Hearing there’d be another day long festival intended to raise money and awareness for Mount Tamalpais, or as some know her, the Sleeping Lady*, brought a little smile to my face and a little spirit to my soul. This place, this place… Up Panoramic Highway, a two-lane guardrail-free road, to Ridgecrest Boulevard amongst the trees to one side and the ocean the other, you feel as if you are a part of the mountainside. It also offers the most incredible view of San Francisco to the east, allowing you to see a part of the San Francisco Bay you may not know exists, along with an incredible view of the bridges that connect the East Bay to the Peninsula. The Mountain Theatre (also known as the Cushing Memorial Theatre) came alive once again as host to an-all day music festival and share information about the nature and wildlife here that need our protection, now more than ever. After all, it is incredibly awesome atop this 2,500 foot high mountain. But, really anywhere up there you can find its glorious nature. Miles and miles of trails gently ribbon the mountain, crossing valleys of redwoods, creeks leading to waterfalls, and wide-open grassy spaces. And, as one of the performers mentioned, you could smell of eucalyptus was strong enough to clear your sinuses.
This year’s festival was held in mid-September, one of the nicest months on the west coast, offering warm days and cool evenings, and often the most incredible sunsets you’ll ever see! It was a long haul from Monterey, a good three hour ride each way, but it’s all good. This is one incredible spot to see and hear music, out with Mother Nature atop one of the most beautiful spots in California. Upon arrival to Mill Valley, the traffic, as expected, was backed up to the highway. Knowing festival parking was sold out and the limited parking available on the Mountain, I could either park down the hill and bus it up, or drive up and pray to the parking goddess for a spot close to the gates. Getting into Mill Valley, the traffic was heavy, looking like a parking lot up Highway 1, where I needed to head. All festival parking was sold out, so this spot would be in any one of the public day use parking areas, for $8. Should I drive all the way up the hill, which could take 20 to 25 minutes, and hope to find a spot? If not, I’d have to drive all the way back down the hill only to have to take the bus back up….. that did not sound like a good plan. I paid the $10 bus fee and hopped aboard. Thank you to the brave bus drivers who drove up and down that narrow winding road all day and into the evening, shuttling happy fest goers and making sure we got there and back safely.
The first act to hit the stage at 11:00 am was a local guitar player, a 15 year old girl from Mill Valley High School. What an experience that must have been for her. She looked small up on the big stage, but the way she held herself throughout her performance, she appeared 10 feet tall. Just she and her guitar, Caroline Sky performed a handful of original songs in her 20 minute set. Her voice was on the jazzy side, soft and smooth, with a beautiful high range. Her guitar playing was on the folksy side, with more than a touch of groovy smoothness to support her vocal style. She sang about life, adventure, relationships, emotions, and youth. She was a refreshing start to the warm day, and she owned every minute of it. Doing a little search for her online, she’s just put out a five-song debut LP that is available on iTunes. Show the young lady some love and support! I mean, after all, she did a killer version of Eric Clapton’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” towards the end of her set. C’mon!
Next up was a gig called, The Mother Truckers (be careful not to say that 10 times fast the wrong way) who had a nice fan base in the audience that day, singing and dancing along and seriously enjoying their energy. And the energy they put out is infectious – the beautiful smile of Teal Collins along with some incredible guitar playing from Josh Zee, kicked the festival into high gear quickly. Hailing from Austin Texas, they are referred to as “high-octane Americana” with a blend of country, rhythm and blues with a lot of loud guitar. The vocals are big and powerful, the band is tight, and they truly enjoy themselves up there. While they may have called Austin home for a while, they actually started out in the San Francisco Bay Area about 15 years ago, (I knew I’d heard of them……) and have recently returned to their roots in northern California. With the oomph and sass of Teal and the shredding guitar from Josh, this singer/songwriting team is supported by Pete Franco on bass (who was also sportin’ a stealie that day), Dana Miller on drums, and John Varn on keyboards. They have released a handful of recordings, each receiving high praise and some even national recognition, with their song, “Summer of Love” being named one of the coolest songs of the world (thanks to SIRIUS radio’s “Little Steven’s Underground Garage”).
Not holding back at all, the first song, “No Mercy”, was just as high-energy as the last. The only way to keep that going for 30+ minutes, for us and them, was a little sprinkling of some breathers in here and there, taking it down a notch or two with songs like, “Keep it Simple”, which is truly a ballad. This was one of the songs I recognized from their list of releases, heard on the radio dial more than once here on the Central Coast. It showcases Teal’s powerhouse vocals, as she moves from the sultry sweetness of admitting she’s just a girl, to the pure strength of a woman whose been scorned, and it’s all backed by Zee’s strong guitar, moving up to a big crescendo at the perfect moments.
