Review - Sound Summit @ Mount Tamalpais (9/9/23)

Sound Summit 2023 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Sound Summit 2023 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Thousands journeyed to the top of Marin’s Mount Tamalpais Saturday for the 2023 Sound Summit Concert - where they basked in all-day sunshine, took in the dramatic views of the Bay Area below and were wowed by the eclectic and diverse performances of Lord Huron, Sierra Ferrell, Kevin Morby, Brokedown in Bakersfield and Vinyl.

Kevin Morby @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kevin Morby @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Taking place near Mount Tam’s summit in the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre (known to locals at the “Mountain Theater”), the festival takes place on hallowed ground in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The Summer of Love in 1967 saw the venue hold The Fantasy Faire and Magic Mountain Festival featuring The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. It was the first rock festival to be held in America, coming just a week before the historic Monterey Pop Festival. Unfortunately, that first festival went less than smoothly and the mountain was treated with some disrespect by the attendees, resulting in no music festivals until the first Sound Summit was ok’ed for a trial concert in 2015. Saturday marked the seventh iteration of Sound Summit that had seen lineups blended with local favorites and national acts including Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wilco, Phil Lesh & Friends, Herbie Hancock, Jim James and Lukas Nelson.

Vinyl @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Vinyl @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Leading off was Mill Valley’s beloved Vinyl – a full jazz funk band that has sold out the Sweetwater Music Hall more than 100 times and was in fine form on Saturday. Vinyl had an early arriving crowd grooving at the start of the day with their big sound that leveraged an exceptional horn section to keep the music full and upbeat. The pit in front of the stage was filled with quite a few early dancers who enjoyed Vinyl’s energy.

Andre Cruz with Vinyl @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Andre Cruz with Vinyl @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

That energy kicked way up when guest vocalist Andre Cruz (The Steady 45’s) hit the stage like a locomotive – singing with swagger and filling the stage with his dance moves. Cruz’s presence for the last two songs brought enough momentum to fuel the rest of the afternoon. Vinyl and Cruz ended their set with a fantastic cover of Bill Withers 1972 song “Kissing My Love” that sent the audience over the top with the band going at full speed and Cruz delivering the lyrics with buckets of charisma.

Brokedown in Bakersfield @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Brokedown in Bakersfield @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Next up was the reunited Brokedown in Bakersfield – an all-star band taking the stage together for the first time since 2014 to pay tribute to the Bakersfield sound, as well as some of the band members’ own songs. Singer Nicki Bluhm and acoustic guitarist singer Tim Bluhm (“The Mother Hips) took center stage while Scott Law played the Telecaster, Steve Adams of ALO played bass, Dave Brogan manned the drums and Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz (ALO) played a killer pedal steel for most of the set.

Dan 'Lebo' Lebowitz @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Dan 'Lebo' Lebowitz @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The band showed no rust as they provided a 45-minute set that was all smiles on stage and smooth transitions back and forth among players. They began with Merle Haggard’s “California Cotton Fields” and then Nicky Bluhm followed with a sensational cover of Jean Shepard’s “Root of All Evil (Is a Man)”. It was especially heart-warming to see the two Bluhms playing together for the first time in so long following their separation and Tim’s terrible health battles after his 2015 speed flying accident. This being an all-star band, every member sang at least one song in a set that included Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” Law’s “Leave the Leaving Up to You” and Nicki Bluhm’s title track off her 2018 album “To Rise You Gotta Fall.”

Nicky & Tim Bluhm of Brokedown in Bakersfield @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Nicky & Tim Bluhm of Brokedown in Bakersfield @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Lebowitz was as always a master musician behind the pedal steel taking many graceful solos and helping to direct traffic with his bandmates. Whether he’s behind the pedal steel or taking to the mic with his acoustic guitar for one song as he did Saturday, Lebo’s talent and energy serve as magnetic north in the Northern California jam band world - if Lebo is involved in a project it will be great. “Squeaky Wheel” a Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers song saw Lebo and Law trading jams back and forth in a volley fashion. At the end of the set, the group was greeted with a rousing ovation and many expressed hopes that this reunion would be the re-start of something rather than a one-off event.

Kevin Morby @ the Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kevin Morby @ the Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Kevin Morby took the stage next with roses on his mic and electricity in his playing and singing. His energetic and emotion-filled set was delivered with power and passion. He focused much of his set on his stellar 2020 Covid-era album “This is a Photograph” starting with the title track which launched with an impressive intensity and was followed by a similarly charged “A Random Act of Kindness.” Before he delivered the softer “Five Easy Pieces,” Morby sat on the drum-riser and looked up at the crowd. “I don’t even know where I am. I just woke up in the hotel and they drove me up here. Maybe this is heaven?” He then performed most of the song seated there.

