When American author and countercultural leader Ken Kesey said “You’re either on the bus or off the bus,” he was referring to the Merry Pranksters….or acid…or the combination of the two on the psychedelic cross-country journey in Furthur, a DayGloed school bus carrying a group of enlightened thinkers, musicians and cultural revolutionaries. The Pranksters and their entourage would largely influence the image of their generation and the 1960s psychedelic music scene, including The Grateful Dead, the band which pioneered and championed this movement within 60s counterculture, and came to symbolize the values of communal sharing, community loyalty and lust for adventure—or a willingness to get on the bus.
So on Sunday evening, when I was literally riding the 5R Fulton Rapid from Golden Gate Park, where this year’s Hardly Strictly festival was coming to a close, I indulged in the metaphor.
Scoring one of the stained and faded sacred seats next to a dreaded (and stoned) version of Keith Urban, I spent the ride back to Powell Street BART listening to new music on Bandcamp and fumbling with the corresponding lyric insert from a CD handed to me hours earlier by my new friend, David Lee.
On that bus ride I was wading into the uncharted waters of Thunderchief—the first LP of the most memorable band I encountered at the festival, yet one which never graced the stage. Instead, they were in the meadows with me, walking through bubbles and weed smoke, dodging what is apparently the new festival toy for old people—hangout sofas—and enjoying the Golden State sun in a sea of people as barefoot and free as we were.
In this moment, I believed I was both literally and figuratively “on the bus,” as this serendipitous musical discovery was made possible by embodying that Dead Head ethos of spontaneity and adventure, communal loyalty and love of music. Upon entering the scene, embarking on that riff, travelling into drums and space, and in my case, interviewing every damn person wearing a Grateful Dead shirt (which, to be fair, was practically 80% of the demographic), the bus blindly guides. All we must do is surrender to the culture and have faith in the ride.
When Lee, the drummer for Shotgun Sawyer—an upcoming blues and stoner rock band from Auburn, CA—travelled to San Francisco for his sixth Hardly Strictly festival, he was met by my hawkish hunt for Dead representation. He kindly complied with my request to snap a photo of his tie-dye Dead and Company tour shirt, which he paired with a felt hat that matched that of Shotgun Sawyer’s bassist, Brett Sanders. It was only until I harassed the two of them for the photo that they mentioned their band, which ultimately resulted in my walking away with a copy of their 2016 album, Thunderchief.
Shotgun Sawyer infuses the blues into their garagey sound. With killer solos over power chords and grungy riffs, the band laces punk elements into a classic rock mold in a Pearl Jam sort of way, but with the soul undertones of Gary Clark Jr. Though the lyrics are not mind-blowing, Shotgun Sawyer demonstrates massive potential and was this festival’s ultimate find, serving as proof that the free music festival—especially one that takes place in the already-edgy, forever-liberal, and historically groundbreaking San Francisco area—embodies the Grateful Dead ethos that is the antithesis to the glamourized corporate music festival.
I grew up taunted by images of the glorified music festival scene. I didn’t get to see Hendrix light his guitar on fire or participate in rain chants. The Altamont murder made headlines—and we missed that too. Even festival totems are now called “rage sticks” and serve more of a peacocking function than any identificatory purpose.
Even in my house, where there’s an image of my parents lying on the ground in a circle with their heads in the middle—the oversized rainbow tie dye bandana wrapped around my dad’s head resembling the LSD-soaked headpiece of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock—I can’t escape the reminder that yes, when disco was still the worst form of music and you could get into a phenomenal college like Cal with a 3.5 GPA, life was much more awesome.
I was knowing of this culture, but I was always on the periphery. And as festival culture has blown up with my generation, I would have laughed if someone told me that it was better today than ever.
On one hand, those days are long gone. We live in a commodity culture—defined by an obsession with image, social media attention and constructed fictions of who we are, what we listen to, who we pay to see. Today, music festivals can be the sickening manifestation of such materialism and capitalism.
Vans Warped Tour has sold out to EDM, Burgerama is becoming increasingly vanilla, and Coachella, which was never promising, is a shit show of flash tattoos and molly. And then there’s Outside Lands—the same type of event as Hardly Strictly and in the exact same venue.
On one level, the scenes aren’t so different. Yet Hardly Strictly has a lovably distinct aesthetic, involving a more diverse audience, down to earth vibe, and sense of appreciation for the music and the community, transcending the capitalist nature of the modern-day music festival.
The eight dollar smoothies sold at Lindley Meadows in October seem cheap compared to those sold in August, the month where everyone is in the same faux vintage pants from Urban Outfitters and the festival mural art functions as Instagram “like” lure. This is evidence of a homogenized culture and a product of a capitalized music industry society where we consume the music and the festival package handed to us, versus coming for the community experience and the deeper connections that the music leads to.
But here, at Hardly Strictly, there are dads pouring Trader Joe’s wine in camelbacks, makeshift community art and jewelry vendors lining the perimeter of the meadows and beers sold to minors out of coolers. The eclectic audience personifies clichés of freedom—there are barefoot adults, drug transactions, security guards dancing during sets and groups of middle-aged dreaded individuals attempting the selfie. There are voter registration booths and musical activism; several acts used the stage to remind audience members of the importance of voting. The Nakho and Medicine for the People set closed with the audience chanting and repeating back “Peace In America” while throwing up their hands in a sea of peace signs.
This is where I met Jer Bear, who I tracked down when I saw him give a fellow audience member a hug when he spotted the Steal Your Face tattoo on her bicep.
When I asked Jer Bear why he came to Hardly Strictly, he explicitly cited the community these free music festivals galvanize and attract: “All my [Grateful Dead] family is here, I grew up on a lot and stuff, so all my family is here.”
And when I asked another man, who sported a leather jacket with a Steal Your Face patch, he said, “I think it’s a wonderful sermon that Warren [Hellman] left for us. To pay it forward.”
And it is this very cultivation of fan loyalty and community through corporate antagonism and the celebration of free music, rather than the commodification (and thus castration) of it, that governs the Grateful Dead mentality.
So although we missed Woodstock… and Monterey Pop…and even getting on that physical Furthur bus, the symbolism of the Dead Head ethos remains alive and pertinent, manifesting in subtle elements of the modern festival experience which lives on amidst a culture of mass production, materialism and poserism. You’ve just got to find the others, find the bus, and then get on.