From city stages to mountain retreats, Northern California music festivals have what you need
On a clear night, you can probably see San Francisco beaming with pride all the way from Chico. The big news in the Bay Area is that music lovers are getting giddy about not having to travel all the way to Indio for three days of outside revelry with their favorite bands.
But if sitting in a symphony hall or prying open a bottle of Chianti over a picnic blanket are more your type of festival activity, Northern California’s national parks, symphonies and folk-music organizations are lining up all their favorite acts, too. The CN&R’s guide to Northern California summer music festivals can help you sort it all out.
Bobolink Music Festival
Belden Resort, Belden (Plumas County) May 22-25
The Bobolink Music Festival is held on the banks of the Feather River, and is a more intimate affair where attendance ‘is counted in the hundreds, not the thousands.” The festival features a couple of locals in The Resonators and DJ Spenny, and caters to all tastes as it provides the ‘Loud Camp” and the ‘Quiet Camp” for those who want to keep it mellow.
Who you’ll see: New Monsoon, The Grouch, DJ Spenny, The Resonators, Blue Turtle Seduction.
Berkeley Festival and Exhibition
UC Berkeley June 3-8
Calling all fans of the lute, the bray harp, the bagpipe: The University of California, Berkeley, brings 16th-century Italian art and a week’s worth of “early music” (lovely European songs and dances from way, way before you were born) to its celebrated concert halls and churches. True music geeks can convene afterwards for scholarly presentations and roundtable discussions on topics such as “The Future of the Recorder.”
Who you’ll see: Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, Philharmonia Chamber Players, L’estro Armonico.
Harmony Music Festival
Santa Rosa June 6-8
Remember rock ‘n’ roll? Jefferson Starship and Mickey Hart join jazz, blues and world musicians in a new-age-ish, environmentalist, socially conscious festival where a Hawaiian spirit goddess and a Yaqui Indian chief are among the featured speakers. If none of that floats your boat, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-stars will play. They’ve been leading the funk revolution for decades, and they can still rock it.
Who you’ll see: Damian Marley, Lila Downs, The Devil Makes Three, Arrested Development, Jackie Greene.
California Bluegrass Association’s Father’s Day Festival
Grass Valley June 12-15
Forget about neckties and Old Spice; take Dad to the shady meadows of the Nevada County Fairgrounds, where he can learn from a workshop leader how a banjo works or just relax in a lawn chair and tap his feet along with the twanging of a couple dozen bluegrass acts. The music camp, which lasts all week, is already full, but maybe if Dad takes “Playing by Ear for Newbies,” he can sign up for the camp next year.
Who you’ll see: Crooked Still, The Notorious Shank Brothers, Megan Lynch, Tristan and Tashina, Kids on Bluegrass.
Sierra Nevada World Music Fest
Mendocino County Fairgrounds, Boonville June 21-23
Now in its 15th year, the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival is the quintessential place for reggae and world music. Most attendees camp out for the entire three days. It’s a family environment where food, dance and community are equally as important as the music.
Who you’ll see: The English Beat, Prezident Brown, Quinto Soul, Stranger Cole.
Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival
Black Oak Ranch, near Laytonville June 27-29
California folk singer/songwriter Kate Wolf left this world in the 1980s, but her family had so much fun at the retrospective concert they held in her memory in the ‘90s, they decided to make it an annual event. Ani Di Franco, Todd Snider and Los Lobos headline; everyone else peaces out in lawn chairs or takes classes in hoopdancing, yoga, or music for babies and toddlers.
Who you’ll see: The Waifs, Keb’ Mo’ Band, Taj Mahal, The Greencards.
High Sierra Music Fest
Quincy July 3-6
While some featured acts—Bob Weir & RatDog; Michael Franti & Spearhead—are famous for their mellowness, High Sierra is the quintessential party festival. Club-like, indoor venues rage long into the night after the outdoor stages close. Carnivalesque parades are participatory, microbrew flows in quantity, and musicians’ workshops are so much fun they have to call them “playshops.” Check the online message board to connect with other revelers.
Who you’ll see: Built to Spill, Gov’t Mule, Ackron/Family, Eric McFadden Trio, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band.
Lake Tahoe Music Festival
Truckee and Tahoe City July 10-Aug. 9
Ditch the suit and tie; put on your flip-flops. Pack the tuna tartare into the picnic basket, and stake your spot on a grassy, green ski mountain or lake-adjacent meadow. You have a whole month to catch a roster of smooth jazz, R&B, or one of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra’s several outdoor shows under the sunset and the stars. Free shuttles from satellite parking spots can help you combat that nasty Tahoe summer traffic.
Who you’ll see: Dave Koz, Sophie Milman, Christian Scott Quintet, Dave Mason.
Mendocino Music Festival
Mendocino July 12-26
When the music instructors who started this now-two-week-long event in 1986 said “music for everyone,” they meant it. Chamber music, opera, and Django-esque, gypsy jazz from The Hot Club of San Francisco liven up the serene hills of Mendocino; the Emerging Artists Program showcases accomplished teen musicians; the Festival Orchestra plays children’s matinees; and afternoon rehearsals are free.
Who you’ll see: Jesse Winchester, Allan Pollack & the All-star Festival Big Band, Los Pinguos, Paul Hersh.
Grass Valley July 17-20
Even with eight stages and a veritable kitchen sink of “world” music—everything from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to the Cuban Cowboys—the vibe is always chill enough that you can get your 5-year-old to the water slide or the crafts class without much hassle, and somehow, there’s always time to improve your hand-drumming, tai-chi or capoeira skills at a morning class.
Who you’ll see: Joe Craven, Baka Beyond, Wailin’ Jennys, Handsome Little Devils.
Strawberry Music Festival
Yosemite National Park May 22-25 (sold out) and Aug. 28-31
Don’t be sad that tickets for this Memorial Day Weekend concert in one of the country’s most gloriously scenic places. (Though you did miss Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, so if you sulk a little, we won’t blame you.) This family-friendly camping and bluegrass/country extravaganza will be back for Labor Day. And so will Patty Griffin.
Who you’ll see (fall): The Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, Sam Bush, The Knitters.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Outside Lands, debuting in Golden Gate Park, is expected to rival Southern California’s legendary Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for coolness. (In both senses of the word.) San Francisco is notorious for pricey lodging and public transport that takes longer than you think it’s going to. If you can tolerate the travel hassles, word in the Bay Area music world is that it’s going to be worth the effort. If you can’t, just go armchair-style by tuning in to Outside Lands Radio, right from the home page.
Who you’ll see: Radiohead, Lyrics Born, Regina Spektor, The Cool Kids, The Mother Hips.
Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey Sept. 19-21
The Monterrey Jazz Festival set out, 51 years ago, to preserve and perpetuate jazz and to educate young musicians. If the event’s 20 forested acres featuring 500 acts are any indication, the medium is thriving. Expect to hear legends like Cassandra Wilson, favorites like the Joshua Redmond Trio, and some of the thousands of high school jazz musicians this festival has helped educate. If you can’t make it to Monterey, catch some of them 24/7/365 on the festival’s online radio station.
Who you’ll see: Herbie Hancock, The Derek Trucks Band, Ledisi, Yaron Herman Trio.
Treasure Island Music Festival
San Francisco Sept. 20-21
Treasure Island turns into Hipster Island for the second year. Last year’s festival brought a who’s-who of indie rock, including Modest Mouse, M.I.A., Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Sea Wolf. Expect more of the same … and more people at this year’s event.
Who you’ll see: TV On The Radio, Aesop Rock, The Raconteurs, Vampire Weekend, Dr. Dog.