Warren Hellman wore a sparkly jacket and loved bluegrass. He did other notable things — set up Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, created the Bay Citizen, made San Francisco a measurably more wonderful place — but those two details were astutely remembered Sunday as the biggest names in bluegrass gathered to say goodbye and thanks for living.
On Sunday, crowds remembered him with banjo picking, blanket picnicking and kites whipping in the ocean breeze. Audiences smashed onto the Great Highway paved lots — much less comfortable than the grass of Hellman’s Hollow — while the gruff and lovely tones of the performers rang out in memory of just one guy.
“When I go, don’t cry for me,” Buddy Miller sang as he closed his early-afternoon set. “In my father’s arms I’ll be. It don’t matter where you bury me — I’ll be home and I’ll be free.”
For a concert thrown together in about two months, Sunday’s sets ran seamlessly together and bounced crowds back and forth between the two facing stages like a slow-motion tennis match, one performer observed. But in each set, short as they were, the singers had a chance to remember various aspects of Hellman’s long life.
Dry Branch Fire Squad broke out of their guitar-bass-mandolin jams to do a sweet gospel number in honor of Hellman’s love of the simple melodies, citing Hellman as saying that “with gospel songs, it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s what you hear.”
Later, Buddy Miller was joined on stage by Hardly Strictly diva and staple Emmylou Harris for a rousing round of “Burning the Midnight Oil.” But the rest of Miller’s set was more thoughtful, with lyrics whose overtones kept a more rough and somber mood.
But Gillian Welch and David Rawlings brought back the sparkle with rhinestone-studded matching orange outfits in honor of Hellman’s iconic rhinestoned jacket that he sported just months ago when he played at the fall festival.
“We broke out the bling for Warren,” Welch said. “He did like bling.”
When the duo took to slow ballads like “Hard Times” and “That’s The Way That It Goes,” the resignation was sad and peaceful. But when they stomped things up in thumpers like “Six White Horses” and “I’ll Fly Away,” audiences remembered it was a celebration of a life. (Plus, Harris popped up again to do “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” of “O Brother Where Art Thou” fame, and it was delicious.)
Old Crow Medicine Show delivered — that is, they played “Wagon Wheel,” much to the content of hearts in the audience. But the rest of their set seemed a bit out of place. Rather than remembering Hellman, the band slumped through a cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Wrong memorial, perhaps? Plus, the upbeat ’80s tune didn’t translate well and instead the “somebody — oooh” refrain felt like it was dragging through saltwater taffy. But they hit their stride in what they do best: quick-paced reels and jaunty tunes like “New Virginia Creeper” and “Tell It To Me.”
We can’t lie: the whipping ocean winds started to get particularly icy after 4:30 p.m., and we jetted after that set. What we saw, though, was a lovely afternoon (and lucky weather) framing a heartfelt remembrance of a man who, in simple terms, did good for the city. See you all at Hardly Strictly next fall.
Old Crow Medicine Show — Tell It To Me (download)
Gillian Welch — Six White Horses (download)