The Best Fests 

The season brims with top-notch music festivals.

Art & Soul

Downtown Oakland really feels like an "it" place whenever the Art & Soul Festival comes to town, and last year's festival didn't disappoint. The three-day event included performances by local hip-hop groups Zion-I and Kev Choice Ensemble, and the spoken-word-poet-turned-emcee Ise Lyfe, plus rock group Jubu & Legally Blynd (with a full horn section), blues singer Tia Carroll, Howard Wiley's Angola Project (which has grown into a big-band ensemble), and some major headliners, among them the Matches and the Indigo Girls. The bands are the main draw, but this festival also features food, craft, and clothing vendors who pack all sides of Frank Ogawa Plaza, not to mention the tasty delicacies from restaurants clustered therein. To cap it all off, there are usually artisan booths, dance shows — which run the gamut from martial arts to Bhangra to b-boying — and kiddie entertainment (including bouncy castles, magicians, and carnival rides) to keep the young ones occupied. To say it's a taste of Oakland would be an understatement; it's an ample feast. Due to the Bay Bridge closure on Labor Day weekend, this year's festival happens in mid-August and runs for two days only. But it should not disappoint. (R.S.)

Aug. 15-16, Frank Ogawa Plaza (14th St. at Broadway, Oakland). Noon-6 p.m., $5-$10.

Greek Theatre

For many Bay Area residents, Berkeley's Greek Theatre is the be-all and end-all of the summer concert circuit. And why shouldn't it be? With a full schedule of acts both young and old, hip and heritage, new and tried-and-true — often in the same evening — there's little reason to look elsewhere. Factor in the excellent sound, gorgeous natural setting, reasonable ticket prices, and central location (but ignore the scarce parking) and you've got an outdoor venue on par with the nation's finest. Bills like David Byrne with DeVotchka (June 26), Death Cab for Cutie with Andrew Bird (July 11), and John Legend with Vaughn Anthony (September 6) should leave little doubt to that claim. This summer, the Greek is your oyster. (N.S.)

June 26-September 6, Greek Theatre (Hearst Ave. and Gayley Rd., Berkeley). Ticket prices vary.

Harmony Festival

India.Arie and the Dead Kennedys? Cake and Bad Brains? Fitting that such diverse acts would come together for this year's Harmony Festival, which takes place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in — surprise — Harmony Village. Fresh off an appearance at Coachella, Michael Franti & Spearhead headline this year's event, which also includes Hasidic Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu, Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, ALO, and Balkan Beat Box. Now in its 31st year, the Harmony Festival combines music with speakers, exhibits, and activities on community activism, eco-consciousness, and neo-spirituality. Expect to have a more open mind by the end of it. (K.R.)

June 12-14, Harmony Village (Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa). $30-$40.

High Sierra Music Festival

Though it always features its share of jug bands and old-timey acts, the High Sierra Music Festival is also known for taking risks. Last year's lineup included avant-jazz drummer Scott Amendola, guitarist (and Berkeley High alum) Will Bernard, and DJ Bassnectar, who brought some dubstep into the mix. The 2009 fest promises no dearth of excitement, either, with performances by feminist folkie Ani DiFranco, who always comes with a killer band. (Her bassist, Todd Sickafoose, released one of best experimental jazz albums of 2008.) Among the other highlights is veteran San Francisco DJ J-Boogie, whose Dubtronic Science band plays a mix of ambient and downtempo grooves. Most impressive is the inclusion of techy jazz keyboardist Marco Benevento, who is not a huge headliner but still promises to be one of the most imaginative acts on the bill. His jazz trio reinterprets songs by Leonard Cohen and Deerhoof — among others — using vintage instrumentation and heavy distortion to warp the melodies. He's a bit heady for a festival audience in the High Sierra, but a hot ticket nonetheless. (R.S.)

July 2-5, Plumas Sierra Fairgrounds (Quincy). $30-$165.

Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival

A trip to Laytonville from the East Bay is no small commitment. Head north on 101 past Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and Ukiah, and after three hours arrive in this tiny town of fewer than 2,000 people. Thankfully, there's more. Laytonville's Black Oak Ranch hosts the annual Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival, first held on a single stage and a single day in 1996 to honor the life of folk musician Kate Wolf. During the intervening years, the event has grown into one of Northern California's biggest blues and folk gatherings. This year's three-day lineup features Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Patty Griffin, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

June 26-28, Laytonville. $25-$165.

