embarrassed knowing smile. We knew we were sharing something bigger, and we turned back to watch the show. And I left the stair to guard itself for a bit.

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Micle harison

June 7, 2019

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John Doe

June 7, 2019

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