John McLaren Park — just one exit past Cesar Chavez on the south side of the 101-280 interchange — is a gorgeous, wild expanse of land with some of the best panoramic views of our beautiful city. Within its boundaries are forests of Eucalyptus, Monterey Pine, and Cypress trees (of a most climbable, if not all native, variety), meandering creeks, open hillsides of wild oats glimmering in the sun, and a thousand other natural delights.
It is also home to the Greek-style Jerry Garcia Amphitheater (JGA) made of carved concrete and with bench seating for about 700 patrons. As of 2017, the JGA hosts WildeWhere — the umbrella name used to collectively promote the free music, theater, and performance art put on by various groups throughout the summer and fall at the amphitheater.
Imagine a Stern Grove-type festival, where everything is hyper-local, there’s no parking crunch, and your travel time is halved from most places in the city. This is WildeWhere. One weekend, you might experience the hysterical and politically-charged SF Mime Troupe, the next, a mini music festival curated around a different style of music and culled from local talent. Every show is free, food trucks are on site, and there is both bench seating and plenty of space for blankets.
The park was named for John McLaren, the superintendent of Golden Gate Park from 1887 to 1940. McLaren’s vision was to protect the wildness of the park, stipulating famously before taking office that “There will be no ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.” Golden Gate Park – now home to stunning botanical gardens and well-manicured plots throughout – veered from that path, but the park that became his namesake still holds it dear. WildeWhere coordinator Luke Spray shared that:
“There’s a sense of wonder that happens when you can shake loose from the feeling that you’re in the middle of the City, and McLaren Park provides that in regular doses.”
The Jerry Garcia Amphitheater is one such unexpected joy, itself named for the legend born in the nearby Excelsior neighborhood. Though the first performances were made in the amphitheater soon after completion of its construction in 1971, it has taken years for the space to get its full day in the sun. Shaking a reputation as a dangerous place has proven difficult (these days the areas around Golden Gate Park show far more incidents of crime, assuming I’m reading these maps correctly), and San Francisco has become increasingly isolated by neighborhoods. So isolated, in fact, that many residents have not even heard of the park that would surely be a crown jewel in most cities across the world.
What’s more, the amphitheater has never had the kind of financial infrastructure (i.e., endowments) that Stern Grove enjoys. It has relied heavily on community volunteers like Linda D’Avirro. Five years ago, Linda joined with about seven other friends and neighbors in the area to create the Saturday in the Park concert series, now known as “Live from the Amp.” The group decided to call themselves “Friends of AMP: Friends of the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater” and hustled to get a little bit of money from the three supervisors whose districts abut the park, some fundraising and grant funding, and support from the SF Parks & Rec department. Over the years they’ve also had support from Airbnb and Recology, among others.
D’Avirro and her group knew that major headlining acts were out of the question with a small budget, but saw a wealth of talent in the Bay Area. “We believe that local musicians need a place to play,” she told me by phone. Thus they created their mini-festivals – each with a different theme. This year has seen an Acoustic Soulfest, Indie Rock Show, Latin & Jazz, and the upcoming Bluegrass/Old-Time and Metal Music Festivals. But such a variety, D’Avirro says, presents a challenge in building a regular audience. This is where WildeWhere came in.
Last year, the Mayor’s office met with all the different organizers of events at JGA. “We’re working with both the Recreation & Park Department and the City’s Office of Economic & Workforce Development, both of which have the goal of making the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater an ideal place to showcase local talent, as well as a unique & intimate venue fitting of top level talent,” says Spray. WildeWhere was established through a small grant as an umbrella name to bring all the information about the myriad events to one website, one poster, and one centralized marketing engine.
The final WildeWhere events of the season are quickly approaching – the San Francisco Old Time & Bluegrass Festival (affectionately known as the “Strictly Bluegrass festival”) and the McLaren Park Metal Music Fest on consecutive weekends. Next year’s plan is yet unknown, but Spray is optimistic. “There’s a growing sense of momentum around the potential of the Amphitheater and McLaren Park in general, and I’m excited to see our community explore that, and to see our Supervisors invest in that.”
Meantime, what should we expect on performance day? “Folks can expect a laid-back experience that’s perfect for a stress-free afternoon filled with local music, tasty food, and plenty to explore,” Spray tells me. Make sure you build in time to take in the rest of park, too. There are treasures to behold, and they’re just outside of your neighborhood.
San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival: AJ Lee & Blues Summit, Beauty Operators, Crooked Jades, Rusty Stringfield, SF Bluegrass All Stars Featuring Laurie Lewis
Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, McLaren Park
October 15, 2017