Live 105's BFD 2009

Every summer, alt-rock radio stations across the country and major labels conspire to bring fans the mega-lineup festival, those all-day sunburns that usually feature the same acts no matter the market. Luckily, LIVE 105's BFD has the added bonus of music director Aaron Axelson to ensure a non-lame lineup. This year, you've got the expected "classic" alterna crowd-pleasers (311, the Offspring), but also more indie-oriented fare like Metric, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and plenty of local flavor such as Zion I, Mike Relm, Wallpaper, Dizzy Balloon, the Catholic Comb, and Audrye Sessions. In other words, you actually have a chance of hearing new music, not just the same tunes that have been on auto-repeat for the last three months. (K.R.)

June 6, Shoreline Amphitheatre (1 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View). Noon, $25-$49.50.

Mountain Winery

Since Mountain Winery teamed up with Live Nation last year, the winery's booking has gotten noticeably hipper (or we're getting older, or both). Sure, it's still the place where you can eat a fancy prix-fixe three-course meal prior to a show with übernostalgic acts like this year's "Regeneration Tour" (featuring Wang Chung), Duran Duran, the B-52's, Lyle Lovett, the Beach Boys, and Huey Lewis & the News on a warm Saratoga night. But now it's also a venue where you can brag you saw Wilco, Blondie, the Donnas, Elvis Costello, or Rodrigo y Gabriela in an intimate outdoor setting. Pretty soon you'll be sipping Chardonnay during a Lollapalooza reunion tour. (K.R.)

June 10-October 6, Mountain Winery, 14381 Pierce Rd., Saratoga. Ticket prices vary.

Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival

Anyone who attended last year's inaugural Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival knows it was epic, as in clamoring over fences and through steep eucalyptus groves, bathing in the hypnotizing sounds of Radiohead with 50,000 other fans, and waiting two hours to catch a bus home. With headliners Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, and the Beastie Boys alongside local talent like Raphael Saadiq, the Dodos, and the Morning Benders, this year's fest promises to improve on attendance figures as well as overall organization. Expect another weekend to remember. (N.S.)

August 28-30, Golden Gate Park (Speedway Meadow and Polo Fields, San Francisco). Check times, prices.

San Francisco Free Folk Festival

Not to be confused with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, another gratis roots music festival in the city, the San Francisco Free Folk Festival is a two-day celebration of live music and community interaction. Now in its 33rd year, and housed for the first time at Presidio Middle School in the Richmond District, the festival is produced entirely by volunteers, including workshop leaders and performers. Speaking of whom, this year's lineup includes Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Los Cenzontles, the Palm Wine Boys, Calaveras, Beatbeat Whisper, Claudia Russell, and many more. Nearly one hundred workshops will address a huge spectrum of music and dance, while ongoing jams and song swaps run both days. (N.S.)

June 13-14, Presidio Middle School (450 30th Ave., San Francisco). Noon-10 p.m., free.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival

African artists Femi Kuti (the best-known living scion of the Kuti dynasty) and King Sunny Adé head up the bill at this year's Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, which features musical genres from throughout the diaspora. Among the highlights are Afro-Belgian group Zap Mama, the polyphonic, polyglot group led by the beautiful and enigmatic Marie Daulne. She'll perform alongside old-timers from the ska and reggae scenes, such as the Heptones, Anthony B, and Sly & Robbie. In contrast to the younger spinoffs we hear in today's club scene, these artists put a lot of stock in the social and spiritual dimensions of reggae. Their music is not only seductive — with its peppy horn riffs and unique rhythmic accents — it's also transcendent. And, for all the Bay Area Afrobeat fans who dare make that trip out to Boonville, Friday's lineup features local band Sila & the Afrofunk Experience. Those who've never experienced its Afrofunk firsthand are in for a treat: This band has one of the most phenomenal horn sections around, and its lead singer flirts relentlessly with his audience. (R.S.)

June 19-21, Mendocino County Fairgrounds, Booneville. $55-$300.


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