Music News & Reviews

Your 2015 guide to summer music festivals

Fans body surf during the BottleRock festival at the Napa Valley Expo on May 9, 2013 in Napa, Calif.
Fans body surf during the BottleRock festival at the Napa Valley Expo on May 9, 2013 in Napa, Calif.

The guard has officially changed.

While the “Summer of Love” generation still will line up to catch the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows in Santa Clara and Chicago this summer, most large-scale music festivals programmed for #generationhashtag have moved far beyond the tie-dye jam-rock crowd.

Live appearances are more meaningful to artists than ever, as they have become dependent on revenue streams outside of traditional album sales, and up-and-coming acts are taking advantage of new opportunities to win fans on the festival circuit. In addition, event organizers have taken to melding of music, art, food, technology and fashion, a trend that’s consistent with the wants of this younger festival-going demographic.

Such has been the theme of emerging local happenings like TBD Fest and another new kid on the block in West Sacramento, the inaugural First Festival, one of several concerts (including the venerable Sacramento Music Fest) converging on Memorial Day weekend.

One lamentable absence from the 2015 summer festival slate is the upstart First City Festival in Monterey, which announced in March that it was going on hiatus. First City seemed like a solid alternative to “big boys” such as Coachella, and its presence will be missed. Nevertheless, Northern California still features a full docket of music festivals appealing to rockers, ravers, foodies, jammers, pickers, purists and just about everyone else.


▪ Strawberry Music Festival – May 21-24, Nevada County Fairgrounds, Grass Valley

This biannual event in has been a California staple for years. The Strawberry Fest moved from its traditional digs in the Yosemite region last year and relocated to Grass Valley – a welcome addition to the local calendar. This Golden State gem features a headlining spot from the venerable Bonnie Raitt, with Anders Osborne, Peter Rowan, the Duhks and others.

Don’t miss: The Easy Leaves. Fans of Americana revival acts such as Old Crow Medicine Show are flocking to this plucky Northern California outfit, the kind of fellas you’d love to sit on the porch with to share some stories and songs.

▪ Sacramento Music Festival – May 22-25, various venues

The former Jazz Fest/Jazz Jubilee continues to diversify a lineup that traditionally has featured classic Dixieland styled jazz and roots music, adding more mainstream acts for a wider-drawing crowd. Everclear, Eve 6, Shawn Mullins, country act Gloriana and Latin rockers Malo top the bill at this annual tradition.

Don’t miss: Tower of Power. For years, many have assumed that this Oakland juggernaut had been long since written off for dead. While others continue to doubt, they continue to thrive.

▪ First Festival – May 23, Riverwalk Park, West Sacramento

It doesn’t get more hyper-local than what organizers/local business owners Danielle Vincent & Ashley Rastad are looking to pull off here. Unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the Saturday lineup of the Sac Music Fest, this inaugural event is slated to feature 10 local food trucks, a beer garden, several local fashion and arts vendors and a “silent” disco (participants dance to music on wireless headsets). The rock-heavy lineup is likewise ultra-local, with Humble Wolf, Dylan Phillip, Snow White Smile, and Drop Dead Red the standouts.

Don’t miss: A Mile Till Dawn. The riffs from this sneakily-skilled quintet are just catchy enough and heavy enough to have a legit shot on modern rock airwaves if they get that break.

▪ Bottle Rock – May 29-31, Napa Valley Expo, Napa

The first bowl of porridge was too big, the second too ’90s, but the third bowl looks just right. Bottle Rock swung for the fences in 2013 with a larger-than-life lineup, only to be saved from the brink of debt-driven extinction by a local promotion outfit in 2014. This year it looks as if organizers have nailed the perfect balance for this festival with headliners Robert Plant, No Doubt and Imagine Dragons, along with festy staples the Avett Brothers, Foster the People, Capital Cities, AWOLNATION, Michael Franti and more.

Don’t miss: Grizfolk. As if an electro dance act and a pop rock troupe charged at each other on an open battle field – but quickly decided just to hug it out instead.


▪ Railroad Square Music Festival – June 7, downtown Santa Rosa

Sactown beer lovers, don’t even pretend you’re not making regular pilgrimages to Russian River Brewing Co. to traffic home a few cases of Pliny the Elder. This would be a prime weekend for such a voyage. Bluegrass wunderkinds the Brothers Comatose, the harmony-drenched T-Sisters and the Sam Chase headline this free (yes, free) inaugural “DIY” event, put on by a group of local musicians.

Don’t miss: Marty O’Reilly & the Old Soul Orchestra. Rife with rootsy blues and junky jazz folk, the tantalizing O’Reilly evokes a younger, far less gruff Tom Waits.

▪ Huichica Music Festival – June 12-13, Gundlach Bundschu Winery, Sonoma

This annual lineup (with Eric D. Johnson of the criminally-underrated Fruit Bats) always looks as though it has been skimmed from upper-tier events such as Coachella and Bonnaroo. It might not feature superstar name power, but Huichica is buried treasure. L.A. rockers Allah-Las are up top, with acts such as Atlas Sound, Sonny & the Sunsets, the Fresh and Onlys and Mariee Sioux. Oh, and wine.

Don’t miss: The Donkeys. This sunny San Diego retro pop rock act goes down like a San Diego IPA – fresh, smooth and relaxing.

▪ Reggae in the Hills – June 12-14, Calaveras County Fairgrounds, Angel’s Camp

You’ve got to be a serious reggae fan to completely understand the Bob Marley family tree, because it seems that each of his offspring has followed in his footsteps and joined the reggae kingdom. Ky-Mani Marley leads this jovial foothills party.

