Bay Area musicians come together for annual festival to raise money for music education
It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Sonoma County and Bay Area music fans have flocked to Petaluma in significant numbers thanks to what probably has to be the best lineup the Petaluma Music Festival has put together in its 10-year history. Organizers have taken advantage of the thriving music scene that’s arisen just one county over in Marin, signing up most of the players that orbit around Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club. The elder Lesh is the only big name missing here, what with an all-day lineup that features many of Phil’s friends and “Terrapin Allstars” in action.
Scott Law & Ross James’ Cosmic Twang are regulars at Terrapin, as are Stu Allen & Friends and Midnight North. Allen, Law, and James basically occupy Jerry Garcia chairs one, two and three at Terrapin, while Midnight North features Lesh’s son Grahame. Terrapin regular Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz is on hand as an artist-in-residence, much as he was at this summer’s High Sierra Music Festival. Then there are other Bay Area regulars like Moonalice, Poor Man’s Whiskey, Grateful Bluegrass Boys and rising artists like the T Sisters, Royal Jelly Jive, and Colonel & the Mermaids. Top it off with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood as headliners (the New Year’s Eve headliner at Terrapin’s Grate Room this past year), and it feels like a lot like a big week at Terrapin. Except that they’re all here in one jam-packed day at the Sonoma Fairgrounds to help raise money for music programs in local schools.
Last year’s festival raised more than $60,000 for music programs in Petaluma area public schools. Repeating this feat is a noble cause indeed, with arts funding in public schools always being tenuous and even more so in this era of Donald Trump’s political domain where the orange-haired robber baron and his cronies are out to slash federal funds for any program that doesn’t help enrich the corporatocracy’s top 1%.
The festival actually kicks off at high noon with a set from Moonalice, featuring jam rock veterans John Molo, Barry Sless and Pete Sears with musical and technology entrepreneur Roger McNamee (the same band that just rocked the top of the San Francisco Giants dugout two days earlier with a festive pre-game set at the team’s annual Grateful Dead tribute night). But alas, many are challenged to arrive on the scene that early in the day. Stu Allen & Friends kick the festival into party time mode at 1:30 pm, throwing down a high energy set that could just as easily function as a headlining set at many events. With Ezra Lipp on drums, Jordan Feinstein on keys, and Murph Murphy on bass, the band is nearly identical to the one that Allen led in a full performance of the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station album at the High Sierra Music Festival a month earlier. When Lebo subs in for Scott Law, it becomes that same band and sparks begin to fly.
A funky take on David Bowie’s “Fame” gets things going, but it’s the smoking jam that follows on Eric Clapton’s “Got to Get Better in a Little While” that really kicks the set into overdrive. Lipp and Murph lay down a hot groove while Allen and Lebo tear it up with extended solos to provide the first big peak moment of the day. Law returns to rock with Allen on the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and a Cream-style take on “Crossroads” that finds the band going for broke once again as Allen and Law shred melty blues licks. Allen has staked his claim in the Grateful Dead songbook, but he’s also someone who can cover the entire classic rock spectrum with style.
Then it’s over the Lagunitas Stage for Midnight North, where Grahame Lesh and his cohorts are cranking it up. “Everyday” finds Lesh singing an appropriately uplifting tune about living for “days like these” when “every day was like a miracle”. Scott Law soon makes another guest appearance to help give the band a boost on “Mr. Charlie”, which sizzles with vocalist Elliott Peck belting out the bluesy classic in a manner befitting of the great Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Law sticks around for most of the set, giving Midnight North a stronger lead guitar element to make this one of their jammiest sets in memory such as on the edgy rocker “Roamin’” from the band’s new album Under the Lights. Midnight North wisely deliver their stellar cover of the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Midnight in Harlem”, which is always a treat but soars to a higher level here with Law adding some great slide guitar. The band uses the rocking title track from the new album to keep the set cranked, then pulls a great curve ball by segueing into their cover of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” for a big finish.
The afternoon takes an odd twist back at the main stage with Poor Man’s Whiskey rocking a heavy blues jam that makes some wonder if the right band is onstage. But the bluegrass rockers are soon back to their usual tricks with a “Petaluma hoedown” type of tune. A new cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” strikes just the right chord, as the group transmogrifies the blues rock classic with their own patented outlaw bluegrass vibe. Banjo player and ringleader Josh Brough relates a tale about playing with Lebowitz at their mutual alma mater at UCSB only some “ten years ago”, before bringing Lebo on to jam on “Three Years Gone” while admitting it was more like 20 to 25 years.
