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.
When I speak with him, I find Banda has the sense of humor I hoped he would have, for his own sake. Without it, how would he be able to function in the temporary sanitation industry for the past 25 years? The Golden State Portables website shows Banda with a wide, genuine smile, the kind that can’t be faked. “You know what they say!” he tells me on the phone. “It’s not a party ‘til the potties show up!”
At Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Banda tells me he likes to get an extra head start on setting up. “That thing is so humongous! I mean, there’s just so many people that attend that event.” (See above.) Working with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ Director of Operations Eliote Durham, he says it’s absolutely vital to start early. “I have to start three days prior to when the event starts, sometimes four, because there’s so much stuff to do. I do the executive [toilets] for the backstage, the VIP, and then everything I gotta do for the public.”
That last is the part most of us know so well: The long lines that nevertheless move fairly quickly, the surprise at the lack of horrorshow inside. We’ve come to rely on the ample number of units at the free festival; ultimately, many attendees have developed an unlikely trust in Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’s port-a-potties. Yelper Alice L. backs it up, on the festival’s four-and-a-half-starred review page: “Porta Potties were surprisingly not so gross!” She’s no fool, though:“Just in case, bring some pocket tissue packets and hand sanitizer.”
Banda works hard to make sure you don’t need those items, but it’s sage advice and never wrong. Other music events’ toilets regularly result in harsh criticism online and scarring revulsion in real life. Not at HSB, thanks to Mike Banda. “My whole aspect is always, always to be the cleanest. Always the cleanest. And I get a lot of compliments! Like, 'Wow, this isn’t bad, this is clean!'”
Durham, who’s also an event producer for E. Cee Productions, is an enthusiastic Mike Banda cheerleader. He’s professional, polite, and absolutely dependable, she says via email. “I had two years with another vendor who was the exact opposite of Mike," she writes. "I'd cross my fingers each year that the toilets were going to arrive.”
(The potential stress of such a situation makes my vision go dim for a moment. Really, it must be said that event producers are also Backstage Heroes. Let’s all thank one next time we get a chance.) Calling Banda one of her favorite HSB connections, Durham says she’s gone on to hire him — “and his team, because he has a knack for hiring excellent people” — for all her events: the Pink Party, Bluegrass for the Greenbelt, the Nike Women’s Marathon, and more. He’s cheerful, Durham says of the man who not only hauls the toilets in but also hauls them away, laden with our expressions. “He’s got a great big smile that can change your day, and he’s never let me down.” This, I think, is what makes a true hero.
So while we celebrate the polished songbirds, the beautiful park, the magic weather, and one another's good vibes at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, we should also pause to appreciate the ADA-approved units, the handwashing stations, the account long held with the San Francisco Water Treatment Plant. And, if we’re special, the upscale all-amenities executive units provided by Mike Banda and the team at Golden State Portables. It’s not necessary to imagine Emmylou Harris actually using one — it’s enough to know they’re there, should that regally delicate golden-throated canary ever feel the call of nature.
Or, as Banda puts it, “It’s got to be nice and clean and shiny. That’s the bottom line.”