Review - Mill Valley Music Festival (5/11-12/24)

Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The Mill Valley Music Festival returned to Marin County this weekend under spectacular May weather for two days of diverse artists performing in front of over 10,000 fans. The strong ticket sales, enthusiastic crowds and multiple artists regaling in the beauty of their surroundings in the festival’s third year should continue to strengthen the festival’s draw of both attendees and performers.

Mill Valley Music Festival Crowd (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Mill Valley Music Festival Crowd (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Saturday’s opening day kicked off under a clear sky and high 70’s weather and was headlined by Fleet Foxes. They were preceded on the main stage by Thee Sacred Souls, Fruit Bats, Danielle Ponder and Meels. Across the grounds, The Sweetwater Stage (set up once again in the famed SF Bandwagon) offered an opportunity for local talent – both well-established and younger acts – to shine during the set change on the main stage. Saturday’s lineup spotlighted Asher Belsky, “The Army, The Navy,” David Nance & Mowed Sound and Solace. With the daily lineup limited to nine bands total, the format provides each act ample time to build momentum and connect with the crowd.

Sunday morning saw a cool marine layer return to Southern Marin and stir memories of the festival’s 2023 weather that went from a sun-scorched, still-aired, mid-80’s on Saturday down to a fog-filled, low visibility Sunday where the temperature never exceeded the low-50’s. But the marine layer began to break apart shortly before the gates opened at noon and by the time Eric Lindell took the main stage at 12:30, the sky had cleared for another beautiful day of live music.

Eric Lindell @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Eric Lindell @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Bay Area-native Lindell got his start just north of Sunday’s stage in Sonoma County, but honed much his swampy, soul sound during his time in New Orleans. He and his band had just returned from playing The Big Easy during JazzFest. “May I ask?” Lindell said to the crowd early on, “Did anyone here smoke marijuana this morning? Show of hands….? Only six of you? Well, we’re starting out slow and easy this morning.” Lindell was ably backed by guitarist Jack Mock, keyboardist Danny Eisenberg, Drummer Johnny Campbell, Bassist Scott Lipsitz and background singer Samantha Pelham. The on-stage chemistry of Lindell and Pelham created terrific harmonies throughout the set on songs like “All Alone” and “Lay Back Down.”

Eric Lindell @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Eric Lindell @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Over on the Sweetwater Stage, local San Francisco act Roadkill started things off. Speaking excitedly afterward, bassist Gabe Simon and Cecil Joh revealed that it was their first major organized festival appearance. The band was fronted by singer Joshua Higgins – who is described in the band’s press release as a “5-star Taco Bell cashier.” Their set featured both covers and originals and was the heaviest act on the day.

Rebirth Brass Band @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Rebirth Brass Band @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Rebirth Brass Band continued the day’s early vibe of New Orleans as their set on the main stage was very reminiscent of past appearances by Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The band has been performing over 35 years ago and was featured in the beloved series “Tremé.” When I spoke earlier in the day to saxophonist Vincent Broussard about his thoughts on the day, he told me “I’m just looking to make some moves today.” And indeed, he and his bandmates had the crowd eating out of their horns from the get-go with the infectious spirit of the French Quarter filling the Mother’s Day brunch time.

Rebirth Brass Band @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Rebirth Brass Band @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Anna Jae brought a full band with her to perform on The Sweetwater Stage. The Bay Area singer’s enthusiastic, upbeat sound kept the upbeat spirit going for the many who journeyed over from the main stage and listened to her set featuring songs off her album ”It Hurt, But I’m Glad I Felt It.”

Anna Jae @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Anna Jae @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

St. Paul & The Broken Bones provided the day’s biggest energy set with an impressive 1-hour performance that leaned heavily on the showmanship of Paul Janeway. After drummer Kevin Leom, bassist Jesse Philips, guitarist Browan Lollar, keyboardist Al Gamble each came on stage one-by-one and were folded into the music, Janeway entered through the horn section in the back and made his way out to the front microphone. Janeway – the “St. Paul” of the Birmingham, Alabama group – was a non-stop source of energy as he punctuated his non-stop traversing of the stage with occasional flash speed dance moves.