The good times keep rolling back over at the Lagunitas Stage with the Grateful Bluegrass Boys applying their even bluegrassier stylings to Grateful Dead and classic rock gems. A fun romp through Steve Miller’s “Rock’n Me” is followed by another great guest appearance when rising vocalist Jeanette Ferber joins the group for an uplifting rendition of “Touch of Grey”. Yet another Terrapin Allstar who has performed with Phil Lesh & Friends on multiple occasions, Ferber has been building her profile in 2017 by guesting with a slew of bands around the Bay Area and showing she can do more than just sing backup with lead vocals on tunes like Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. Her harmonies lift up the Grateful Bluegrass Boys here, as well as on a refreshingly uptempo arrangement of “Ramble On Rose”. The band also strikes classic rock gold on “Into the Mystic” and “Going to California”, before a big crowd-pleasing jam on “Scarlet Begonias”.
Back at the main stage, Cosmic Twang seems to be stuck in second gear for a few songs, but it’s only a matter of time with both Lebo and Barry Sless joining Ross James and Scott Law to form a four-guitar squadron. “Don’t Let Go” finds the band conjuring the Garcia magic here in “the Days Between” (of Garcia’s birthday on August 1 and passing on August 9) as Craig “Cmac” MacArthur steps in to provide the lead vocal, followed by a groovy jam to ignite the set. Another big jam occurs on “New Minglewood Blues”, as James leads the group into a hard rocking bluesy exploration. More special guests appear for a big climax with Pete Sears on bass and Norman Greenbaum singing his majestic hit “Spirit in the Sky”, which fits nicely with the twilight hour approaching.
It’s almost time for the headliners now, but there’s still more action with the T Sisters doing their folky harmony thing on the Lagunitas Stage and Royal Jelly Jive throwing down an old school funky, jazzy cabaret party on the even more intimate Petaluma Stage. Charismatic frontwoman Lauren Belde has her mojo working here, as a crowd packs into the small space to groove out on the New Orleans style vibes the band is throwing down.
8:00 pm soon arrives with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood hitting the main stage as a fitting headliner to cap off what’s been a full day of jam rock action. “Outside of the corporate music business, it’s an amazing time for music,” Robinson said prophetically a couple of days earlier in an interview on Sonoma’s NPR station KRCB. It’s an accurate sentiment, proven out in many ways but certainly exemplified with the North Bay’s thriving music scene of recent years and here today. The band has just released what might be their best album yet with Barefoot in the Head, and the new “High Is Not the Top” provides a taste of the rich sonic tapestry the band continues to develop with each passing year. The new “Behold the Seer” is another early highlight with its funky cosmic vibe that sounds like a blend between the classic Black Crowes sound from the early ‘90s and the CRB’s “farm to table” psyche rock of this decade.
The new “Blue Star Woman” starts off rather ambient and bluesy but then opens up into soaring jam space where lead guitarist Neal Casal shines as solos over a psychedelic carpet ride from keyboardist Adam MacDougall and a flowing groove from drummer Tony Leone and bassist Jeff Hill. The CRB gets in on the Garcia tribute action with their groovy rendition of “Second That Emotion” that seems to pay homage to the Jerry Garcia Band’s version. That leads to another deep jam where it seems the music begins to play the band. The chemistry between Casal and MacDougall is increasingly apparent, growing deeper no doubt from the jam heavy Circles Around the Sun shows they’ve played this year on top of the CRB’s typically heavy touring schedule. Casal takes a big solo, then passes the baton to MacDougall who goes deep vortex as he conjures maximum psychedelic wizardry that takes listeners on a voyage into the light fantastic. The band never loses its groove though, as the CRB demonstrates their mastery of the form here.
“If You Had a Heart to Break” finds Robinson delivering some soulful crooning on a bluesy ballad, but the band picks up the tempo following the last verse as they stretch out for a short jam. “Rosalee” then takes the congregation to the top of the mountain with one of the CRB’s top jam vehicles. “Is the air getting thinner? Are we getting high?” Robinson asks in the song’s uplifting pre-chorus. The answer is most affirmative as the audience falls into a collective groove on the infectious tune, with Casal adding some great slide guitar work and MacDougall again weaving his sonic wizardry throughout the spaces between.
The funky “Shore Power” closes the set with an adventurous vibe, a tune that feels like a soundtrack cut for a road trip along the California coast before heading off to explore America as the CRB is about to do. An encore of the Grateful Dead’s “They Love Each Other” wraps the day with another tribute to Garcia here in the middle of “the Days Between” to cap off ten straight hours of music. It could be argued that Garcia’s unlimited devotion to pursuing fun through the golden road of adventurous music is largely responsible for creating this entire music scene. Garcia’s trailblazing career, therefore, continues to pay dividends for modern music fans.