christopher owens

Download: Mixtape: What You Need to Know About SF’s Summer Music Festivals (Podcast #338)

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Text by Zack Frederick

In 2014, there’s been more controversy about the gentrification of San Francisco than any other city in America. Similarly, anyone who looks beyond the success of well-known Bay Area festivals like Outside Lands will find an emotional debate about the city’s ability to foster a healthy, independent music scene rumbling just below the surface.

And yet, mid-to-small sized, do-it-yourself festivals continue to flourish in SF and the larger Bay Area. While mega-festivals enjoy lucrative corporate sponsorships, ubiquitous press coverage, and huge budgets, small festivals are labor of love events produced by Bay Area non-profits, artists, and bands. Make no mistake: it’s a wholly different experience when every ticket sale matters, bands are playing their first festival gigs, and there’s a palpable feeling that attendees are helping keep the Bay Area a musically dynamic place to live.

In that vein, the Bay Bridged’s own Phono del Sol Music Festival — coming this July — strives to put our favorite local acts on the same stage as nationally renowned artists in sunny Potrero Del Sol, a little-known park on the southeastern edge of San Francisco’s Mission District. Headliners include local artist Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Baltimore’s Wye Oak, and R&B revivalist and former San Franciscan Nick Waterhouse.

The fast approaching mini-fest known as SF Popfest has booked five small shows around the city from May 22 – May 25 with over a dozen indie pop and rock bands, and a notable one-off reunion by the prolific 90s indie rock band Boyracer from Wetherby, England. In more good news for small events, this June will mark the first ever Not Dead Yet Fest — a cheap ($10) one-day, ten-band gathering organized by local rock band Down & Outlaws and promoted as a rallying cry for SF musicians.

There’s no shortage of unique, small-scale festivals happening outside San Francisco, too. Drive three hours north of the city in mid-June and you can camp in the redwood forest alongside Mendocino’s Eel River for this year’s second annual Hickey Fest. Expect to split your time watching indie rock bands at the Peg House’s outdoor patio (which hosts the festival and serves cheap pitchers of IPA along with delicious food) and sunbathing by the mountain-fresh river. Organized by local artist Ash Reiter, the booking is even better this year — in fact, it might be your only chance to ever see rising Los Angeles rock ‘n roll group Allah-Las with a few hundred people in the redwoods.

Fourth of July weekend brings back the two-day Burger Boogaloo for its fifth annual showcase in Oakland’s Mosswood Park. A sweaty tribute to trashy (in the best way) power pop and garage rock organized by Total Trash Productions and Southern California music label Burger Records, the lineup includes Ronnie Spector (lead singer of the 1960s girl group The Ronettes), Oakland’s very own Shannon & the Clams, punk supergroup OFF! and more.

Nature junkies can also head south to Big Sur to join the fifth annual Woodsist Festival in Big Sur on August 4-5 for two days of acclaimed performers like Angel Olsen and an emphasis on wandering, nostalgic folk rock. Woodsist has been around long enough now that its reputation precedes it — tickets seemed to sell out almost immediately, as though Bay Area residents need another excuse to fall in love with Big Sur.

There’s good news for people who dig extravagant light shows, huge crowds, and world-famous bands too: big-budget festivals continued their expansion this summer in the Bay Area.

Approaching name recognition with the likes of internationally renowned festivals like Coachella, the multi-million dollar Outside Lands takes over Golden Gate Park again this August. Already sold-out, the 2014 lineup continues to successfully push musical diversity, slotting Kanye West — perhaps our generation’s most provocative mainstream artist — at the top of a bill also featuring aging soft-rock master Tom Petty, Dutch electronic musician Tiesto, and the arguably outdated arena-rock of The Killers.

But it’s the bottom half of the lineup that shines with a handful of strong local picks. I wager it’d be foolish to miss the irresistible tunes of Mikal Cronin, San Francisco’s reigning garage-rock king who shook the scene up with his 2013 release MCII. Cronin should assuage any lingering doubts about the scene in San Francisco after the overwrought, media-sensationalized departures of John Dwyer (of Thee Oh Sees fame) and Ty Segall for Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, enigmatic musician and San Francisco resident Christopher Owens — originally known for his lead role in the indie rock band Girls — will play his first major Bay Area gig in quite sometime after a prolonged hiatus following his early 2013 solo LP Lysandre. A handful of local artists round out the bill, including indie darlings Trails and Ways, ambient-rock groover Tycho, and the ever-soulful Nicki Bluhm.

But that’s not even close to the end for large festivals this summer. Newcomers BottleRock Napa and First City Festival in Monterey are coming back. After a disastrous inaugural year in which the organizers were unable to pay back two million in debt, BottleRock 2.0 will rise again in late May with new management, new bands, and (I hope) a more comprehensive budget — and yes, the lineup still leans heavily on a head-scratching roster of popular 90s artists (Sublime, Third Eye Blind, Barenaked Ladies, Smash Mouth). Nonetheless, BottleRock managed to book a few truly exciting acts — no nostalgia needed — like the aforementioned garage-rock titans Thee Oh Sees, who put on one of the sweatiest, most energetic live shows I’ve seen, and psychedelic rockers The Black Angels.

Don’t sleep on the rustic and more relaxed First City Festival in August, which includes unlimited on-site carnival rides, big-time bookings — from the dour rock of The National (another all-time, spectacular live band) to SF favorites Geographer — and three stages of music awash in the cool ocean breezes of Monterey.

Taken altogether, this year’s Bay Area summer festival lineup is as dynamic as I’ve ever seen it. No matter your preference — big or small, day or night — there’s a festival somewhere that ought to suit your needs. There’s no debate that Outside Lands, First City Festival, and BottleRock cast large shadows. They’re established fun. But consider taking a chance on one of these risky, quirky little fests happening around the Bay and beyond. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how much they have to offer.

Track Listing:

Angel Olsen – “Forgiven/Forgotten”
Allah-Las – “Every Girl”
Ash Reiter – “Little Sandy”
Wye Oak – “The Tower”
Tycho – “Awake”
The Black Angels – “Broken Soldier (Live at The Fillmore)”
Shannon & the Clams – “Into a Dream”
Boyracer – “Passionflower”
Christopher Owens – “Here We Go Again (acoustic)”
The National – “Sea of Love”
Trails and Ways – “Lost”
Nick Waterhouse – “This is a Game”
Down & Outlaws – “Backwards from the Dead
OFF! – “Void You Out”