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Four Best Outdoor Festivals San Francisco 2004 -

Frolicking alfresco is a way of life here in sunny California -- even in foggy S.F., where season (late spring or early fall) and location (anywhere but the Avenues) can conspire to create a festive meteorological setting. Here are some of our favorite ways to celebrate the great outdoors.

San Francisco Blues Festival

September at Fort Mason, 979-5588, www.sfblues.com

The blues is about cheap whiskey and unrequited love and killing a man and 20 years in the big house, but there's joy in the music too, especially when it's September in San Francisco, the Great Meadow is bathed in sunshine, and the form's finest practitioners are exploring their craft against a backdrop of bay, bridge, and sailboats. The oldest continuous blues festival in the country began in 1973 and over the years has brought B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Albert Collins, Elvis Costello, Etta James, Ike Turner, Robert Cray, Queen Ida, and Irma Thomas to this grassy bayside setting.

San Francisco Oyster & Beer Festival

April in Washington Square, 989-6222, www.oreillysirish.com

Ah, the pleasures to be taken from everyone's favorite mollusk: hot and smoky from the barbecue; fried to a crunch and squirted with lemon; raw and luscious on the half shell, horseradish optional; even baked into sausage and brewed in beer. They're all for the noshing at this splendid springtime soiree, which co-stars the oyster's ideal companion, beer, and since the party's hosted by O'Reilly's pub just around the corner, that means Guinness and Harp, God bless us. It also means lots of live and lively Irish music, a bazaar with tweeds, bodhrans, and photos of County Down, and shooters of Bailey's and bowls of Irish stew. Dazzling shuck and suck, too.

Cable Car Bell-Ringing Championship

July in Union Square, 934-3916, www.sfmuni.com/aboutmun/cablecar.htm#bellringing

In a city of great sound effects, the ringing of a cable car bell ranks right up there with the wail of a foghorn, the barking of a sea lion, and the drums and gongs of a Chinese funeral. The bells have been used for between-car communications since the 1880s, and today they're as evocative and unique a medium of musical expression as a bass solo or a drum break. On Bell-Ringing Championship day, which dates back to the 1940s, seven conductor-finalists gather at Union Square at high noon and perform one-minute concertos judged on "rhythm, flair, loudness, and musicality." It's the best show in town, and afterward you can go to the Compass Rose across the street and toast the winner.

Noche de los Muertos Procession

November in the Mission, www.dayofthedeadsf.org

Día de los Muertos is a part-Aztec, part-Catholic, post-Halloween celebration of friends and family who have entered the afterlife. That evening, several thousand devotees, many in skeleton garb, gather at 24th Street and Bryant and make their way through the heart of the Mission, remembrances of the departed in hand. Illuminated by votive candles, moving to the sound of drums and flutes, the procession continues up 25th, down 24th, and past the murals of Balmy Alley, its progress scented with incense. The parade ends at Garfield Park, where altars are constructed and offerings are made to those on the other side. A memorable, potent experience.

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