Bay Area Summer Festivals: Bundle Up for Chilly Days and Hot Nights

by Marshall Lamm

When you are in the Bay Area, there are no better indicators that the region’s Summer Festival Season is back than rolling fog, cold temperatures, and the unveiling of Festival merchandise of bespoke fleece jackets and limited-edition wool blankets. This June and July, the Bay Area’s festival scene heats up with chilly days and hot nights of salsa dancing in downtown San Francisco and watching movies under the stars, albeit with the San Francisco Symphony providing the live music score. To help you stay "cool" this summer, we have compiled this diverse list of the "hottest" festivals, food and wine events, and multi-day genre-bending destination extravaganzas.

PUSH Dance Company. Image courtesy Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

Downtown, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival serves as an urban oasis with free concerts, salsa dancing, mini-Festivals, poetry, and children’s programs.  Now in its 24th year, the festival presents free multiple daily and weekend performances that span the globe and performance disciplines including SF Uke Jam's Summer ‘Ukesplosion’ of all things ukulele (June 29) presented by Kala Brand Music, and the inaugural Color Your Mind Festival (July 27) curated by Sameer Gupta that expands the boundaries of Indian classical music into new and exciting territory. The festival’s Children’s Garden Series presents the Bay Area institution Circus Bella and their new show “WOW!” (June 21 & 22) and Unique Derique (July 19). The two-weekend ChoreoFest (July 13 & 20) transforms the entire Gardens into an urban dancefloor and features eight groups performing site-specific work including PUSH Dance Company.

The ninth annual Kronos Festival (June 20-23) at SFJAZZ commemorates the ensemble’s 50th Anniversary and features a slate of world premieres and special guests; the final performances of longtime members John Sherba and Hank Dutt; and the celebrated live documentary, “A Thousand Thoughts.”

Courtesy Kronos Quartet

"Beacon of Love"is this year's SF Pride theme, and the two-day event will feature booths and entertainment on Saturday, June 29, and the parade, main stage performers, booths, and more on Sunday, June 30. Emmy, Grammy and two-time Tony award winner Billy Porter has been named as Celebrity Grand Marshal. Billy headlines at the main Civic Center stage June 30, and is scheduled to appear at the City Hall party that afternoon.

Also in downtown San Francisco, SF Live is a new six-month series of free music concerts put on as a joint citywide initiative by esteemed San Francisco arts and local music venues. Created as a love letter to San Francisco music, upcoming performances include the Mr. Tipples-curated Pacific Mambo Orchestra (June 20) at Fulton Plaza, and the Rickshaw Stop-curated show (July 27) at Crane Cove Park.

Opened in 1937, Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford University campus will host the Stanford Live Arts Festival - the month-long outdoor concert series in July.  The series, in partnership with San Francisco Symphony, SFJAZZ, and San Francisco Ballet, begins July 13 with “Spanish Favorites with the SF Symphony.  The Symphony orchestra will accompany “The Movie Music of John Williams” (July 20).  SFJAZZ presents Count Basie Orchestra with special guest Gunhild Carling (July 14) and Taj Mahal Quintet with Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite Duo (July 19).  SF Ballet presents “Starry Nights” (July 26 & 27). Stanford Live will present a day of cumbia music with CUMBIA@Frost (July 21) featuring Vilma Diaz y La Sonora Dinamita and  El Feeling.

Masego, Lucinda Willimas, Herbie Hancock. Images courtesy Stern Grove Festival.

The granddaddy of all San Francisco festivals is the Stern Grove Festival. Located on 33 acres in the City’s Sunset neighborhood, the Festival kicks off its 87th season of free concerts in June and will run for 9 consecutive Sundays. This year’s program promises more of what this series has presented to the Bay Area for all these years: free Sunday concerts for music fans to enjoy with friends and family as the summer fog gives way to afternoon sun. This year alt-pop duo Tegan and Sara kick off the festival while the legendary Chaka Khan will grace the festival stage on the last Big Picnic Weekend. Jamaican singer, Masego and Chicano Batman share the lineup with iconic artists such as The Commodores, Herbie Hancock and Lucinda Williams.

The streets and parks of San Francisco were seemingly designed and built with our modern neighborhood gatherings and day-long musical experiences in mind. The 70th North Beach Festival (June 15 & 16) celebrates the rich history and cultural heritage of one of The City’s most iconic neighborhoods. As well as music and family fun, there’s delicious food from acclaimed local restaurants and bay area gourmet food vendors and food trucks. The long-running Fillmore Jazz Festival (July 6 & 7) will present live music from multiple stages with food offerings from many of the iconic street’s businesses and restaurants.

North Beach Festival. Photo by Dorothy O'Donnell

Next, we get away to Wine Country to take in some sunshine and experience the best of the region’s food and wine. Healdsburg Jazz Festival (June 15-23) presents Juneteenth Celebration on the plaza (June 15) and Joshua Redman (June 23).  Blue Note Summer Sessions at the Meritage Resort in Napa presents Gregory Porter (June 22) and Tush Saltana (July 11).

Festival Napa Valley (July 6-21) will bring together over 200 artists, wineries, resorts, theaters, restaurants, chefs, and vintners at venues throughout Napa Valley. Programs include concerts for kids, classical music performances, and a wide variety of food and wine pairings, events, and conversations.

Further afield in the scenic and historic coastal town of Mendocino, the Mendocino Music Festival presents 25 concerts (July 13-27) featuring an extremely varied blend of musical styles including classical, pop, jazz, country, opera, bluegrass, and more. Not many festivals you’d find a chamber music series focusing on the music of Gabriel Fauré, rubbing up against a concert by the wonderful South African Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Back in Oakland, Mosswood Meltdown (July 6 & 7) happens at Mosswood Park. Founded in 2009 and hosted by the legendary filmmaker John Waters, this year’s edition features The B-52s, Big Freedia, and Gibby Haynes.

Finally, on August 3, Jerry Day celebrates Jerry Garcia’s 82nd birthday with a day-long musical trip in San Francisco’s McLaren Park. You won’t need a miracle to attend and the lineup will be announced later this summer. 

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