A Music Festival for Kids and Adults – That’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Genie Davis October 17, 2011 No Comments

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Golden Gate Park on a beautiful October day. Six stages. Alt-country, folk, rock, bluegrass, just plain eclectic music. Food stands with everything from pizza to raw vegan fare. Senior citizens in tie dye shirts. College students by the score. And lots and lots of – families. Families with small children, big children, babies, too.

Yes, you’ve found it, a fantastic, free music festival that welcomes all ages – from tots to teens to extended, multi-generational family groups. Shh, don’t tell the hipsters, but this may be one of the greatest family events of the year on the west coast.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Crowds

Yes there was a big crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Music Festival - but it was family friendly and mellow.

My family and I had the pleasure of enjoying a three day weekend this year in San Francisco at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in the Speedway Meadow area of Golden Gate Park. This is a perfect place to introduce children to a wide variety of great sounds. We saw babies in backpacks, toddlers bouncing joyously on inflatable air mattresses, school age kids carving out a picnic spot. Worried about sound volume? Some parents put protective headphones on their babes and toddlers; most just kept to the back of the commodious fields where the sound was more mellow to begin with. If you haven’t heard of this event, and you’re looking for some great sounds, a relaxed and homey atmosphere, and did I mention a family activity that is completely, totally free – put this one on your calendar for 2012.

If you’d like to pack your own picnic and make your own breakfast, do as we did and rent an apartment through a reputable listing service such as VRBO.com or HomeAway.com. If you pick a spot in the Richmond or Sunset districts, you may very well be able to walk into the park rather than driving or taking public transportation. But, no worries if you can’t walk in – we took public transportation across town one day, resulting in an easy and inexpensive bus ride; we drove the second, and while parking is limited, area schools and churches do offer up lot parking for a fee and we were able to find free street parking. We suspect many can if you come early enough in the day and don’t mind a little walking.

2011′s event was the 11th year for this low key festival, where  indie music fans mix easily with families, kids and playful puppies. This year 600,000 people attended, but don’t be put off – by the crowd. We stayed to the back of most shows and had plenty of room to spread out a picnic blanket and fare we trucked in from San Francisco’s Trader Joe’s. The festival is strung out along paved roads in the center of the park – closed to traffic for the event – in the park, and it’s easy to push strollers if you wish. While we saw many parents doing just that, others just picked up the smallest tots for shoulder rides or Snugli transport. We stayed at the event for most of the day both Saturday and Sunday, but feel free to come and go. Or just step out of the music scene for awhile and enjoy the ducks on nearby Lake Lloyd…or a walk to the serene pagodas and blossoms of the Park’s Japanese Gardens about fifteen minutes away heading toward downtown.  Head in the opposite direction, toward the sea for a half hour’s stroll, and you’ll find the park’s twin windmills, a Don Quixote-like landmark that kids always find fascinating.

But at the festival itself, restless kids are not an issue. There’s plenty of room for little ones to dance, and with a crowd and space this size, no one will object to singing along, dancing along, or just bouncing along to the music. Family favorites: gypsy bluegrass band Dvotchka which had everyone on their feet to dance; the soft folk lullabyes of traditional singer songwriter Gillian Welch; the upbeat folk rock of Gomez, the mystical mellow rock sound of U.K. favorites Elbow, and baby-boomer favorite, Robert Plant.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Picnics

Plenty of room for a picnic...

When it comes to food, if you don’t feel like packing in a picnic, vendor stalls offer a wide variety of food at each of the six stages. My kids enjoyed corn on the cob, raw vegan fruit pie, cheese pizza, and garlic fries; meat lovers can find plenty to nosh on, too. There’s no alcohol to buy although attendees are free to bring in their own fare. The lack of official drink vendors also keeps the event mellow.

I have only one caveat: porta-potties. The diaper set won’t be affected and school age children can cope as well as adults, but for toddlers past the diaper stage, you may want to talk through the porta potty process — and the use of paper seat covers – before necessity strikes. There are also a number of small cafes near the park where a food or beverage purchase will net you the use of a more standard restroom facility.

The event is paid for each year by businessman and billionaire Warren Hellman, as a gift to the city of San Francisco. The festival started in 2001, with Hellman sitting in on banjo with his favorite bluegrass bands. Hellman has provided a joyous event for all ages. My kids loved the music, the friendly crowd, the beautiful park, and we did not see a single unhappy child in the crowd. We’ll be back – and we hope to see your smiling faces along for the musical ride next year

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

Tags: , Reviews, Travel Excursions

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