Don’t miss: Arden Park Roots and Massive Delicious. We’re always stoked to see Sacramento talent pop up in out-of-town festival lineups; both of these funky reggae-tinged jam rock acts should wedge in quite nicely.

▪ Davis Music Festival – June 19-21, various venues in Davis

The Davis Music Fest recently announced its 2015 lineup, which includes acts such as Sunmonks, Element Brass Band and Ross Hammond. This little dandy of a festival takes over several venues in downtown Davis (almost South by Southwest style) with a slate of acts that usually leans heavily on indie rock.

Don’t miss: Two Sheds. Spitfire vocalist Caitlin Gutenberger and her hubby Jon (of Far and Jackpot) took their show on the road to L.A. a few years back; seems the Davis Music Fest is becoming an annual pilgrimage back home for the beloved band.

▪ Kate Wolf Music Festival – June 25-28, Black Oak Ranch, Laytonville

This one’s a road tripper, but oh-so worth it. It started as a small gathering in tribute to the late-great folk singer, but has blossomed into one of the Northern state’s most heralded yet coziest gatherings. The legendary Smokey Robinson, Steve Earle, Angelique Kidjo and indie rock royalty Iron & Wine headline.

Don’t miss: Playing for Change Band. What started as a series of videos with amalgamations of unknown and sometimes downtrodden street musicians performing classic standards is now a full-fledged touring outfit.


▪ High Sierra Music Festival – July 2-5, Plumas County Fairgrounds, Quincy

This festival is adored by annual attendees and revered on a national level, frequently popping up on “best small music festivals you don’t know about” type lists in music publications. This 25th anniversary lineup rates as one of the most delicious in its history; String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, John Butler Trio, Shovels & Rope and HSMF royalty Galactic lead the pack.

Don’t miss: Lake Street Dive. This group’s meteoric rise over the past couple years is undoubtedly assisted by vocalist Rachel Price, a jazz-driven vocalist brimming with as much raw talent as she is with angelic sass.

▪ California Worldfest – July 16-19, Nevada County Fairgrounds, Grass Valley

Yep, Grass Valley gets two fests this summer – but this one is the grandpapa of Nevada County. Worldfest is always known for hauling in global acts, but this year’s installment is sneakily “domestic,” with San Francisco’s techno darling Beats Antique, folk crooner Sean Hayes, Dengue Fever, King Sunny Ade, Achilles Wheel and the Portland Cello Project.

Don’t miss: Las Cafeteras. Innovative, thought-provoking and unrelentingly brazen, this poetic Latin collective from L.A. seeks out the inner beauty that lies beneath the fight for justice.

▪ Guitarfish Music Festival – July 30-Aug 2, Cisco Grove Campground, Cisco Grove

This is another little prize of the season that seems to fly under the radar. Funk reigns supreme atop this lineup with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Monophonics and Afrolicious. The where-the-heck-have-they-been award of the season goes to Latin electro rockers Kinky, also on the bill.

Don’t miss: Steve Poltz. Perhaps the most affable and engaging folk singer you’ll ever come across, Poltz returns to the area after being forced to cancel a Harlow’s gig in November due to health concerns.


▪ Petaluma Music Festival – Aug. 1, Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Petaluma

Great music and $5 pints of Lagunitas. You will not find a finer one-day festival without taking a very long road trip – and you still might not be able to find one better. Jam rock staple ALO, Brazilian act SambaDa, the frisky Wood Brothers and headliner Nahko and Medicine for the People top the bill, with a Friday “opening night” tacked on with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

Don’t miss: Bellygunner. Another Sacramento band getting some out-of-town festival love, Bellygunner’s juicy and crafty pop rock hooks make for perfect daytime grooving.

▪ Outside Lands – Aug. 7-9, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

The grand high poobah of Northern California festivals sold out lickety split as expected, so you’re in secondary market territory if you want to catch the Black Keys, Elton John, Tame Impala, Wilco, St. Vincent, Sam Smith and the newly-electric Mumford & Sons.

Don’t miss: Fantastic Negrito. A recent NPR “Tiny Desk” concert raised many an eyebrow nationwide about this sparky soul blues singer from Oakland, a rising star about to become a supernova.

▪ City of Trees Summer Concert – Aug. 15 - Gibson Ranch, Elverta

Alternative funk rockers (and hometown heroes) Cake headline this new one-day event, which also features pop rock crooner James Bay, singer-songwriter Garrett Borns of Børns and the promise of more artists to be announced soon. Tickets go on sale May 19.

Don’t miss: Of Monsters and Men. This Icelandic indie rock juggernaut came out with a bang in 2011 with the vibrant and omnipresent anthem “Little Talks” and are finally following it up with their sophomore record “Beneath the Skin,” due June 9.


Symbiosis Gathering – Sept. 17-20, Oakdale. As much a spiritual journey as it is a music festival, Symbiosis hosts various events, but this is the big one.

American River Music Festival – Sept. 18-21, Lotus. This beloved riverside festival has secured nationally celebrated musicians for its headliner spots, including adored Americana songstress Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers and bluegrass aficionados the Infamous Stringdusters.

TBD – Sept. 18-20, West Sacramento. Sophomore year for this breakout festival includes EDM royalty Pretty Lights, 1980s hitmakers Tears for Fears and Sacramento’s boundary-pushing hip-hop group Death Grips.

Hangtown Halloween Ball – Oct. 22-25, Placerville. “Blind Faith” tickets are already on sale in advance of a lineup announcement. Considering the stock of festival favorites they routinely host, it’s a worthwhile roll of the dice.

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