Warren Hellman Music Tribute: The Road Goes on Forever…
Last Sunday a crowd that has been estimated up to 20,000 people gathered for seven hours in a large parking lot at Ocean Beach in San Francisco along with some of the best Americana artists in the business to pay tribute to Warren Hellman, the founder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Warren died of complications from leukemia treatments this past December. He was 77 years old. Warren’s passing is a huge loss to both the roots music community as well as to the Bay Area philanthropic community.
I am not going to take a lot of time to talk about the performances. You can go to www.strictlybluegrass.com and see the entire seven hours of music for yourself. Thanks to Roger McNamee at Moonalice, those enthusiasts who didn’t want to sit in traffic, navigate a circuitous route into San Francisco (the Bay Bridge was closed for repairs) or who wanted the best seat in the house – their own house, could watch the concert on their computers.
I’d would like to take a few minutes to talk about Warren Hellman and my few interactions with him over the past ten years. I wasted thirty three years in the advertising business and always made sure that I did something worthwhile with my life outside of “the business”. One of the things that I did was donate time to helping the University of California either raise money or with their marketing and advertising projects. One of the last projects I worked on with two advertising colleagues was the revamping of the alumni magazine. The first person we went to for both advice and financial assistance was Warren Hellman. I had known Warren from endurance running events in our younger athletic years.
When we were invited into his office I was immediately struck by the music memorabilia which dwarfed the pictures of Warren with famous politicians and dignitaries. I brought him a copy of Greil Marcus’s The Rose and the Briar and we talked music for most of the meeting. As we were getting ready to leave Warren mentioned “I’m having a meeting with my class reunion over at the Doe Library (on the UC Berkeley Campus) next week. Why don’t you come and join us. I’m bringing my favorite musician Hazel Dickens along with me”. I attended that meeting and it was extraordinary.
Last year I attended a small gathering of the Hellman Fellows at the Freight and Salvage nightclub during the day. Warren had provided financial assistance to renovate the club in the 2004 timeframe. The recipients of the Hellman Fellowships were announced and Warren didn’t waste anytime taking the stage with one of the many incarnations of the Wronglers – this one with Laurie Lewis – to show off his love of the banjo and bluegrass music. It was of course a special moment filled with Warren’s generosity, great music and some bad jokes. You could always count on Warren to give any project he undertook be it a financial venture, a horse event, a 100 mile endurance run or learning to play the banjo that he would train and practice until that challenge met his standards. That included taking up the banjo long after he had hung up his running shoes.
I also attended the University of California’s Annual Board of Trustee’s meeting last winter. The Chancellor’s Award is given to those who have gone beyond the call of duty to assist the University at this event each year. Last year Warren Hellman was honored with the Chancellors Citation. There were stories about his philanthropy and about his interaction with the University from student to ardent supporter of the arts, athletics and scholarships. It was a long overdue recognition. As I was leaving this event some students were playing bluegrass music on the median in the middle of Piedmont Avenue in front of the International House. I looked over and was surprised to see Warren playing his banjo in the middle of this impromptu performance. He couldn’t just listen to the music; he had to be a part of it.
I would see Warren a few more times at University events throughout 2011: of course my deepest admiration for him was his dedication to and vision for Hardly Strictly – what is certainly one of the greatest free three day concerts on the planet, if not the largest concert with the most integrity – which brings me to some unique observations about Hardly Strictly, the Hellman Music Tribute last week and Warren Hellman himself.
We live in truly remarkable times. I never in my life thought I’d witness the United States, let alone the University of California, enduring something as close to the Great Depression as I never want to experience again close to this again in my lifetime. People are hurting and the pain is going to continue. Not all people are hurting but a high percentage of the American population has been affected negatively by the 2008 financial downturn. I heard callers on the E-Street Nation on my way to work last Friday talking about Bruce Springsteen’s new cd and how their lives have been affected adversely by a loss of their jobs or foreclosure on their homes. It was difficult to listen to thinking about all the people I know that haven’t a clue what’s going on. So what does this have to do with Warren Hellman?