They absolutely showed their musical rock and roll attitudes with songs like, “Break-Up Sex” and “Dynamite”, Collins and Zee sharing lyrics and blending that strong lead guitar and steady and supportive rhythm. I actually thought for a second they’d cover a Rolling Stones tune the way, “Streets of Atlanta”, started up, with that southern rock guitar lick that provides the attitude for your strut on down the road. I suppose they had a little something for everyone that day, and by the looks of the happy faces in the crowd, Marin County was pleased to have them back. They exude glee, there may not have been a single moment when I didn’t see them truly enjoying themselves, and honestly happy to be back home.
With only one stage, there was time between each set to go grab a drink or some grub, check out the merchandise and even bid on one of the three items donated in an effort to raise big bank for the Mountain. There was a beautiful watercolor painting by Jerry Garcia called, “California Mission”, along with two signed guitars – a custom 1988 Alvarez Acoustic from Bob Weir’s personal collection and set to his specifications, and a beautiful burnt orange brick colored electric signature SG Gibson from Derek Trucks. With bids being accepted all day, I wonder who was lucky enough to receive any one of the collector items.
The Portland Cello Project graced the stage about 1:15 pm, filling the air with pure jazz and classical sounds. With a reputation of “mixing genres and blurring musical lines and perceptions”, they turn popular music into something you’d hear at the symphony hall. Their stage set up was quite simple, a half circle of six cellists supported by a small rhythm section – drums and bass. I felt like I recognized more than I knew, and probably so, as they covered the likes of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and even Taylor Swift’s new hit, “Shake it Off” – as a security guard helped me to figure it out, saying he only knew it because it was his daughter’s favorite song. The PCP, as they are known to their fans, described it as a song about “becoming an adult in the most mature of ways.” Right. Good humor there.
They have a mission: to bring the cello to places it wouldn’t normally be heard, which includes sports bars, punk clubs and even ballparks; to playing music that normally wouldn’t be heard on the cello (and I think they met that mission); and, to building bridges across all sorts of musical communities through a diverse selection of collaborators. Doing a little Google search, I’m more than impressed with their gumption to play the likes of Beck, Kanye West, Radiohead, Duran Duran, and even Pantera (take me back to the 80’s will ya?).
A resounding theme throughout the festival was, “keep the scene smoke free”. With all of the wildfires going on around the State, this seemed quite obvious to me, but I guess not others. While I did not see one person light a cigarette (yay), I understand the port-o-potties were, um, quite fragrant and smoky… Between bands, State Parks Department personnel took to the mic to educate the crowd about the history of the Mountain, the current state of the environment in California and just how much it all matters to our future, and Mother Nature.
With the sun beginning to retreat behind the trees, I noticed that the crowd and grown exponentially. The side of the hill was now covered in colorful clothes and happy faces, waiting for The Mother Hips to hit the stage. A Bay Area favorite, The Hips have been rocking out stages all over California, and clear from the west to the east for two decades, flying a bit under the radar of other bigger acts. They seem to care not, however, sticking to their indie roots mix of 70’s rock and roll. Like other jambands, their live shows are what sells, not the studio stuff. It’s the energy they create on stage, the relationships between the musicians and fans and how it all comes to a head when they perform.
Starting off their 45+ minute set with, “Smoke”, featuring their signature heavy hitting sound and dual guitar combo of Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono, the song was over before I was ready for it to be. They moved rather smoothly into, “White Falcon Fuzz,” slowing it down a bit and allowing Bluhm’s voice to take it easy on the lyrics that painted a picture of what it’s like to craft a song, have hopes and dreams for making it, but understanding that that your dreams just might change your life. Keeping to that point, the “Freed From Prison” explains that sometimes, for some, music is something you can’t live without; your dreams are what make you, what you live for. This one has an easier jam and the vocal harmonies between Tim and Greg were as warm as the sunshine. The spaces between the rhythm guitar and ethereal sound of Greg’s tone are enhanced by Danny Eisenberg’s keyboard work, as he moves back and forth between the synthesizer tone and the lighter, more piano sounding ivory work.
I’ve seen The Mother Hips more than a handful of times, admittedly not as often as I could have. This set seemed a little on the mellow side of their usual electrifying energy. The chemistry on stage was there, but maybe held back a tad via some of the song choices that day. I’d never heard, “Clean Me Up” before and it was rather melancholy and soothingly played. Sounded like a song about a drifter living the life of a hobo, but someone who was ready to stop drifting and come home. “So drag that blade across my throat now. Clean this drifter up. Tomorrow I’ll go scare us up some money, but for now let’s just clean me up….”
