Hellman honored as he would have liked it

Waves of good tunes and good vibes flowed through 15,000 music fans at yesterday’s Ocean Beach memorial concert to financier and bluegrass lover Warren Hellman.

Had Hellman been here to witness it, he surely would’ve held up his banjo and uttered his beloved catch phrase, “Hot dog!”

The seven-hour event paid tribute to Hellman, the philanthropist that brought San Franciscans the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a free three-day musical affair held each October in Golden Gate Park.

The memorial’s two stages were graced by more than a dozen acts whom Hellman admired and who admired him. The headliners included Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and his own band, The Wronglers.

Hellman passed away in December at age 77 due to complications from leukemia, but before doing so, set aside funds that ensure the music will keep playing for at least another 15 years.

Harris, who has performed at every Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, closed yesterday’s memorial with songs dedicated to the festival’s founder. She sent a message to her colleague:

“We love you, and we’ll see you in October, and every October for as long as we can stand, or roll up in a wheelchair or whatever, you’ll see us here in San Francisco.”

Hellman, an investor who earned billions with his private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, began Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2001 (then known as Strictly Bluegrass). He told Forbes in a 2006 interview that the festival is the “world’s most selfish gift,” since he reaped so much enjoyment from it:

“Just being able to do something that is completely not commercial, that is pure, hopefully, pleasure for the participants–to create a surrounding where the musicians and professionals like it as much as the crowd does. How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?”

Since then, the free concert has grown from its first year attendance of 5,000 to up to 750,000 each year, with top-notch performers such as Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello and Dolly Parton.

The festival’s diverse lineup, which has even included MC Hammer and Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, serves as a testament to Hellman’s deep appreciation for music. His Financial District office, reported Forbes, was crammed with autographed, framed bluegrass artwork and lined with stacks of music CDs.

Hellman, a banjo player himself, footed the bill for the annual music bash, and insisted that the festival remain free to the public and free from any corporate sponsorship and advertising.

“He was my favorite capitalist,” Steve Earle told Rolling Stone yesterday after his set. “When you have a lot of money, you have choices as to what you can do with that, and Hellman did this.”