“Summer” is a bit of an elusive term here in the Bay Area. Unlike the swampy provinces of New York City and its surrounding hamlets, summer doesn’t necessarily translate to “hot” in our fine republic. Instead, summer here is far more a state of mind -- the feeling of eternal daylight, the excuse to lounge in the grass ad infinitum, and the suspicion that you can go anywhere, at any time, and find a party.
That state of mind is perfect for outdoor music. The Bay Area is no stranger to behemoth corporate summer music festivals -- we bookend the summer months with BottleRock in May and the big-money throw-down Outside Lands in August (the latter of which, in particular, has put together a pretty solid and somewhat diverse lineup this year).
But you don’t have to look far to find more manageable alternatives. We’ve assembled for you here a brief selection of festivals, series and events to fill your summer, some of which are more intimate than others. And they all take place in gorgeous outdoor venues just as thrilling as the music on display there. Just don’t forget to bring a jacket.
UC Botanical Garden, Berkeley
Every summer the UC Botanical Garden, nestled in the lush hills northeast of UC Berkeley's campus, hosts a concert series in its redwood grove. Among this year’s lineup are the sharp songwriter Tom Brosseau and the raucous John Brothers Piano Company, but the ambitious East Bay ensemble Bells Atlas is a clear highlight. Drawing on elements of neo-soul, Afrobeat and funk, the five-piece (who also operate as Snap Judgment’s live performance house band) create sprawling arrangements that hypnotize with their sonic quirkiness. Their two new singles, “Spec and Bubble” and “NCAT,” sum up their aesthetic succinctly: deep grooves with just enough weird to keep us guessing.
The Peg House, Leggett
Now in its fifth year, the one-stage Hickey Fest, which takes place at Standish Hickey State Park in Leggett (sorry, aspirational biters), is well-worth the drive. Drawing on a vast range of Bay Area talent like seasoned surf-punk rockers Shannon and the Clams, electro-soul mainstays the Seshen and the sublime indie-rocker Madeline Kenney, the festival hums with a strong DIY spirit. Yet the music is only one facet of the appeal here. Situated next to a bend in the Eel River that doubles as a bucolic swimming hole, cliff-diving and all, Hickey Fest is Burning Man without the crazy crowds (or the tech bros) -- a camping getaway that doubles as an opportunity to listen to some of the best of what the Bay Area has to offer. The trails surrounding the campground are stunning, if you can summon the willpower to pull yourself away from the party.
Mossword Park, Oakland
Always a party to remember, the Burger Boogaloo – an ongoing collaborative event between Burger Records and local radio station KALX, now in its fifth year – is a seething mess of punk rock exuberance that takes place in the sunken amphitheater at Oakland’s Mosswood Park. This year the festival organizers have really outdone themselves, bringing in heavyweights like Iggy Pop, X, and the Buzzcocks to headline the bill, and the King of Filth himself, John Waters, as Master of Ceremonies. If 2017 doesn’t feel like the year to wave your American flag with the utmost pride and euphoria, perhaps raging in a giant cement bowl with a bunch of other sweaty, pissed-off Bay Areans is just the Fourth of July party you’re looking for.
Now in her 70s, iconic soul singer Mavis Staples – formerly of the family band the Staples Singers and a collaborator of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and others – is experiencing a career renaissance. In recent years, she has worked on new music with artists including Wilco, Bon Iver, and even the pseudo-cartoon genre-bending Gorillaz. Her new album, Livin’ on a High Note, finds her doing just that, with a whole gaggle of hip artists in tow. You couldn’t find a better act to cap off Stern Grove’s 80th anniversary free concert series, which also includes performances from Oakland’s de facto ambassador Fantastic Negrito and the San Francisco Symphony. Be sure to get there early for a good vantage point.
Marcus Shelby Orchestra
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
The Bay Area’s own acclaimed composer/bassist Marcus Shelby recently returned from an off-Broadway collaboration with the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith called Notes from the Field. Shelby plans to bring a wide scope of jazz offerings to Yerba Buena Gardens for a free afternoon concert. Expect excerpts from his work-in-progress Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues and commissioned pieces, including “Green and Blues” and “Beyond the Blues.” Plus, once the show is over, you’ll still have the whole afternoon ahead to explore SFMOMA, just next door.