So let’s talk Scott Thunes on bass, just for a second. I love to photograph this guy. He gets into it, really into it and it shows. Whether he’s hitting hard for, “Grizzly Bear” or he’s grooving along with, “Been Lost Once” (one of my Hips favorites), he owns it, he wears it, and he puts it all out and into every note.
Closing their set with, “Stoned Up the Road,” seemingly sandwiching their set with the “smoke free” theme of the day. This is another one of my Hips favorites. Sure, you can take that two ways – my favorite songs by The Mother Hips as well as of my hips. (ba-dum-chhhhh) It must be that steady yet heavy beat outta the drums and bass. Its rock and roll, it’s loud, it’s got that screamin’ guitar solo, the groovy organ wiggle, and a big bang of an ending. Yes. The way it should be.
I cannot forget to mention the one and only Wavy Gravy, referred to as the “Minister of Mirth” which may or may not be a comparison to one George Roby, a late 19th century/early 20th century comedian who was known for mixing situations and observations with comedy. Yeah, that sounds right. And besides, who doesn’t love a guy in tie-dye and a red clown nose? A San Francisco Bay Area icon, an entertainer and activist for peace, he’s founded and co-founded a few organizations you may recognize such as Camp Winnarainbow, the Seva Foundation and, of course, the Hog Farm. Politically active in the 60’s (and still), he decided to start dressing as a clown in hopes of being less likely to be arrested at a demonstration, thinking clowns were seen as “safe.” Gravy also formed the “Phurst Church of Phun” which was a secret society of clowns that were dedicated to using political theater to discuss ending the Vietnam War. In his own unique way, he was there to introduce the bigger acts on the bill, coming out for Dr. John & the Nite Trippers and the Tedeschi-Trucks Band.
I was so excited for Dr. John. I’ve never seen him perform which also meant I’ve not yet had the opportunity to photograph him. What a treat! I loved every minute of it. He walked out on stage with the help of his voodoo walking stick, dressed to the nines in a maroon suit, feathered fedora, and snake skin shoes letting his long dreadlock hang down his back. His voice blaring out the lyrics, keeping up with the brassy sound of Sara Morrow’s trombone, he opened up with the traditional, “Iko Iko” (or is it Aiko Aiko). I love that song, know it well from the days of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, however this had a bit more of the Dr. John attitude behind it. Fitting perfectly, they move into “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me”, a bit of a quick song and just as lively.
Playing for just over an hour, he brought New Orleans to Marin, he put the boogie woogie back in the redwoods, and he gave the mountain rhythm and allowed her to sing gospel and blues. Playing the likes of, “Why Honey”, “The Monkey Speaks His Mind”, and “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come Around” (“When I cut you once, you gonna bleed twice…” uh-oh!). Spending most of his time at the grand piano, he also fit in time on the synthesizer and electric guitar.
Conjuring up one of his biggest hits, “Right Place, Wrong Time”, he moved to the synthesizer and faced the crowd, wearing that big warm smile. Moving over to the beautiful, warm, yellow-orange electric Harmony, he busted into, “Com ON Baby Let the Good Times Roll”. Man, at the ripe age of 74 (going on 75), the man can still rock it out. His guitar playing was just as bold as the lyrics behind the song, singing, “Love is nice, when it’s understood. It’s even nicer when you’re feelin’ good. You got me slippin’ like a flag on a pole. Come on baby let the good times roll.”
From his new release Ske-Dat-De-Dat The Spirit of Satch, he takes an old classic and gives it his signature funky groovy boogie woogie way, playing “Wonderful World” by the one and only Louis Armstrong. Such a different take on the classic, it fit Dr. John’s lively funky style so well and really features Morrow’s trombone playing and harmonizing abilities.
Ending his set with a wonderfully funky, “Goodnight Irene” into, “Such a Night”, the Dr. begins to exit the stage as the song winds down after the last verse. He stops to smile at the crowd, pointing out to fans as if to say hello, and taking a moment to breathe it all in. After all, what a setting…..
Closing out the festival was a rockin’ 1 ½ hour set out of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, featuring special guest Bob Weir. As Wavy Gravy said, they were “uber awesome” for sure. And loud. For the first time, my camera was affected by the volume, freezing the lens or shaking the connections between the camera body and lens so much that it oddly zeroed itself out, images completely black. I’ve been at and photographed some pretty loud music but I’d never experienced this. The simple solution, to turn it off and back on, had it working again, but I tell you, that is a new experience!
Starting out with “Anyhow,” then into “Do I Look Worried” – shit, the way Tedeschi sings… Pair this with her guitar work, set Derek out on the road to lay it all down had me pretty excited to see where they’d take their set. Raging guitar, incredible volume, breathtaking blues and soulful vocals – this is what makes the TTB so insanely awesome, so addictive, so popular in the music scene today.