Kevin Morby @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kevin Morby @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

“Wander” featured an impressive back and forth between Morby and guitarist Cyrus Gengras who provided restrained but provocative soloing throughout the set. “Piss River” off 2019’s Oh My God served as a master class in delivering emotional lyrics – particularly when he delivered the song’s early lines:

“And oh my God
Mama, I’m scared.
I know you are, baby
I am scared too.”
Kevin Morby @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kevin Morby @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

“City Music” started slow and grooving before launching into a an exuberant celebration and then cascading back down into a slowed down end. “Oh, City Music. That made somewhere in the Bay Area sound,” Morby told the crowd after the song. “I can see The City,” he said looking back at the view behind the stage. “Can you see it too? It’s so cool,” and then Morby played the appropriately titled “I Have Been to the Mountain.” Several other songs stood out – including a rousing version of “Parade” and a sweet rendition of “Beautiful Strangers.”

Sierra Ferrell @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Sierra Ferrell @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Sierra Ferrell is a unique talent and the West Virginia-born bluegrass artists took the stage wearing an ensemble that was reminiscent of early 20th century Bolivian style. With her long flowing dress and secured hat, she was greeted with a large roar from the crowd up front as her backup musicians sported bright red outfits similar to a mariachi style. The clothing did an excellent job in providing a timestamp for Ferrell’s performance and to let the audience know that they would be going to another place sonically. She had an incredibly likeable and light-hearted demeanor, while remaining very true to the bluegrass sound.

Sierra Ferrell @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Sierra Ferrell @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Though she has only released the 2021 debut album Long Time Coming, Ferrell had all the confidence befitting someone who barnstormed and busked across the county as she did when setting out. In all, she played about ten songs with all of them resonating with the crowd. “Silver Dollar” was a fun and rambling good time. Before she performed “Why’d Ya Do It,” she welcomed her co-star from her video who performed his cowboy whip and rope tricks. As the song progressed, it included moments of him whipping the bloom of a rose off as he held it between his legs and Ferrell herself held a rose in her mouth for him to whip the bloom off at the end of the song.

Sierra Ferrell @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Sierra Ferrell @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Ferrell delivered “Rosemary” as a beautiful solo acoustic number before covering Osborne Brothers’ “Lonesome Feeling.” “Honestly, where am I?” she asked the audience after the song. “This place is soooo beautiful!” Another great moment of her set included “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” with a crazy good mandolin solo. By the end of her set, she had the entire crowd in the palm of her hand and they roared with appreciation at its conclusion.

Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

It was my first time seeing Lord Huron live and it seemed like there was a dramatic difference from the moody, somewhat ethereal and evocative sound of their album to the much more rock-forward, showmanship that the band exhibited Saturday. Founder and lead singer Ben Schneider was an absolute force from the moment they took the stage and though Lord Huron started as a solo vehicle for him, the band had great interactions and a feeling of camaraderie. Miguel BriseƱo on bass and theremin combined with drummer Mark Berry to provide a driving groove throughout the 100-minute set, while the guitars and energy of Tom Renaud and Brandon Walters helped propel the music forward. Keyboardist and vocalist Misty Boyce provided great layers at the keys and organ while also providing a beautiful female voice to the band.

Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Rather than starting off with music off the more recent album, 2022’s “Long Lost,” Huron chose to instead begin with two songs off 2015’s “Strange Trails.” “Love Like Ghosts” served as a terrific choice as it started as a slow and brooding number before breaking loose and unleashing Schneider’s whirlwind energy in his vocals and acoustic guitar as well as his many physical crossings of the stage. Indeed, Schneider was in constant motion throughout the entirety of the show and his live energy blended the traditional Americana guitar approach with a dancing, on the move front man. He showed this flamboyant side with the second song “Meet Me in The Woods.”

Ben Schneider of Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Ben Schneider of Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Huron was an exhilarating band to watch on Saturday. From Schneider’s wild dancing, the guitarists consistently physically coming together to lean into songs to Boyce’s exuberant leaping and cheering on the songs. “Ancient Names” took on a jet plane on a test flight pace and style, while “The Ghost on the Shore” was a haunting song live that was one of the most memorable. By the time, Schneider donned his skeleton mask to perform “The World Ender,” the crowd had been treated to such a great performance of such a high level, that it almost seemed an unnecessary theatrical addition (thought it was fun and cool in person). As the sun began to set and the crowd readied to descend the mountain, Schneider addressed the crowd. “Have you all had a fun day out there? I hope that you could see that it was fun as hell for us as well.” Huron’s performance was the perfect cap for what was one of the most beautiful days of the year in one of the world’s most beautiful music venues.

Ben Schneider of Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Ben Schneider of Lord Huron @ Sound Summit '23 (Photo: Sean Reiter)

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