I love hearing music in subterranean joints, cozy living rooms, Art Deco theaters, grand concert halls and storefront performance spaces. But nothing quite compares to the joyfully democratic experience of free music al fresco in a park with a random assemblage of fellow Bay Area denizens. Just about every corner of this sprawling region offers some kind of free summer concert series, providing economical entertainment options for groups of nearly any size. Summer represents freedom from all sorts of constraints, and these concert series provide music unencumbered by walls and a cover charge.
80th Stern Grove Festival
June 25 - August 27
A successful Stern Grove outing requires careful planning. You'll need layered clothing, provisions and sunscreen, but the preparation is well worth the effort. Aside from the gorgeous setting, part of what makes this event so rewarding is the smart mix of local acts with headliners, like the season-opening double bill of R&B mainstays Kool and the Gang and soul-steeped singer/songwriter Quinn DeVeaux, who’s been a scarce presence on Bay Area stages since he started hanging his hat in Nashville. Other highlights include the Bay Area double bill of Fantastic Negrito and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers (July 2), Mali’s Amadou &Mariam and Nigerian singer Eno Williams’s Ibibio Sound Machine, and soul queen Mavis Staples and the jazz-inflected hip hop of the Kev Choice Ensemble. And don't miss the festival’s classical partners, the San Francisco Symphony (July 9) and the San Francisco Ballet (July 30).
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Though Oct. 29
If Stern Grove offers a sylvan respite from San Francisco’s crowded streets, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival turns the Mission St. park into a brimming cultural oasis that welcomes all. Already well under way, the YBGF presents an array of performances Thursday-Sunday, including Circus Bella’s “Bay City Rhapsody” with live music by accordionist Rob Reich’s Circus Bella All-Stars (June 23-24), sensational Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena (Aug. 19), and an Indo-orchestral rendition of Terry Riley’s “In C” that brings together Classical Revolution’s strings with the percussion-laden Brooklyn Raga Massive (Sept. 16).
Kaiser Center’s Rooftop Garden Concerts
June 16 – Sept. 8
A lush and hidden resource invisible from the street, Kaiser Center’s Rooftop Garden hosts a diverse roster of Bay Area acts on Friday afternoons. This year’s program includes the pan-Latin funk of Makru (June 16), the Crescent City grooves of Atta Kid (July 7), the turbo charged zydeco of Tom Rigney & Flambeau (July 21), and the jazz-tinged R&B of the D Lucca Trio (Sept. 8).
Summer Sunday Concerts at Piccolo Pavilion
June 11–Aug. 27
This Sunday afternoon series in Old Corte Madera Square invites listeners to bring lawn chairs, victuals and a blanket to enhance the sounds of local bands. Highlights include the melodically charged blues/bluegrass sextet Dirty Cello (June 11), the hard-driving old-time Evie Ladin Band (June 26), powerhouse blues guitarist Mighty Mike Schermer (July 23) and the tuneful roots rock of Danny Click and the Hell Yeahs (Aug. 27).
Jazz on the Plazz
June 21-Aug. 23
A Wednesday evening series on the Los Gatos Town Plaza, this long-running program draws top Bay Area talent and the occasional touring act -- like the opener, jazz pop vocalist Antonia Bennett (daughter of Tony) with Grammy Award-winning Puerto Rican jazz flautist Nestor Torres (June 21). The inimitable jazz chanteuse Paula West (June 28), suave crooner Nicolas Bearde and the Full Spectrum Jazz orchestra (July 19), and the rising jazz star Tiffany Austin (Aug. 16) offer an impressive array of Bay Area vocal talent.
Pt. Richmond Music
June 9-Sept. 22
A street party that manifests at the corner of Park Place and Washington Avenue every second Friday, this series of double bills features powerhouse belter Tia Carroll and her Awesome Blues Band and zydeco accordion explorer Andre Thierry (June 9), the Delta blues of Howell Devine and New Orleans funksters Second Line (July 14), and the neo-trad Americana of the Evie Laden Band with the Americana rock combo The Lucky Losers (Sept. 9). Also included at the events are food trucks, face painting, and arts and crafts booths.
Summer Jazz Concert Series
June 22-Aug. 24
Produced by SFJAZZ, this long-running series takes place in the Stanford Shopping Center's plaza, near Neiman Marcus. The shows feature a diverse roster of sounds, including the pan-Eastern ensemble Dhara World Music (June 22), an all-star combo drawn from Stanford Jazz Workshop faculty (June 29), the Oakland Jazz Choir, and the lustrous Brazilian jazz vocalist Masha Campagne (Aug. 10).