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He prefers pickin’ to Picasso

Times Staff Writer

Some wealthy men buy expensive art for the walls of their mansions. Others build private golf courses.

Warren Hellman, co-founder of a leading private equity investment firm here, says such uses of money “are unappealing to me.”

What Hellman loves is bluegrass, folk and rootsy country music. And each year, the 70-year-old financier indulges himself and tens of thousands of fellow Bay Area residents by throwing a free music festival in Golden Gate Park. Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley and Steve Earle were among more than 50 performers on four stages during the fourth annual affair last weekend.

“I’d rather, for a little more than [the price of] a painting, put on a festival,” said the lanky, and decidedly impish, septuagenarian. “To give something back to the community -- and something I really like -- it’s a mitzvah.”

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The financier’s “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” festival, which he says he underwrites to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year, has swiftly grown in size and stature.

“It’s becoming a part of the American lexicon,” Nick Forster of the veteran bluegrass combo Hot Rize declared between songs Saturday. “What are you going to do this weekend? We’re going to ‘Hardly Strictly.’ ”

Through it all, Hellman, a low-key man garbed in a fading black cowboy shirt and a golfer’s-style cap that covers much of his forehead, moves around the festival grounds, alone and largely unrecognized, to catch his favorite artists and sample new sounds.

His presence is generally so understated that some musicians who have performed multiple times have never met him nor are they aware of his background at Hellman & Friedman, a director of Nasdaq and co-chair of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Commission for Jobs and Economic Growth.

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“He must be a generous man and I’d like to shake his hand someday,” Skaggs said before taking the stage with his band, Kentucky Thunder.

Skaggs, who was flown in solely for his one-hour performance, said it is “really unique” for a private benefactor to cover the entire cost of a festival, making it all the more surprising that they had yet to be introduced. “Most guys want to come down and get all the strokes, the pats on the back,” the country-bluegrass star said.

At the side of the main stage, Hellman occasionally mingles in a friends and family VIP area, where he greets fellow equestrians (he is an enthusiastic participant in marathon horse races), UC Berkeley alumni fundraisers and, quite infrequently, clients, whose tastes generally run to other types of music.

Much of the time, however, he’s nestled among the hordes of spectators -- some of whom stake out their space with blankets and low-back chairs as early as 6 a.m. -- in front of the various stages set up in the sylvan-laced Speedway Meadow area

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“I just ask, ‘Is anybody sitting here on this seat or on the ground?,’ ” Hellman says. “It’s part of the pleasure. It’s like having a party for your 60,000 closest friends.”

On Saturday afternoon, after listening to three tunes by the Peter Rowan & Tony Rice Quartet, Hellman rose and headed back toward the main stage. There, Steve Earle was about to begin his set at the same time that the long-acclaimed John Prine was due on yet another stage up and over a hill.

Such time clashes, caused by the abundance of talent, represent “the dark side of the festival,” Hellman said.

In this case, he chose Earle, whom he said he has become close to over the years. Although Hellman says he remains a registered Republican, his views on many political issues are more akin to those of the left-leaning Earle.

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“I’m afraid he’s going to sing some protest songs,” Hellman declared, a gleam in his eye.

Earle quickly delivered, opening with a bouncy tune from his new “The Revolution Starts ... Now” CD, in which he suggested that the FCC, CIA and FBI participate in the same sort of anatomical activity that Vice President Dick Cheney recently told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to perform on himself. Later, Hellman said that one strait-laced showgoer asked him how he could allow Earle to say such things. “I’m a product of Cal Berkeley and I believe in the Free Speech Movement,” the 1955 grad said he responded. And besides, he added, “I couldn’t do anything about it if I wanted to.”

One of the few singers Hellman personally introduced was Appalachian protest singer Hazel Dickens, 69, who, like Earle and Harris, is invited back each year.

Hellman said he has been passionate about folk music since he was young, despite the imperatives of his upper crust background -- his great-grandfather founded the Farmers & Merchants Bank.

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“I think you’re just hard-wired for something,” he said. “My family had the same box at the opera house since it opened. And somehow, I bought a pair of shoes that every time we left dinner to go to the opera, the shoes took me to my car [instead].”

Hellman organizes the festival with the help of a small coterie of friends including longtime San Francisco music booker Dawn Holliday. Hellman suggests scheduling such big names as legendary bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley. Holliday fills out the bill with such lesser known but influential artists as Robert Earl Keen and roots-country duo Buddy and Julie Miller, the former of whom set the festival afire with his gospel-tinged version of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.”

Hellman says he hopes to do it again in 2005 -- that is, if those closest to him can’t stop him from continuing to spend his money.

“My family,” he says, tongue-in-cheek, “has been talking about hiring a conservator.”

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