Last year’s Stern Grove Festival was cut short in an unpredictable, non-Covid way: A water main broke on Sloat Blvd. above the grounds, sending more than 700,000 gallons of water sloshing down into the verdant amphitheater and resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damage.
The flood forced organizers to cancel the final show of the season: The Big Picnic with Tower of Power and Too $hort. For the uninitiated, The Big Picnic is the grand finale event of the fest, which also serves as the biggest fundraising effort of the year.
There were challenges in re-opening the Grove for this year’s 85th Summer Concert Series, but thanks to a prodigious push, Stern Grove is ready to welcome back locals, beginning on June 12. The 10-concert slate, helmed by second year Director of Programming Stacey Horne, seems aimed at attracting younger audiences by peppering the classics with plenty of cutting-edge cool. This year’s lineup is also packed with local legends and rising Bay Area stars, which is sure to give the hometown crowd plenty to be proud of.
Read on for our breakdown of this year’s shows, which we’ve broken down into five categories. Into indie? Toro y Moi, Cold War Kids and Cat Power have you covered. Feeling bluesy? Taj Mahal is a national treasure who certainly knows his way around 12 bars. Looking to get lost in the jam? Grateful Dead founding member Phil Lesh is sure to take a few extended solos.
All the concerts are free, but reservations are required. You can snag a spot on the Stern Grove Festival website beginning 12 days before each show—Tuesdays at 2 p.m. The gates open at noon every Sunday and the concerts begin at 2 p.m. You can bring your own chairs, food and drinks. Additional details can be found at sterngrove.org.
The Ultimate Cure For Last Year’s Fomo
Tower of Power and Too Short w/ DJ Shortkut | June 12
When this bill was announced last year, it seemed highly improbable: A ’70s era funk and soul revue from Oakland with one of the grittiest rappers in the Bay? OK. But in so many ways, it speaks to the diversity and vibrance of our local music scene. It’s a beautiful world when you can dance alongside your mom to “What Is Hip?” while also taking a puff off a blunt with your dad to “Blow The Whistle” in the same afternoon. We highly recommended arriving early to catch DJ Shortkut warming up the crowd on the decks. The Daly City native is one of the best selectors and turntablists out there. And if you weren’t able to reserve tickets to this one, the whole show will be live streamed for free here.
Tracing The History of The Past 25 Years of Indie Rock
Toro y Moi w Hello Yello | June 19
Liz Phair w/ Madi Diaz | June 26
Cold War Kids w/ Geographer | July 3
Cat Power w/ SPELLLING | July 17
You can’t really describe just how thorough of an indie music slate this year’s Stern Grove Festival has put together without running down the entire list. These four shows almost serve to tell the story of independent rock in the past 25 years. Tracing the arc from Cat Power’s charming late-’90s folk and Liz Phair’s always-punishing licks through the anthemic alternative of Cold War Kids to the laid back electronic vibes of Toro y Moi, one can see how home production techniques have evolved over the last three decades, as indie musicians moved from four-track cassette consoles to the virtually limitless capabilities of laptops. All the while they’ve continuously incorporated an increasingly sophisticated suite of software tools, which they’ve deployed to buck the influence of major label malarkey.
Come to hear how Cat Power’s sound expanded digitally on 2012’s Sun and now maintains its influence on her latest Covers album of takes from Frank Ocean to Billie Holiday. Come to hear Geographer run through his scene-defining electropop. Come to discover the unapologetic theatrics of Oakland’s immensely talented SPELLLING and the emerging Madi Diaz’s gorgeous songwriting. And come to hear how Berkeley’s Toro y Moi is a retro psychedelic-minded vessel for the prevalent sounds of today.
Hear How Country Music and Americana Are Changing
LeAnn Rimes and Amythyst Kiah | July 24
For over 20 years, LeAnn Rimes has been at the vanguard of the Nashville scene. Her radio-ready country music has exemplified the genre’s push into pop and she’s a bonafide star who will be in San Francisco to positively rock amongst the trees at Stern Grove. But it’s a very mindful bill that also features Amythyst Kiah, a Queer Black woman who is one of the brightest spots in the more inclusive new look of Americana music. An accomplished solo artist, Kiah is also part of the Our Native Daughters roots music supergroup with the equally decorated Rhiannon Giddens, Layla McCalla and Allison Russell; all Black women in the orbit of country music. Kiah’s presence is a refreshing one, and her stellar songs (like the Grammy nominated “Black Myself”) deserve your attention.
A Glorious Afternoon of Blues And Soul
Taj Mahal w/ Monophonics | August 7
At 80-years-old, Taj Mahal is still one of the most incredible performers in the business. The Harlem-born guitarist has continued to shape what constitutes “contemporary” blues music through his unique fingerpicking style and tunes that trace the origins of American roots music out into the wider world—all the way up to his recently released “Get On Board” album with Ry Cooder of songbook interpretations of Piedmont Blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Monophonics will have their blue-eyed San Francisco psychedelic soul on board to wrap a bow on this early August day. Led by vocalist Kelly Finnigan, their music has an instantly vintage feel and is unique to anything else you’ll hear born from the city.
Feel Like It’s Summer of Love Again
The Big Picnic With Phil Lesh And Friends w/ Midnight North | August 14
The bassist and founding member of the Grateful Dead, Lesh has been criss-crossing the country as of late with his Phil Lesh and Friends Tour. The “friends” who showed up to a recent Palo Alto show included Scott Metzger, Joe Russo, John Scofield, Benmont Tench and Lesh’s son, Grahame, who performed with his band, Midnight North. Expect Lesh and company play classics and rarities from the Dead and more. Only time will tell who joins Lesh on stage for this one, but this feels like nothing short of a triumphant ending to the 85th season at Stern Grove. In the meantime, you can find me praying for the well-being of all water mains along Sloat Blvd.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Geographer is based in San Francisco. The artist is now based in Los Angeles.