The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival happens here in San Francisco this time every year. The festival takes place in Golden Gate Park and is completely free to the public. It has tons and tons of premiere bluegrass, country and pop acts. Name a star and they're either playing or have played in the past. It goes on for three days and seemingly every person within 60 miles of San Francisco jams into GG park to watch killer music for free. There are six different stages set up in different areas of the park, and although most of them have bluegrass and country acts, one is dedicated to other pop music acts. Here's this year's line-up:
So, I got a call from the most excellent Andrew Nilsen to do the SF Weekly cover for the week of the festival. When I get an assignment like this, the first thing I think, however irrationally, is what can I do to avoid an image of a bluegrass guy playing a banjo? Luckily, Andrew wholeheartedly agreed. We also were in agreement as to not have some generic music festival sort of image. And the last thing I wanted to do was a terrible portrait of Ralph Stanley snuggling up with Robert Plant or something.
So then, what to draw? It had to be location specific, meaning GG Park and San Francisco. But we wanted to avoid the corny (albeit beautiful) Golden Gate Bridge.
I liked the idea of using a bison. GG Park has a famous field in it where bison roam. Any local knows this. Bison look like pure bluegrass, at least to me. The beard and 'burns, the doleful eyes, the unkempt hair. Put a cowboy hat on it and boom, there it is. Andrew was really into the bison angle. So I started working up drawings. Unfortunately, it just looked hokey. Onward.
Some thumbnails and brain farts. I was really wanting to do something with the mandolin body curl and the horns of the bison, but it just didn't work - bison started looking like a ram. Bison can quickly begin looking like Pan as well, which may have had some conceptual legs but I had to keep my focus.
Andrew liked the face becoming the top of the mandolin, so I worked up a possible composition. I liked too how the instrument's bridge could become the mouth, and eventually I brought in the bridge-pins as the toothy bluegrass redneck teeth to give it a bit more levity. We ended up using Sutro Tower to double tie it to SF, it's such a great landmark.
Mr. Nilsen thought this was looking too foresty and not suggestive enough of the festival, and he was right. So, for the final I made it a big field. Sort of ended up looking like a travel poster.
A side note... This festival is the creation of a man named Warren Hellman, heir to the Hellman mayonaisse empire and co-founder of Matrix equity firm. Hellman pays all the musicians their full fees, and has funded the festival to go on for a number of years after his death. It's an amazingly generous gift of culture to the city.
Hellman also happens to be a wicked amazing banjo player. His band The Wronglers play every year at the festival, and they are smokin'.
I had an especially surreal experience with him one day in 2008, the very day that his firm was helping to buy out Lehman Bros during the financial collapse. His band was playing in Sebastapol at a friend's yearly apple picking party, and the band I was playing drums with (Sister Exister) played right before them. I got to chat a bit with him, couldn't be a friendlier guy, and he didn't say a peep about the enormous deal he was making that very day to help buyout Lehman bros.
Here's a detail of the background from the final piece. My subtle statement on how crazily crowded the popular festival has become since the old days.
Anyway, that's how I spent my last weekend. Thanks Andrew, it was fun!