Slowed down from the first two, “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” is just a sweet one, danceable smoothness, full of sound from the big stage horns and harmonies. Gosh I love this song. The long break in lyrics, allowing Derek to play in that way he does, the sound of his guitar is uplifting as tall as the redwood trees that surrounded the stage.
This is a big band, with big sound – guitar, rhythm, keys, horns, and perfect backup vocals. For, “Don’t Miss Me,” Mark Rivers stepped up and took the lead on vocals, letting Susan sitting back with Derek. Funky and filled with attitude, the horns were blowing strong and lead to a smooth saxophone solo, the band playing ever so quietly in the background, keeping the funk real. And really jazzy… crazy jazzy for a minute or two. Lordy they play it all don’t they. As Derek winds the song down, sweetly and smoothly, pulling on the strings, generating that smooth signature slide sound he has honed over the years, there is Susan, eyes closed with the look of bliss on her face…. I could see it as bright as the sunshine, the gentle smile on her face, her head tilted back a bit, as if to get closer to Derek’s guitar strings. And, we enter, “Midnight in Harlem” one that gives me goose bumps. Every time. “Walk that line, torn apart. Spend your whole life trying. Ride that train, free your heart…. It’s midnight up in Harlem…..” I think I just got goose bumps again.
OK, so about three quarters of the way into their set, they invite Marin’s Bob Weir to the stage. We are spoiled out here on the West Coast, getting to have the band members so close to us, with Weir, Lesh and Hart all residing. Apparently, a little too spoiled as Susan had to tell us our welcome was not warm enough, egging the crowd to cheer a little louder for the local fella. All in good fun! Playing a TTB cover song by classic bluesman Charles Segar, “Key to the Highway”, and a true blues song with Bob and Susan exchanging verses. Moving rather smoothly, seamlessly into, “Walking Blues,” Weir was in rare form, or maybe not so rare since his return to the stage, smiling, kicking up that leg, connecting with the audience, even wiggling his hips a bit as he sang, “She’s got an Eglen movement from her head down to her toes….” While brief, it was perfect. The way he sits in the pocket with Trucks, his playfulness with Tedeschi, the way it all works is kismet. This isn’t their first time sharing the stage, and by the connections, smiles, jokes and expressions, it won’t be the last.
Joking that the next one may induce a forest fire if we were to use paper instead of a Vape, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” by the one and only Joe Cocker. Fitting two of his into their set, it had me wishing I’d made it out to Lockn’ again this year, to catch that Mad Dogs and Englishmen set, a tribute to the man who made his big mark on the scene at Woodstock – I can still see the video snippet of him, the sweat dripping from his curls as he sang, “A Little Help From My Friends.”
Closing out their set with, “Idle Wind” form their Made Up Mind release (2013) highlights the incredible wind musicians, flute, trumpet, trombone, saxophone…. Was it over? I could see them gathering behind the drum kits, chatting and discussing the encore. Another Joe Cocker tune, “Letter” it was big and powerful, as it should have been. Susan put her guitar away for this one, just grabbing the mic and going at it, full tilt.
There’s something about the love on stage with this band. Yes, yes, clearly between Susan and Derek but really, it flows between them all. I love the way they watch each other, the smiles brought to their faces just because they are enjoying it all. And, personally, this band will now always remind me of my big sister. We got to go see them for free when I was back east, just about a month before Sound Summit, as they ended their summer tour in Buffalo, NY at a place called ArtPark (OK, technically, it is in Lewiston). I remember going there when I was young, playing around on the big sculptures and participating in painting or maybe getting a chance to get my hands dirty with some clay. Sharing the stage that night with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Doyle Bramhall, the show was almost cancelled due to a raging summer storm. But the clouds parted, the rainbows formed, and the band played on. It was awesome.
As the evening came to a close, we drove back down that winding Panoramic Highway, with the sun glowing a bright orange-red over the calm blue sea, the bus was buzzing with chatter about just how incredible the day was, just how beautiful Mount Tamalpais is, and just how special the Sound Summit has become to this area. Here’s to next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
*In the classic Mountain Play “Tamalpa” a beautiful young Miwok maiden falls in love with an Indian prince. When he abandoned her, she walked to the top of the mountain nearby and died of heartbreak. As she sobbed, the mountain heard her intense sorrow and took pity. When finally she died, the mountain was so moved by it, it changed its form, taking on the supine shape of her body and become the Sleeping Lady, our dear Mt. Tamalpais. (an excerpt from “Tam Legends & Myths” found in a Mill Valley Herald article.)