If there's one thing the North Bay is good at, it's free outdoor festivals. A full seven of the below ten suggestions fit that bill, so if you're packing for a day trip, a lawn chair, blanket and sunscreen will probably come with you. Luckily, the recent fires haven't put a damper on summertime in Sonoma County, so click through for more details and enjoy a weekend north of the bridge.
Live at Lagunitas
June 12 – Oct. 2
Lagunitas Brewing Co., Petaluma
Seeing a band who'd normally play the Fillmore in a small, 300-capacity outdoor amphitheater is tempting enough for most music fans. But when the tickets are free? That changes it to “pretty much all music fans,” which is why you'll want to be quick on the mouse-click if you're hoping to check out a show at the venerable Petaluma brewery. Tickets are offered three weeks in advance of each show in the season, and this year includes tUnE-yArDs, M. Ward, James McMurtry, Fantastic Negrito and more. The sound is always great and the vibe — well, let's just say the Lagunitas crew doesn't limit their mood enhancers to beer.
Krush Backyard Concerts
May 31 – Sept. 6
KRSH Studios, Santa Rosa
They just do things differently in Sonoma County. Whereas in San Francisco, radio stations host huge showcases at the Shoreline Amphitheater or the Oracle Arena, Santa Rosa's popular station The Krush (95.9-FM) host its favorite acts playing in the studio backyard — which is to say, the grassy area behind a cluster of old-time railroad train cars, from which the DJs broadcast. Blankets, babies and beer are are welcome, and this year's free series includes a blues night with Wee Willie Walker, a reggae night with Sol Horizon, a rockabilly night with Jinx Jones and more.
Tuesdays in the Plaza
May 29 – Aug. 28
Healdsburg Plaza, Healdsburg
I'll never forget the time Chuck Prophet played on the Healdsburg Plaza and, scanning the crowd full of fine summer dresses and Louboutin heels, referred to the scene as “Beverly Hills-burg.” Indeed, regulars to this free outdoor series set up their tables with wine and cheese, and begin mingling hours before the music begins — so you'll want to get there early. It pays off in killer music, which this year includes Con Brio, Royal Jelly Jive, Charlie Musselwhite, John Santos and more, all free. And, with wine flowing, people do sometimes jump in the fountain and dance in the water.
Sonoma County Pride Festival
Courthouse Square and surrounding venues, Santa Rosa
Sonoma County's Pride celebration makes its official move back to Santa Rosa this year, leaving some residents of Guerneville feeling betrayed. After all, it was Guerneville — historically the most gay-friendly city in Sonoma County — who stepped up to host the parade and festivities when a home was needed 10 years ago. But this year's new location stands to host a larger crowd, who will be treated to grand marshal Alec Mapa, music from Wrabel and Jason Maek & Zaena, a fashion show, a drag afterparty, DJs, a film series, a kid's zone and more, all within a one-block radius. There's no way to make up for Guerneville's inherently wild verve, it's true, but a bigger celebration will have to suffice.
Broadway Under the Stars
June 15 – Sept. 9
Jack London State Park, Glen Ellen
The idea here is simple: take a bunch of Broadway professionals from New York, bring them to the Bay Area for the off-season in the summer, throw together revues of best-loved songs from musical theatre, and present them amidst the stone ruins of a former winery in Jack London State Park. The scenery here is picturesque, the performers bring obvious quality, and the productions are consistently entertaining and not afraid to poke fun at the usual stuffy seriousness of the theatre. The topper? Over the past five years, the company has donated over a quarter million dollars to the state park to help keep it running. This one's a favorite.
Railroad Square Music Festival
Railroad Square, Santa Rosa
Over the years, Railroad Square has played host to Alfred Hitchcock (parts of Shadow of a Doubt were filmed there), Steve Martin (Cheaper by the Dozen), Thomas Edison and Henry Ford (visiting by train) and, recently, several outdoor festivals of the steampunk / Burning Man variety. This one's all over the map, including jazz (Eki Shola), punk (Gender Trash), African (Onye & the Messengers), reggae (Sol Horizon) and country (Frankie Boots). More than 20 acts total fill multiple stages, it's free, and this year, attendees even have a fresh new transportation option in the form of the SMART Train, which disembarks just steps from the main stage.
Steamer Landing Park, Petaluma
The boat races along the Petaluma Slough are just the tip of the daylong fun at this colorful, old-timey free festival. Part steampunk, part country, the day's activities include live music from local folk and bluegrass bands, plenty of food and drink, public sculpture along the long, winding entrance, the “Traveling Spectacular” stage (pictured) and, if you're feeling frisky, a hilltop gazebo for impromptu wedding ceremonies. Make sure to get your Instagram photo ops in the giant blue chair or along the old Ghirardelli barn, and yes, root for your favorite decorated boat as it floats in the water below. Take it from us: there's much shade here, so a parasol or large hat are recommended.
Shakespeare in the Cannery
July 13 – Aug. 5
Historic Cannery, Santa Rosa
Outdoor Shakespeare is a summer tradition all over the world, but Santa Rosa's version comes with a twist: it's presented inside the skeleton of the old CalPack Plant No. 5, a large brick warehouse just across from the brand-new SMART Train station. Once a fruit-packing plant that attracted hundreds of Italian immigrants to the west end of the city, the building has of late housed works by the world's most famous playwright, presented by the nearby Arlene Francis Center. For its fifth and final year, the offerings move up to the modern day with Shakespeare in Love. Bring your own blanket or lawn chair, some fromage and vino, and bid farewell to the theater in this one-of-a-kind setting.
Throughout Downtown Napa
The idea is so perfect, it's surprising no one thought of it sooner. At Porchfest, bands don't go on tour... the fans do. On bikes, that is. Or skateboards, wagons, Big Wheels, by feet — however one chooses to hop from front porch to front porch, upon which local bands perform at houses all over town. Performers are not confirmed at press time, but it historically includes Napa musicians of mostly acoustic styles, like folk, jazz and country. Napa's old Victorians provide picturesque backdrops, there's an element of voyeurism in staring into people's yards, and you can come and go as you please depending on the band. A fun, free way to see the town.
Healdsburg Jazz Festival
Various venues in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa
The Healdsburg Jazz Festival was founded when the small town was better known for farming equipment and dive bars than boutiques and wineries. But now, marking its 20th anniversary, the festival has retained its homegrown feel while still pulling in jazz's biggest names. This year's lineup includes concerts by Ravi Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell, George Cables, Fred Hersch, and many others. Returning to his hometown is local-boy-makes-good guitar phenomenon Julian Lage, and there's even a special tribute to festival favorite Geri Allen, who died this past year. Venues include hotel lobbies, schools, old movie theaters and wineries.