Backstage Heroes is a biweekly column by gal-about-town Hiya Swanhuyser spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area.
In a city that sometimes seems overrun with large-scale events, one of San Francisco’s undeniable favorites is Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the 100-percent free, three-day music fest in Golden Gate Park, started and funded by the best billionaire ever, banjo fan Warren Hellman. Hellman, who died in 2011, will be missed forever, but his multi-genre music party lives on, and is consistently praised for its relaxed approach, lack of alcohol sales, and stellar musicians.
That’s the front end -- glittering stars like Mavis Staples, national treasures like Steve Earle, the glam and grit of Conor Oberst, Mekons, or Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas. The festival always books a generous number of local acts as well, from sequinned pop-rockabilly idol Chris Isaak to indie-garage juggernauts Shannon and the Clams. Perhaps best of all? Emmylou Harris is always there.
And, if the numbers are to be believed, so are you: An estimated 750,000 people visited Hellman Hollow and Lindley and Marx Meadows earlier this month; Mick Hellman, Warren’s son, has said he hopes to see a million of us one of these years.
But what about the back end?
Mike Banda of Golden State Portables has provided the toilets for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for the past seven years, and in my analysis, such service makes him among the most important purveyors of live music in this entire built-on-rock’n’roll city. To borrow a slogan from the back of a plumber’s truck, without Banda, we’d have nowhere to go. Outdoor festivals simply would not exist without people like him; he also works Fleet Week, many popular runs, and various large private events, in addition to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.