By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most celebrated music festivals in the Bay Area and the nation, the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass brings a free three-day cornucopia of music to Golden Gate Park this weekend. Now in its 19th year, Hardly Strictly was founded and financed in 2001 by venture capitalist Warren Hellman. The free public concert was held on a single day and initially focused strictly on traditional acoustic bluegrass, but over time, the wide diversity of music the festival encompassed — including punk, world music, New Orleans funk, rock and soul — led organizers to add “Hardly” to the name by 2004.

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The festival would expand during the decade that followed, growing to extend over a full three days and include a special children’s program for San Francisco elementary school students every year. While the festival’s benefactor passed away in December of 2011, he left an endowment that would ensure that Hardly Strictly would continue for at least ten years following his death. San Francisco’s Rec and Parks Department named the site of the festival Hellman’s Hollow in his honor.

Golden hour light through the trees at the Rooster Stage (Dave Pehling)

For this 19th edition to the festival, some big changes are in the works. Due to security concerns in the modern world (particularly in the wake of the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival), for the first time the festival will have four secured checkpoints for attendees to enter as well as new restrictions as to what will be allowed inside Golden Gate Park. The four entrances to the park — at JFK Drive and Transverse Drive, Fulton Street and 30th Avenue, JFK Drive and 36th Avenue and the South Polo Field — will be open starting at 9 a.m. each day where festival goers will be subject to search prior to entry.

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Among the items that will no longer be allowed at the festival are hard alcohol, hard-sided coolers, large backpacks, high-backed chairs and glass containers. Additionally, Hardly Strictly has instituted new bag requirements similar to other paid music festivals, football stadiums and arenas. Only clear plastic backpacks will be allowed into the park and even small soft-sided coolers (9″ x 6″ x 3″) will only be allowed if being used for medical or child care needs. Any restricted or oversized items will be turned away at all entry points, so to avoid the frustration of having to return things to your car (or worse, abandon them altogether), check the festival update page and FAQ page carefully. Given that less people will be bringing food given the restrictions, Hardly Strictly will also be expanding the number of food vendors on site this year.

Returning regular guests at the festival include legendary vocalist and annual HSB closer Emmylou Harris, political firebrand Steve Earle, British rock legend and Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant (playing with his band, the Sensational Shape Shifters), Texas tunesmiths Jimmie Dale GilmoreJoe Ely and Butch Handcock (once again performing together with their reunited early ’70s band, the Flatlanders), guitar wizard Buddy Miller presenting his annual Cavalcade of Stars, perennial bluegrass traditionalists Dry Branch Fire Squad, Laurie Lewis and Poor Man’s Whiskey, Jefferson Airplane offshoot and pioneering jam band Hot Tuna Electric, noted U.K. songwriter Jon Langford (bringing a Welsh men’s choir for his Skull Orchard project) and local roots-rock favorite Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express. Another returning artist will be mandolin virtuoso and former Nickle Creek member Chris Thiele, who will be recording an edition of his NPR show “Live From Here” that took over the spot of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Towers of Gold Stage on Friday afternoon with guests Grace Potter and Kenyan singer/songwriter J.S. Ondara.

A sprawling line-up of over 80 acts will perform on the festival’s seven stages between Friday and Sunday (not including a number of paid nighttime concerts happening at various venues around the Bay Area as part of the Hardly Strictly Out of the Park series starting Thursday night). Some of the headliners include modern southern soul act St. Paul and the Broken Bones, folk duo Milk Carton Kids, indie-rock maestro Kurt Vile and the Violators and the aforementioned mandolinist Thiele’s powerhouse group Punch Brothers.

HSB 19 will offer up sets from a stunningly diverse range of acts covering everything from New Orleans hip hop (Tank and The Bangas), R&B royalty (Bettye LaVette) and hard-grooving psychedelic funk (The Budos Band and Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears) to indie rock heroes (Mercury Rev, Calexico & Iron and Wine and New Pornographers), name country acts (Tanya Tucker and rising star Margo Price) and classic country punk (The Meat Puppets). For more detailed schedule information and more, please visit the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 19 website.

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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 19
Friday-Sunday, Oct. 4-6, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. FREE
Golden Gate Park