Warren was an investment banker and a one percenter who cared about others. You can go to his website and see his wit and wisdom. People who attended the concert last week could read about Warren’s life on a series of panels that hung on a fence alongside of the Great Highway. “What does move me is the philanthropic stuff,” he told Forbes Magazine in 2006. “Giving really does move me. Part of it is selfish. It’s fun to be appreciated. The the other part is good things really are growing.” “I can’t take myself too seriously. I realize that a huge percentage of everything is luck.”
Steve Earle said on Saturday that he was the person who converted Warren from being a Republican to a Libertarian. And like a lot of the performers Earle told it like it is with a new song about a WalMart employee who is fired and starts “thinking about burning it down….nothing will be the same in this town.” Earle introduced the song by saying “this will probably piss some people off..but probably not here.” Compassion, grace and great music has always been a hallmark of any Hardly Strictly concert.
I called Dawn Holliday who really is the person responsible for putting on Hardly Strictly each year. I was curious about her perspective of last Sundays event and what she saw in the cards for the Hardly Strictly Festival in years ahead. Dawn didn’t sound exhausted or tired over the phone, in fact, quite to the contrary she sounded excited and upbeat. The concert was an ‘incredible success” that went off without incident in much the same spirit as the three day concert each year. I asked how the groups were selected. Dawn explained that there were many acts who offered to perform and ultimately due to time it came down to “those groups who Warren loved and those who loved Warren.” Like all Hardly Strictly festivals there was always one group in particular that caught my ear. At this particular event last Saturday it was the Old Crow Medicine Show who Dawn informed me had appeared over the years at Warren’s Sugar Bowl concerts as well as HSB.
I asked Dawn about the future of Hardly Strictly which is on the minds of a lot of festival attendees. I mentioned that when Bill Graham died unexpectedly in a helicopter accident that his concerts became big business events…faceless and lacking in his personal touch. Dawn assured me that Hardly Strictly is going to continue and is a totally different operation than Bill Graham Presents. “Warren would show up on Friday with a glint in his eye and a hot dog and be surprised by who he heard at the festival.” She went on to say “we plan on continuing to surprise Warren.” She urged people to visit the website which as of Thursday afternoon already had 30,000 visits. One thing that struck me as ironic was the closing number of the festival that was performed by a wide range of Warren’s children and grandchildren. Dawn mentioned that they had to rehearse that song over and over in very blustery, sand blown conditions at the Saturday sound check. The closing number that they chose was “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” This song was first recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928 and describes a hobo’s idea of paradise: “cigarette trees” and “streams of alcohol” and a “lake of whiskey.” not to mention a place free of railroad bulls who harassed depression era hobos. It was a true dust bowl ballad that has been sanitized over time and made listener friendly for kids but I’m certain that Warren appreciated and empathized with the original lyrics. It was a rousing and charming way to end what has essentially been a family affair over the years.
In closing I’d add to what Dawn said about the event being beyond everybody’s wildest imagination of what Warren would have wanted. It not only captured the heart and soul of HSB but it each act was surprisingly spot on in their tributes. You can watch the video and make up your own mind who was the most remarkable. For me, Buddy Miller never disappoints me in terms of being one of the most soulful singers playing any kind of music today. Steve Earle’s voice sounded as good as I’ve ever heard it over the past fifteen years. Boz Scaggs turned in a surprising set of his own particular brand of the blues – one of my personal favorite genres. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were stellar and their closing a cappella version of “Go to Sleep You Little Baby” with Emmylou Harris was sublime. Sparking mild weather, a spectacular winter day on the beach with heavenly music….nothing but the best for Warren.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Warren. When asked why he poured hundred of thousands of dollars into Hardly Strictly each year….his “selfish gift” to the musicians and the community he loved, Warren responded: “How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if not for something like that?” I don’t think he’ll get any arguments from No Depression readers.