Northern California's best outdoor music festivals
by Brent Calderwood
Summer in San Francisco is only just getting started. Meteorologists, travel agents, and longtime residents all seem to agree that September and October are the warmest months in The City, with fog at its lightest and the sun at its most, well, visible. So even though a few outdoor music festivals start in late June and early July (we mean you, Stern Grove and Fillmore Jazz festivals), the summer music festival season hits its full stride beginning in August.
As the city's longstanding tradition of free outdoor festivals and LGBT-themed local events makes room for big-ticket indie rock and hip-hop extravaganzas, it's worth noting that categories aren't as black-and-white as they might seem. After all, some big events, like Outside Lands, are refreshingly diverse and queer-friendly; while some events that were once predominantly gay, such as Folsom, now attract huge international crowds of all stripes who go for the international DJs as much as for the leather—well almost as much, anyway.
This summer, we've got the skinny on the best fests, to help you decide for yourself which big-ticket events that are worth the price of admission—and which of the free ones aren't.
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in Golden Gate Park
Friday, August 8-Sunday, August 10
Entering its seventh year, Outside Lands is an outsized embarrassment of riches, with more famous names and hipster heroes than you can shake a stick at. With way-above-average food and wine vendors, there's something at Outside Lands for everyone. And with Kanye West as the lead attraction this year, "everyone" will mean huger crowds than ever. Among the scores of other performers will be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, the Flaming Lips, and Arctic Monkeys, as well as the acerbically astute comedian Lewis Black and comedy-folk duo/YouTube sensation Garfunkel and Oates.
Two other twosomes we're especially excited to see are Tegan and Sara—the queer Canadian identical twins known as much for their hilarious onstage banter as for their chunky indie-pop axe riffs and pixyish vocals—and hip-hop duo Macklemore and Lewis, whose song and viral video "Same Love" ponder homophobia, religion, and marriage ("And a certificate on paper isn't gonna solve it all / But it's a damn good place to start"). It's a good bet that Tegan and Sara will join Macklemore and Lewis onstage for that number, as they did last year at the Osheaga Festival in Montreal. www.sfoutsidelands.com
Stern Grove Festival
Saturdays, August 10, 17, and 24
Only three Saturdays remain for San Francisco's longest-running outdoor music festival. If you missed Rufus Wainwright last weekend, don't worry—the festival, now in its 77th (!) season, has more fabulousness ahead. This weekend, that means the legendary Darlene Love, the standout star of last year's Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. After being the uncredited lead singer on the 1962 hit "He's a Rebel" and singing backup on dozens of hits for Elvis, the Righteous Brothers, and others, Love is finally having her day on the sun—including this weekend, we hope, fog permitting. Notwithstanding indie pleasers in the coming weeks such as freak-folk outfit Vetiver, August in the Grove will be dominated by two more giants, Sergio Mendez on August 17 and the Zombies on the 24th. It's the time of the season, indeed. www.sterngrove.org
Luscious Queer Music Festival at Saratoga Springs
Friday, August 22-Sunday, August 24
The first-ever LGBT-focused music festival in Northern California, Luscious looks to be at once both the most specifically queer of all the summer festivals and the most diverse. The eclectic three-day lineup includes pop, rock, funk, jazz, soul, folk, electronica, hip-hop, and house—as well as a little stand-up comedy courtesy of Marga Gomez. Musicians include women's music legend Cris Williamson, adorably sassy pop diva Mary Lambert, hunky romantic Matt Alber, Jon Ginoli of the groundbreaking queer punk band Pansy Division, and rock/soul/funk supergroup Skip the Needle, made up of Katie Colpitts, Shelley Doty, Kofy Brown, and Vicki Randle (See "Back to the Garden," our feature from last week).
