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Banker's dream fills Golden Gate Park with free music

  • Kinky Friedman and his band, The Texas Jewboys, will be making their first appearance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

A decade ago, San Francisco investment banker Warren Hellman had a wacky idea: he wanted to underwrite a free bluegrass festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

“We had no idea whether anybody would show up,” Hellman recalled from his office, with views of Angel Island. “And there were 20,000 people.”

The 10th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert, which has grown wildly since its inception in 2001, will take over Golden Gate Park from Friday, Oct. 1, through Sunday, Oct. 3

“People are coming from all over the world. Interest is compounding,” said Hellman, a managing director at San Francisco equity firm Hellman & Friedman.

There are all sorts of acts, from soul to Klezmer to rock, but the festival still seeks performers with more talent than fame.

Joining old-time bluegrass stalwarts Doc Watson, Hazel Dickens and Earl Scruggs are festival regulars Robert Earl Keen, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris.

Other bands sure to draw a crowd include Joan Baez, Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Indigo Girls and Patti Smith.

And Hellman, 76, will play as well, picking the banjo with his band, the Wronglers. This is no novelty act. Hellman has diligently worked to learn his instrument, and now the Wronglers play all over the country.

Kinky Friedman will make his festival debut, the Texas country singer who this summer made his first West Coast appearances in 20 years. He's known for humorous and satirical songs like “They Don't Make Jews like Jesus Anymore.” His band, the Texas Jewboys, will include festival regular Buddy Miller.

Friedman came to prominence in the mid-1970s when he opened for Bob Dylan. Today, many members of his audience are younger than his songs.

“They (young people) know me because I'm a folk hero, not a celebrity,” Friedman deadpanned. “If I were a celebrity I'd be richer.”

That's true of many of the acts on the bill — artists such as Richard Thompson, gritty Steve Earle and quirky Jonathan Richman (you saw him play guitar on the sidewalk in “There's Something About Mary”).

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