Each festival has its own character, and the Mill Valley Music Festival, which ran May 13 and 14, is very much a community showcase, with a chill vibe that perfectly suited its local attendees. (Marin Water even passed out wildflower seeds!)
This year’s music kicked off at the Sweetwater Saturday stage with LA girl duo Guyville (a nod to the title of Liz Phair’s debut album.) Alex Jordan’s genre-bending, guitar-forward sound graced the stage, and San Francisco country, rock, bluegrass band Lauren Benitez and the Heartache were also present, along with Marin indie rockers Marble Party. Sunday Yorn’s Apostles rocked Friends Field South with their crunchy guitars, base and drums. Anna Harrell, a local Marin singer, offered a musical turn with her melodious vocals. Representing San Francisco, Matt Jaffe’s lyrics driven songs and encouragement literally brought the audience right up to the stage. Asher Belsky—no stranger to Bay Area venues—closed out the Sweetwater stage on Sunday.
The main stage also offered up a welcome diversity of sounds, with Oakland’s Orchestra Gold bringing African psychedelic sound to Marin. Seattle’s The Dip followed, with soulful guitar and horns. Austin-based Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears added their funky, sax-y sound. New Orleans’s Tank and the Banga’s lead singer Tarriona Ball is gifted with a vocal range which allows the band to explore childlike exuberance side-by-side with worldly pragmatism in their songs.
Oakland-born Michael Franti and his band Spearhead closed day one of the festival starting with a moving reminder of losses to COVID, the importance of supporting trans youth, and the enduring power of live music. Franti’s motif of “learned, burned, and earned” worked well with his group’s crowd favorites “I’m Alive,” “The Sound of Sunshine” (during whose performance he was joined on stage by local kids Alex and Cameron.)
Sunday’s main stage opened (much like the Sweetwater stage) showcasing a new generation of heavy rock with The Alive. Fun note: The Alive drummer Kai Neukermans played with Pearl Jam last May. Valerie June offered another sonic shift with her modern Appalachian folk melded with contemporary rhythms. Her rendition of “What a Wonderful Life” was particularly moving. Durand Jones followed with R&B sophistication, sartorial grace, and spot-on background harmonies.
The appearance of Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew’s Remain in Light tour was a crowd favorite. Opening with “Psycho Killer,” and working through ’80s Talking Heads oeuvre including “Life During Wartime,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Take Me to the River,” Harrison, Belew and their band stole the show for many an attendee.
Closing the festival, Cake took the stage a bit late, due to a medical evacuation. As a disco ball swayed in the wind, Cake delivered their signature sound with John McCrea’s spoken word vocals (much richer live) and notes from Vincent DiFiore’s trumpet. Reading the festival, McCrea provided a “warning” before “Sick of You” for anyone who wasn’t in the mood for a less-than-feel-good song. Working through their hits past the 7:00pm stop time, Cake gave everyone a bit more time for fun.
But music wasn’t the only draw at this year’s big event. Saturday’s sun-drenched afternoon provided an apt setting for kids and adults to frolic in the festival’s aptly named Friends Fields. Kiddos of all ages were running around partaking in the hula hoop station, roller skating, DIY kazoo, beading, and stop-action animation stations (the latter three advertised with handmade posters!) Adults indulged in B12 vitamin IVs by B12Love, massage, henna tattoos, tarot readings, and libations of all sorts.
The expanded Manzanita Marketplace offered mainly locally made festival gear, gifts and goodies: hats of all kinds, cover-ups, coats, flower adornments, salon services, jewelry, pottery, and even free advice from local divas. New generations experienced classics like Whac-A-Mole and old-school pinball, with a digital exhibition of art in the “Artcade.”
New to the festival this year was the WhistlePig speakeasy. It provided a fun little challenge for adults who were willing to discover what lay behind its plywood doors, adorned with pig stencils. (Spoiler alert: One door opened to an antechamber, a second door led guests to a festival oasis with WhistlePig cocktails.)
The super-intimate Sweetwater stage venue was powered by mobile performance outfit BandWagon—a nice play on words—and was nestled near the food vendors (again, local faves– MIXT, Zalta, Rocco’s Pizza, Humphry Slocombe, Mamahuhu, Hopmonk Tavern, and more) and picnic tables. As folks ate, they had the chance to experience up-and-coming talent on the diminutive stage that they may not have otherwise made the time to see.
This is a festival that knows its majority-local, multi-generational crowd. There represented were those of us who were present back when Michael Franti, Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew, and Cake were just starting out, those of us hailing from the Valerie June and Durand Jones years, and even the young fans of The Alive and Anna Harrell. Summer festival season is upon us—and Mill Valley presented a fun, caring event to lead the way.
Photos by Jon Bauer; text by Patty Riek