Has Hardly Strictly Bluegrass become overwhelmed by crowds?
One festival-goer found too many people at the big acts, but a pleasanter experience at a smaller stage.
One of my favorite moments ever with my oldest daughter unfolded three years ago at the Swan Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, San Francisco's free annual music festival in Golden Gate Park.
Eighties pop icon Cyndi Lauper was performing a mix of her hits and Patsy Cline covers to an ebullient crowd who knew all the words to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
When Lauper launched into "True Colors," my daughter wrapped her arms around me, smashing her cheek against mine as we belted out the song, tears streaming down our faces.
It was her favorite song at the time sung by one of my favorite childhood artists. It was Hardly Strictly Bluegrass perfection.
This year my husband and I brought our youngest, 6-year-old Julia, to the festival on Saturday afternoon in search of a similar moment, but instead we mostly fought an overwhelmingly large crowd.
Our first mistake was to take Lyft. Our car got caught in gridlock traffic on Lincoln Avenue running along the south side of the park, and a ride that should take only 15 minutes from our house turned into 45. We arrived grumpy and wishing we had ridden bikes.
The line to pass through the new security implemented this year moved swiftly, but once we got into the event space, the crowd of tens of thousands of people swelled to the point where you were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people just to get around. The festival has always been crowded, but on a sunny day with perfect weather, it seemed to reach a new level of discomfort.
Our second mistake was to go the Towers of Gold stage, the largest of the performance spaces featuring the star acts. My husband and I wanted to see a mashup of Iron & Wine and Calexico, followed by headliner Robert Plant — and so did everyone else. The crowd spilled over into the pathways and people were sitting in the dirt far from earshot of the stage. Many were up against the new perimeter fencing installed this year as part of increased security. Clearly, if we wanted to catch the music at this stage, we should have shown up early in the morning to stake out a spot.
A half-hour-plus of squeezing through the edge of the crowd finally brought us to a point where my daughter could see, but not hear, the band. Many others were pushing their way trying to get to the main grassy area, but we quickly gave up.
People were frustrated screaming, "Stop stepping on my blanket!" "Why isn't anybody happy here?" "Why is everybody so mean?" "There are too many people here!" (Yes, it's true there were too many people, but it's hard to complain when you're not paying a dime.)
A woman next to us was cupping her ears, trying to block out the chatter from the crowd and take in some music.
And then my daughter said, "Mama, I have to go to the bathroom."
While my husband waited in a line 50 people long for a burrito, my daughter and I ventured to the port-o-potties, where we found more lines. We passed the time playing Simon Says and before we knew it others were joining in. This was fun.
We decided to skip Robert Plant and instead opted to go to the smaller Rooster Stage where we easily found a grassy space to eat and watch music. Julia twirled to the sounds of bluegrass music played by Americana stalwart Buddy Miller, fiddler Dirk Powell, and bluegrass great Stuart Duncan, and I joined her when the band played a Dolly Parton cover.
Finally, we had done something right and we were having a moment.
Lesson learned. Either arrive early to see the big acts, or head for the smaller stage if you're not making it an all-day event.
Amy Graff is a digital editor for SFGATE. Email her at [email protected]