For the past 17 years, Dawn Holliday has been curating the talent for San Francisco’s free summer festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The industry veteran still books for the festival even though she retired from her other gig, booking shows at San Francisco’s Slim’s, earlier this year to focus her organizing efforts on resisting President Trump.
But after more than 30 years in the music business, Holliday couldn’t leave the career she happily stumbled into.
“My whole life has been on accident. My husband was in a band called No Sisters. This woman who worked for Bill Graham, Queenie Taylor, really liked him, so she asked me if I wanted to work the box office,” Holliday told Amplify. “I ended up liking music more than I liked being married. So I just ended up working for Bill and got divorced. That was over a longer period of time, but I wanted to be at shows more than figuring out how to make chicken for dinner a hundred million ways.”
Holliday ended up working for Graham, who she says is the best dance hall keeper ever, for 16 years.
“That’s what his license to run all those places said, Dance Hall Keeper,” she said.
Now, as Holliday finalizes the talent for the upcoming Hardly Strictly festival, Amplify caught up with her to learn about her five favorite shows including a life changing night at the legendary Caffe Lena in New York.
“One of the things that I love about Hardly Strictly is that it is free and it turns people on to music,” Holliday said. “A lot of kids come. If I can have the influence on a 12-year old that Lena had on me by allowing me to stand in that kitchen that night, I would feel like my life’s work was done.”
Bob Dylan at Caffe Lena in Saratoga, New York
My best friend, Chris West, and I hitchhiked from Glens Falls to Saratoga to see Bob Dylan. We were 12 years old. It was in the mid 60s you could do those things then. We were tall. We were both 5′ 8″ by that time. We knew it was an adult place. It was a coffee house. Caffe Lena at that point had all the hip stuff. It was a bohemian club. But we were bossy little girls. We got rid of our Catholic school outfits, put on mini skirts, and hitchhiked down.
We got there and you had to be 18 to get in. (Owner Lena Spencer) took pity on us and let us stand in the kitchen and watch. IT CHANGED MY LIFE. It was 1964 and I knew then I wasn’t going to be a school teacher. We would have walked the 16 miles to get back home that night, we were so high from the energy.
Frank Zappa in Greenwich Village, New York
June 28, 1967
I can’t for the life of me remember where it was. It was on MacDougal Street for sure. I can remember exactly how we got there and where we went in, but I cannot remember the name of it. We really wanted to see him, but I was kind of scared by him. I thought that it was going to be scary and it turned out to be totally fine.
Five of us girls hitchhiked from Glens Falls, New York to New York City for the weekend. We told our parents we were all staying at each other’s houses. Mr. Zappa was performing Lumpy Gravy and we got to see him play it live. Frank Zappa’s lyrics on a 15 year old girl’s mind was pretty cosmic.
Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in Bethel, New York
Aug. 15-17, 1969
I was lucky enough to have ‘purchased’ tickets to Woodstock. You know, “Three Days of Music!” When we got there we parked four miles away from the site and walked in carrying all of our stuff. I carried in a gallon of wine. I had never drank before (I was 17) and I found out it got lighter if you drank it. I was so drunk from carrying that gallon of wine. I had a yellow raincoat that my mother had just gotten me and after waking up in the mud it was so filthy. They had dropped all these New York Post newspapers on us and I knew I was busted. I was more worried about that than anything else.
I had never seen that many people, all lying around in mud together. People were sharing water and services. It was an amazing experience. And Santana coming across the system like that was unbelievable. It was like Santana guitar notes owned that field. You could almost see notes bouncing off of people’s blankets. I’d never experienced anything like that before and sort of haven’t since.
When I got home, my friends dropped me off at the Greyhound station and my mother told me that if I’d gotten to Woodstock I could walk the rest of the way home. We’re not going to come pick you up. I had to walk nine miles to get home.
It was a really great introduction to California. California was so represented at that point that I knew I needed to move to California after that weekend.
The Kinks at Winterland in San Francisco
Feb. 19, 1977
Ray Davies was in a beautiful white linen suit, double breasted perhaps. It hung beautifully on him. He was just a saint that night. It was a stunning night of Kinks songs… “Sunny Afternoon,” “Lola,” “Alcohol,” “Victoria,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Rush Hour Blues” and “A Well Respected Man.” A great night of very cool British music in an awesome San Francisco music hall put on by the best dance hall keeper that I will ever have the privilege of working for. It was a wonderful concert and I knew I wanted to work for Bill. R.I.P.
Patti Smith at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco
Oct. 7, 2012
I had seen her throughout my life, but this one was just earth-shattering. She is so powerful. To see a woman get up there and tilt the world. It was a stunning thing.
This woman blows my mind. In my life I have never seen someone with such courage, such humility, such righteousness, such truth, such an amazing soul, such respect for people. Patti’s set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was musically inspiring. It showed strength, power and a gift of resilience that was formidable. The energy from her and her band’s set could light fires. It could have righted the universe’s wrongs. Patti is just right. People have the power.