Luscious is located at Saratoga Springs, a rustic retreat center tucked into a gorgeous forested valley in Lake County, a few hours north of San Francisco. Co-assistant producer DJ Justime says, "The location is at Saratoga Springs because it is an event produced by Saratoga Springs for the LGBTQ community to enjoy and raise funds [for LGBT asylum organizations]. It's the perfect location for a music festival and the dance parties we will have Friday and Saturday nights." www.lusciousqueermusicfestival.org
20th Street Block Party
Saturday, August 23
20th Street, between Harrison and Bryant, 12pm-6pm
From hipster-fest veterans Noise Pop, the second annual 20th Street Block Party transforms the 20th Street corridor between Harrison and Bryant into a free summer feast and dance party featuring some of the city's best indie bands and DJs along with offerings from local restaurants, businesses, and artisans. Main attractions will be Rogue Wave, Cayucas, Melted Toys, Ray Barbee and the Mattson 2 featuring Tommy Guerrero, and the Bilinda Butchers. www.20thstreetblockparty.com/2014
Folsom Street Fair
Sunday, September 21 11am-6pm
A San Francisco institution since 1984 and bastion of all things kink, the Folsom Street Fair has also grown into a coveted music showcase for local and international rock, electronic, and DJ acts—most of them LGBTI and all of them queer. Two separate dance areas along the 13-block walk will showcase home-grown and international DJs, including circuit legends Tony Moran and Tracy Young. This year's main stage headliners include Toronto-based band Austra, Coachella performers Monarchy, and MNDR—the initialism of synth-pop artist Amanda Waner, who boasts writing credits on Kylie Minogue's latest album. Local acts include three from Oakland—the Younger Lovers, Double Duchess, and MicahTron—and San Francisco band Zbörnak.
Zbörnak (yes, that's Bea Arthur's surname from The Golden Girls, but with a Motörhead umlaut) offers up bona fide rock with a soupcon of camp.
"It makes me super happy when queers are actually into rock 'n' roll," said lead singer-guitarist Greg Der Ananian. "I like loud guitars and a good pop sensibility and song structure. You definitely do not have to be queer to dig Zbörnak, and we certainly don't want that to be a prerequisite. You just have to like rock." www.folsomstreetevents.org
Fabulosa, Spinning Wheel, Yosemite
Thursday, September 25-Sunday, September 28
Fabulosa bills itself as "an inclusive, feminist fundraising gathering for women, their families, and friends of all genders." Started seven years ago by El Rio owner Dawn Huston and musicians Judea Eden and Jenny Hoston, Fabulosa has become an annual community tradition. Held this year at Spinning Wheel, a spectacular 18-acre parcel of land that backs into Yosemite National Park, in addition to camping, a pool, watering holes, waterfalls and hiking trails, Fabulosa boasts a full lineup of bands and DJs including Hearts of Animals, Bad Ass Boots, Average Dyke Band, DJ Chelsea Star, and The Galloping Sea, a four-woman rock quartet featuring harmonies and punk rock trumpet that bills itself as "part shoe-gazing freakout and part introspective-dance-party."
About Fabulosa, the band's lead singer, Lauren Wooley said, " We love playing outdoors! It brings an energy that can't be found or replicated in clubs or bars. Most of that energy comes from the interactions we have with our audience."
Shelley Doty, who fronts the Shelley Doty X-tet, said, "At Fabulosa I will be playing solo electric, but I'll get some special guests up there with me."
Doty, a virtuosic singer-guitarist who plays "rock with a jazz attitude" and who'll also be performing in August at Luscious along with Skip the Needle, added, "I've participated in Fabulosa since the beginning, and I've always had a blast. I completely support the fest, and I love watching it continue to grow and thrive." www.fabulosa.org
TBD Fest in Sacramento
Friday, October 3-Sunday, October 5
Launched in 2007 as a one-day celebration of Sacramento's creative community, the unassumingly named TBD Fest has grown into a three-day crowd-pleaser, attracting thousands to Riverside Street in the state capital. This year's festival has plenty of attractions, including Blondie and Moby, and a band we'd like to see just because of its name, Com Truise. www.tbdfest.com
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park
Friday, October 3-Sunday, October 5
This ginormous behemoth of a free festival attracts nearly a million visitors to Golden Gate Park each fall and hardly needs a plug from us, but we've got the inside scoop on some of the reliably amazing acts who will be gracing its six stages. Although the lineup hasn't been officially announced, the website annually "leaks" a guess-who audio teaser mix—from which we've detected the following performers: Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Yo La Tengo, Cibo Matto, and alt hip-hop Afro-futurist supergroup Deltron 3030. If our ears (and our iPhone's Shazam app) are to be trusted, this year's bluegrass festival will be the most hardly strictly yet. www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com
Treasure Island Music Festival
Saturday, October 18-Sunday, October 19
Headliners this year include Outkast, Massive Attack, Zedd, Alt-J, TV on the Radio, Janelle Monae, and The New Pornographers. Since 2007, the festival has consisted of two conveniently organized days—first day of the festival consists of hip-hop and rap performers, while the second day consists of indie rock performers. (Perhaps we should have said too conveniently.) www.treasureislandfestival.com/2014/