The rent is too damn high, as is the price of just about everything else in the Bay Area. But summertime brings some blessed relief, at least when it comes to live music. From the sylvan setting of Sigmund Stern Grove to a hidden rooftop greenspace in downtown Oakland, from the urban oasis of Yerba Buena Gardens to a quaint town square in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an array of festivals and free concert series across the region present some of the best players in the world for less than a song. Family friendly and usually al fresco, these events build community, provide listeners with pleasure, and artists with work, a win-win-win trifecta that can only be summed up as priceless.
Hayes Valley Street Party
SFJAZZ shows can cost a pretty penny, but the organization kicks off the 34th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival with a free street party that takes over the outdoor Proxy space at corner of Hayes and Fell. The evening features the high-energy Crescent City sound of Brass Band Mission, who specialize in outdoor celebrations, and the raw Gitane rock of Beso Negro, as well as a beer garden, videos, and food trucks.
Berkeley World Music Festival
June 11 - 12
Unapologetically cosmopolitan, the People’s Republic of Berkeley maintains deep and abiding international ties, and while the city council isn’t spending as much time advocating its own foreign policy these days, the Berkeley World Music Festival makes a compelling case for aural globalism. The annual event at multiple locations around downtown and upper Telegraph Avenue includes groups such as the Berber ensemble Aza, the cosmic hip hoppers Dogon Lights, the creatively charged Afro-Caribbean jazz of John Santos Sextet, the hypnotic Shona sounds of Sadza Marimba with Julia Chigamba, and the Gypsy roots rock of Dirty Cello.
79th Stern Grove Festival
June 19 - Aug. 21
While the Stern Grove Festival turns 79 this summer, the concert series feels as vital and essential as ever with a typically eclectic line up anchored by the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Ballet, the festival’s longtime classical partners. Running on Sunday afternoons, this summer’s 10-week concert series kicks off with the stylish avant-funkstress Janelle Monáe. Other highlights include Hieroglyphics (July 3) Mexican singer/songwriter Julieta Venegas (July 24), and Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor (Aug. 14), an ad hoc group featuring Jamie Lidell, Luke Jenner, Money Mark, Sinkane and others that celebrates the music of the underground Nigerian funk innovator. In a major step that the festival added last year, many concerts opens with a local act commissioned to create an original piece based on the theme “Interplay: In Concert With Nature.”
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
June 9 - Oct. 30
Set in an oasis of green surrounded by museums, galleries and theaters, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival is the region’s most expansive and generous free concert series. There are far too many highlights to list them all, but some gigs to watch out for are Jazz Mafia godfather Adam Theis’s sprawling Brass Convergence showcase (July 18); the radical Judaic double bill of the Klezmatics and vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg’s Charming Hostess (July 9), and the all-women Cuban ensemble Maqueque assembled by Canadian soprano sax master Jane Bunnett (Aug. 20).
Jazz on the Plazz
June 22 - Aug. 24
Running Wednesday evenings from June 22 to Aug. 24, Jazz on the Plazz presents free concerts on the Los Gatos Town Plaza, turning a public space into a cheery open-air night club. Focusing mostly on vocal talent, the series kicks off with Duchess, a stellar triumvirate of New York City jazz singers, and also includes the suave Bay Area jazz crooner Nicolas Bearde (July 13), the cool-toned Los Angeles song stylist Tierney Sutton (July 20) and the inimitable SF jazz vocalist Paula West (Aug. 3).
Kaiser Center’s Rooftop Garden Concerts
June 10 - Sept. 9
A little known marvel in downtown Oakland, the Kaiser Center’s Rooftop Garden Concerts bring a variety of ensembles to the lovely Lake Merritt greenspace. Running most Wednesdays noon - 1pm, the program focuses on Bay Area artists, including Richmond-raised Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic (June 17), Oakland jazz vocalist Suzanna Smith (July 29), Oakland salsa singer Alexa Weber Morales (Aug. 12), and the Hammond B-3 powered trio of Pacifica-based multi-instrumentalist Roger Glenn.
Music on the Square
June 3 - Sept. 2
If more municipalities followed Los Gatos and Redwood City’s example, the Bay Area would be a whole more fun. Music on the Square brings a variety of bands to the Courthouse Square Fridays from 6 - 8 pm. While a little heavy on tribute bands, the program does include some strong talent such as New Orleans groove devotees BeaufunK with Michael Jeffries (June 2), bluesman Tommy Castro and the Painkillers (July 8), and powerhouse blues singer Terrie Odabi (July 22). Meanwhile, Music in the Park presents a similarly mixed roster of acts Wednesdays 6 - 8pm at Stafford Park from June 15-Aug. 17, including Santa Cruz guitarist Scott Cooper and the Barrel Makers (June 15), San Jose blues vocalist Lara Price (July 20) and the Zydeco Flames (Aug. 3).
Finally, the 30th Annual Summer Jazz Series at the Stanford Shopping Center runs Thursdays June 23 – August 25 at 6 p.m. in The Plaza. Now presented by SFJAZZ, the series includes the Afro-funk collective Afrolicious (June 23), rising Oakland soul singer Mara Hruby (June 30), the elegant Cuban dance ensemble Orquesta la Moderna Tradición (Aug. 11), and the hard-swinging Gypsy-inflected string band Gaucho (Aug. 25).