It’s a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon high above the San Francisco Bay here at Mount Tamalpais, a sacred peak atop the rolling green hills of Marin County and home to a 4,000-seat natural mountain theater the likes of which few exist in the world. Thousands of music fans gather here on 11 September for the annual Sound Summit concert to benefit the magnificent Mt. Tam State Park. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real are this year’s headliners for what promises to be a high-energy rock ‘n’ roll show to match the altitude.
Early birds can catch an undercard featuring local rock siren Teal Collins, Mardis Gras Indian funk band Cha Wa out of New Orleans, and Los Angeles indie rockers Allah-Las. However, it seems like just arriving in time for Father John Misty‘s 3:45 pm set is the best that many can do on this late summer afternoon. It’s a great atmosphere up above the clouds, with Marin’s crisp mountain air and warm sunshine providing what feels like a near utopian atmosphere harkening back to the late 1960s. Back then, this venue hosted what’s been billed as the first outdoor rock festival with the Magic Mountain Music Festival featuring the Doors and Jefferson Airplane just a week before the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
You can even see the San Francisco skyline behind the stage from the right vantage point and a majestic view it is, with the mountain looking down on a layer of cloud cover that makes it feel like attendees could be mingling with angels. Father John Misty — aka Josh Tillman — has developed a solid rep as one of the 21st century’s most zeitgeisty singer/songwriters and seems like a good fit for this lineup. He dazzled the audience in his last Bay Area appearance when he brought his full band to the Berkeley Greek Theater for an evening performance. But it’s a much different vibe here today as Misty plays a solo acoustic set instead.
It’s not that great tunes like “Total Entertainment Forever”, “I’m Writing a Novel”, and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” can’t work in a solo acoustic format. The Sub Pop Records artist delivers the tunes with the same wry, charismatic delivery as in the electric band, but the social picnic crowd can’t seem to stop chatting throughout the set. That makes it difficult for the songs to make the same impact, and it’s truly like the difference between day and night compared to the Berkeley show from 2019. Those seeing Father John Misty for the first time today might not get much of an impression, which is a shame as these tunes deserve a more attentive audience.
Anticipation builds, however, as Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real prepare to conclude the Sound Summit with the day’s climactic performance at 5:20 pm. But when the band hit the stage, it’s apparent that the quintet are minus one member, with percussionist Tato Melgar missing in action. That presents a challenge, with Nelson describing Melgar as “sort of like the glue, energetically” in the band’s live sound when PopMatters spoke with him earlier this summer. But the grapevine would suggest that Melgar merely had some personal business to attend to. Nelson & POTR prove more than capable as a classic quartet, though, as they demonstrate early on with an electrifying take on “Perennial Bloom”, the rocking first single from the band’s new album A Few Stars Apart.
The bluesy shuffle of “Four Letter Word” from the band’s debut album gets the crowd grooving nicely, as it becomes clear that Promise of the Real will be just fine playing as a quartet. Bassist Corey McCormick and drummer Anthony LoGerfo are a formidable rhythm section, while multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz adds keyboards and slide guitar to fill out the sound.
Nelson shows some of his trademark diversity on the acoustic-oriented “More Than We Can Handle”, an uplifting number from the new album that showcases the troubadour’s soul-soothing voice. The band makes a timely nod to the unique setting with the similarly cathartic “Set Me Down on a Cloud”, as Nelson sings, “Set me down on a cloud with my soul turned inside out.” The shimmering guitar chords ring out with a clarity that resonates particularly brightly here above the clouds, as Nelson seems to conduct a rock sermon of sorts.
“Leave ’em Behind” is another gem from the new album, with a heavier minor key vibe that sounds like it could be a lost Neil Young track from the early 1970s. Nelson then moves to the piano for “A Few Stars Apart”, another soul-soothing tune about staying connected with the dearly departed on a deeper spiritual level. The bluesy “Forget About Georgia” makes for another timely nod to the setting high above the city when Nelson sings of how he and the romantic object of his affection “made love for the first time at a hotel in San Francisco”, winning a big cheer from the audience. But it feels like a missed opportunity when Nelson fails to perform his excellent cover of the Scott McKenzie ’60s classic “If You’re Going to San Francisco”, recorded by Promise of the Real on 2016’s Something Real album.
The band keep rocking, though, with the groovy “Carolina” as the festive dance party vibe gets cranked up a notch. Strangers are dancing with strangers, and it’s great to have live music back after the madness of 2020. The set picks up steam down the stretch with McCormick delivering a dazzling rock power bass solo after “Find Yourself”, leading to the infectious new rocker “Wildest Dream”. There’s a shimmering melodic rock quality in effect here, a style in which Promise of the Real have come to specialize.
Nelson shows off his dynamic songwriting range with the majestic “Entirely Different Stars” from 2020’s Naked Garden LP. The song about a spaceship trip to the far reaches of the galaxy (inspired by the popular cartoon Rick and Morty) is a true sonic journey, with Nelson leading a rocking excursion that moves into an adventurous space jam. It’s a tough song to top but Nelson rocks Sound Summit higher still with a smashing cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud”. It works as both a tribute to recently departed Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts and another timely nod to how this show is occurring above the clouds as if Nelson has led the audience to the Cloud City of Bespin.
Promise of the Real continue to impress as they move into a psychedelic jam that sounds at first like it’s going to be a Jimi Hendrix cover but turns out to be their own deep cut “The Awakening” from their Brando’s Paradise Sessions EP released in 2010. It’s a dynamic tune that finds the band rocking out at their best, with Nelson singing of a spiritual awakening of sorts that includes some hot guitar riffage that feels descended from the Hendrix tree. The band then wraps the show with their classic anthem, “Something Real”, another powerful, heartfelt rocker that keeps it real indeed.
It’s been a great show for a great cause, and there’s no doubt that Sound Summit has struck sonic gold by enlisting Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real for the occasion. Getting down off the mountain also happens more smoothly than in past years as the festival employs a greater number of smaller shuttle buses, shortening the wait to catch the ride back down the mountain (due to the very limited parking available on site.) Organizers earn extra points by handing out free posters to the fans upon boarding the shuttles, making an excellent parting gift to commemorate the occasion.