Now in its 78th year, the Stern Grove Festival is the antidote to packed music festivals like Coachella and Outside Lands that can cost hundreds of dollars and, occasionally, one's sanity. Stern Grove is always free. Its acoustics are always good. And the setting? Amid trees that climb forever, the summer series is always inspiring (and usually foggy).
Unlike Coachella, Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Stern Grove is stretched out over two months -- every Sunday from June 14 through August 16. So music-goers get to prolong their engagement with the headliners, who this summer offer a little bit of everything, including hip-hop, classical, Latin, '70s rock, and modern folk-rock influenced by world music.
About 10,000 people can fit into Stern Grove’s setting at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard, but you'll need to get there early (way before the 2pm start) for good seats. Every one of this year’s acts has a loyal following:
June 14: The Doobie Brothers and California Honeydrops. The Doobie Brothers have endured for 40 years, playing the kind of pop folk that's catchy and unpretentious. One example: "Listen to the Music,” first released in 1972, is a timeless directive to make the world a better place. (It’s also clichéd music for those who’ve heard it too often and those who never liked the song in the first place.) Meanwhile, the California Honeydrops are a Bay Area group that plays “party” music influenced by blues, jazz, and other genres. A ticketed benefit for the fest, called “The Big Picnic,” precedes these performances.
June 21: Pacific Mambo Orchestra, with Sheila E., Marlow Rosado, and Salsamania Dance Company. The Bay Area-based Pacific Mambo Orchestra, founded in 2010, plays infectious Latin Big Band music. You don’t sit at a Pacific Mambo Orchestra -- you dance, shout, and shimmy with anyone in sight. At last year’s Grammys, when PMO won Best Tropical Latin Album for its self-titled debut, Billboard magazine called the group “little-known.” That label doesn’t apply anymore. It certainly doesn’t apply to Sheila E., the daughter of Latin percussionist Peter Escovedo, who's a whirling dervish in her own right. Pianist Marlow Rosado and the Salsamania Dance Company add to the day's atmosphere.
June 28: Randy Newman and Hot Club of San Francisco. Like the Doobie Brothers, Randy Newman has been around seemingly forever. Where would the American songbook be without songs like "Short People" and "You've Got a Friend in Me?" Newman’s tunes are biting and sentimental, funny and undermining. The Hot Club of San Francisco opens with sweet songs that echo with the sounds of 1930s Paris and other bygone eras -- a perfect complement to Newman’s brand of shiny, shiny music.
July 5: San Francisco Symphony. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas won’t be here, replaced for this concert by Edwin Outwater, the symphony’s Director of Summer Concerts. No matter: under Outwater’s direction, the San Francisco Symphony is still a formidable entity. The orchestra will be joined by vocalist Shara Worden, whose voice carries far and wide in her stewardship of the group My Brightest Diamond.
July 12: Amy Hānaiali‘i with the Stern Grove Festival Orchestra and Halau ‘o Keikiali‘i. You wanted Hawaiian music? You have it with this day’s homage to the genre. Hānaiali‘i, the island state’s best-selling female vocalist, sings in the Hawaiian language, bringing its distinct vocalization to songs that, in other hands, can devolve into touristy kitsch. She’ll perform with an orchestra overseen by Matt Catingub, who’s artistic director and founder of the Hawaii Pops in Honolulu. Opening is Halau ‘o Keikiali‘i, a Hawaiian group based in San Francisco.
July 19: tUnE-yArDs and DakhaBrakha. “Wacky” is one way to describe tune-yArDs, an American group led by Merrill Garbus that, on YouTube, gets millions of views with its theatrical songs like "Bizness" and "Real Live Flesh." DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian quartet that on songs like "Baby" channels the spirit of cultures around the world, including America’s. The two groups' songs occasionally intersect in memorable ways.
July 26: San Francisco Ballet. Two months after the San Francisco Ballet completes its 2015 repertory season, it performs excerpts from the repertory en plein air at Stern Grove.
August 2: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bhi Bhiman. Country-ish singer Mary Chapin Carpenter -- she of hits like "I Feel Lucky" and "Passionate Kisses" -- is twinned with Bhi Bhiman, who is grounded in American roots music that references his Sri Lankan roots, as in the song "Guttersnipe." The pairing is yin and yang, with Carpenter’s slick sound a bookend to Bhiman’s more soulful expressions about life on the edge.
August 9: Morris Day & The Time and Con Brio. History will be kind to Morris Day, who first made a big name for himself with Prince in the 1984 movie Purple Rain. Thirty years on, "Jungle Love" holds up as a raucous plea for love and physical contact. The Time, Day’s longtime group, cranks up the energy levels that Day feeds off of. Con Brio is in that same orbit, playing the kind of funk and soul that drives people into fits of delight.
August 16: Talib Kweli and Zakiya Harris. Talib Kweli wants to change the world with his brand of hip-hop, exemplified by "Get By," a smart and moving hit that references drug dealing, consumerism, Norman Mailer, John Lennon, the U.S. prison system, and scores of other names and subjects to comment on the state of the world. Zakiya Harris is also doing her best to change the world, through teaching, organizing, and, yes, making music that’s important to hear.
To emphasize the connection between art, audience, and the festival's natural setting, Stern Grove organizers commissioned seven of this year's performers – all from the Bay Area – to create works for a series called "Interplay: Artists in Concert With Nature." The seven performers: California Honeydrops; Pacific Mambo Orchestra; Con Brio; Hot Club of San Francisco; Hālau o Keikiali’I; Bhi Bhiman; Zakiya Harris, featuring the group Elephantine. So each of these seven will do works never heard prior to their Stern Grove performance.
The Stern Grove Festival runs every Sunday from June 14 to August 16 at San Francisco’s Stern Grove, 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard. All concerts are free and start at 2pm. More information here.