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Free Music Al Fresco: Where & When to Enjoy the Sounds of Summer

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Crowd at 2014 Stern Grove Festival
The crowd at the 2014 Stern Grove Festival. (Courtesy of Stern Grove Festival)

Once upon a time, when water used to fall from the sky with some regularity, the citizens of the Bay Area eagerly awaited the arrival of summer.


Stripping off their garments (or huddling under a blanket to ward off the fog) they gathered together in parks and amphitheaters to revel in the free sounds of acid rock bands and bluegrass combos, mean blues Stratocasters and Hindustani sitar masters.

In these strange winter-less times the advent of summer weather isn’t quite as tantalizing, but the season does afford many more opportunities to experience music outdoors, with a plethora of free festivals around the region.

Stern Grove 2015
2015 Stern Grove Festival Flier

The Stern Grove Festival

June 14 – Aug. 16
Schedule and Details

The Stern Grove Festival is the granddaddy of free Bay Area concert series, a veritable San Francisco tradition that started when Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for a second term. The Sunday afternoon shows usually feature a double bill with a headlining act and a local opener, and this year the festival has launched a new initiative, commissioning the Bay Area artists “to create a work of art inspired by the interplay between art, nature and audience.”

California Honeydrops
The California Honeydrops (Photo: Keith Berson)

Stern Grove opens on June 14 with The Doobie Brothers and The California Honeydrops. Other festival highlights include a salsa program featuring the Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra with special guests Sheila E., and Marlow Rosado with the Salsamania dance company (June 21). Trenchant songwriter Randy Newman heads a double bill with guitarist Paul Mehling’s Gypsy swing band Hot Club of San Francisco (June 28), and the SF-based traditional Hawaiian music and dance ensemble Halau ‘o Keikiali‘i open for Hawaiian vocal star Amy Hānaiali‘I (July 12).

tUnE-yArDs (Courtesy of the artist)

Stern Grove’s most interesting double bill pairs Merrill Garbus’s avant pop project tUnE-yArDs with the Ukrainian avant-traditionalist quartet DakhaBrakha (July 19). And rapper Talib Kweli headlines a program with vocalist Zakiya Harris and Elephantine, a poly-groove band built around Harris’s “Afro-eclectic” sensibility (Aug. 16). All concerts begin at 2 p.m. at Sigmund Stern Grove at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard in San Francisco’s Sunset district.

Andre Thierry
Andre Thierry

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

May 21 – Oct. 31
Schedule and Details

Relative to Stern Grove, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival is the new kid on the block, but for sheer variety and bountiful offerings, it’s the best entertainment value in the region. Running through late October, the 15th YBGF season feature some 100 free events, including music, theater, circus, dance, poetry, and children’s programs. Part of what makes the YBGF so intriguing is the mix of acts on tap, with a top-shelf Bay Area combo like zydeco master André Thierry playing one weekend (May 30) followed a few weeks later by an international touring act, like Cuban drum maestro Dafnis Prieto’s sextet from New York City (June 13).

Charming Hostess (Photo by Robin Hultgren)
Charming Hostess (Photo by Robin Hultgren)

Other YBGF highlights include Sao Paulo’s percussion-powered Bixiga 70 (June 20); the soul on soul Bay Area double bill of Elephantine and Bells Atlas (July 25); vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg’s funky, text-centric Balkan soul ensemble Charming Hostess (Au. 20); and the premiere of bassist/composer Marcus Shelby’s latest thematic work Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratorio, which was commissioned by the YBGF (September 27). All programs take place outdoors in Yerba Buena Gardens, off Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Streets.

Claudia Villela
Claudia Villela

Jazz on the Plazz

June 24 – Aug. 26
Schedule and Details

Anyone who’s surprised that Los Gatos boasts one of the hippest free concert series in the Bay Area just hasn’t clued into where the cats like to hang out in the South Bay. The Silicon Valley town’s Jazz on the Plazz series brings leading improvisers to the Los Gatos Town Plaza every Wednesday evening from late June through August. This year’s program is billed as “The Summer of Sinatra” in honor of the centennial of Ol’ Blue Eyes and the roster does lean toward vocalists (but not necessarily crooners). The series opens with guitarist Slava Tolstoy’s stylistically expansive International String Trio plus rapidly rising LA violinist and vocalist Leah Zeger. The brilliant Brazilian jazz vocalist Claudia Villela, a long-time Bay Area resident, performs on July 8, and the Plazz series closes with Spencer Day, who spent several productive years on the San Francisco scene, with the Full Spectrum Jazz Orchestra (Aug. 26).

Gaucho  (Photo by Dave Ricketts)
Gaucho (Photo by Dave Ricketts)

Summer Jazz series at Stanford Shopping Center

June 18 – Aug. 20
Schedule and Details

The 29th Annual Summer Jazz Series at the Stanford Shopping Center brings top Bay Area artists representing a variety of styles to the Courtyard between Nordstrom and Crate & Barrel on Thursday evenings from June through August, starting with a band assembled from Stanford Jazz Workshop faculty. Produced by SFJAZZ and emceed by Clifford Brown Jr., the series includes veteran jazz and blues singer Pamela Rose (July 16); smart and poised Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson’s quintet (
July 30); bassist Marcus Shelby persuasively swinging trio featuring vocalist Tiffany Austin, whose rapidly making a name for herself as one of the freshest new singers on the scene
 (Aug. 13); and Gaucho, a sleek Gypsy jazz-inspired combo that focuses on smart original compositions (Aug. 20).

Mads Tolling Trio
Mads Tolling Trio

Kaiser Center Rooftop Garden Concerts

June 12 – Sept. 11
More Information

In what’s probably the best kept musical secret in the East Bay, the Kaiser Center in downtown Oakland presents a free concert series on its rooftop garden, a 3.5-acre urban oasis that’s open to the public on Fridays 8 am to 5 pm. And most Fridays from June 12 through Sept. 11, Roof Garden Concerts presents an array of free shows from noon to 1 p.m., from the Motown-style pop of West Grand Blvd (June 12) and the muscular jazz violin of the Mads Tolling Trio (June 26) to the Gypsy swing of guitarist Ned Boynton’s Café Americain (July 17) and the lilting steel drums of St. Lucia native Harry Best and Shebang! (Sept. 11).

Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players
Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players

Music In the Park

June 24 – Aug. 19
Schedule and Details

Redwood City’s Music In the Park brings a similarly eclectic mix of sounds to Stafford Park on Wednesday evenings for most of the summer, including Stockton’s Americana quartet Snap Jackson & The Knock on Wood Players (June 24), the horn-powered jump blues of Lost Dog Found (July 8), the torchy blues of Lara Price (July 22), and the roots rock of Houston Jones (Aug. 12).

Zydeco Flames
Zydeco Flames

Summer Sounds Concert Series

June 3 – Aug. 26
Schedule and Details

Oakland City Center’s Summer Sounds Concert Series brings free music to the City Center Plaza Stage at 13th and Broadway on Wednesdays, from noon to 1pm this summer, including powerhouse Cuban sonero Fito Reinoso (June 24), the Zydeco Flames (July 15), Tower of Power trumpet great Mic Gillette’s band (July 22), and suave swing-oriented trombonist, pianist, vocalist and songwriter Tim Hockenberry (Aug. 19).



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