Jess Philips of St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Jess Philips of St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Opening with “Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like),” Leom and Phillips set a driving rhythm section that had the crowd up and dancing with the day’s energy peak. Guitarist Lollar threw out dominant leads sparingly, preferring to pepper the songs with brief bursts of punctuation.

St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

While starting off clothed in his band-standard stage outfit of a black sportscoat, he donned a sparkling cape midway through the set and even headed up the center sound aisle to perform out in the middle of the crowd – similar to Michael Franti at last year’s MVMF. Janeway leaned into his James Brown-reminiscent stage charisma, though the Broken Bones music went beyond their core Stax funk and soul sound to layer in heavier, more diverse rock grooves behind him at times. Given the festival setting and a 60-minute set, the band focused primarily on their earlier hits with songs like 2014’s “Call Me” and “Half the City” and “GotItBad” (yes, one word) off 2018’s Young Sick Camelia.

St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Mill Valley Music Festival approach to a diverse lineup was in accordance with the festival’s wise decision to be extremely family-friendly. Multiple activities such as painting and other crafts, small obstacle course and giant bubbles offered young attendees an opportunity to stay busy and entertained while their parents enjoyed the music. Sunday saw a crowd much more filled with local families than content-searching, fame searchers of larger festivals. That same approach also applied to the opportunities given on the second stage as Mullet Daddy from the Marin School of Arts Rock program was given a half-hour set that allowed them to perform in front of an interested, well-sized crowd.

Mullet Daddy @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Mullet Daddy @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Margo Price brought her Americana style to the main stage next with a performance that seemed to blend perfectly with the day’s environment and vibe. She chose to serve plenty of focus on her newer material, as well as back catalog for her hour. Price took the stage with a wave and a smile to join her tight band with “Been To The Mountain” from 2023’s Strays – one of several songs off her latest album. Price’s often-biographical lyrics have seen quite an evolution from her earlier dominant themes of whiskey-drinking and hell-raising to a more recent focus on internal reflection - a change that corresponded with her well-publicized decision to quit drinking in 2021 as she wrote the new album.

Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Legendary for her earlier partying ways, Price shows a new maturity and depth on these songs, while still displaying her prowess with a traditional Nashville honky-tonk drinking and dancing songs. Her second song “Weakness” showed she had no reservation in revisiting that past with lyrics like:

Sometimes I drink Beaujolais
Sometimes I drink gin
Sometimes the whiskey does me right
Sometimes it does me in
Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

“Four Years of Chances” from 2016’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter allowed the band to stretch out with each musician (all clad in matching outfits) given an opportunity to add a quick solo to the blistering pace of Price’s terrific take on the traditional theme of one-side love. I’m not sure why, but the song’s choice of including the leap day for “You had me one thousand, four hundred, sixty-one days” has always struck me as an accent on Price’s elevated level of craft.

Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

“Burn Whatever’s Left,” “Change of Heart” and “County Road” from the new album all got time in the spotlight on the festival setlist and demonstrated the variety of Price’s approach. “Burn” was presented as a middle finger to the past holding her back. “Change” was a driving, big, chorused rocker. “County” showcased Price’s tender voice and vulnerability. That vulnerability was in stark conflict to Price’s stage command – punctuated twice by her taking to the second drum kit on multiple songs to deliver rousing drum-backing as her band stretched their legs. Price’s second trip to the kit at the end of “Cocaine Cowboys” led to a rousing finale of “A Little Pain” that concluded with Price crisscrossing the stage to toss roses out to the mothers in the audience as the crowd roared in appreciation of her performance.

Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Margo Price @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Over at the Sweetwater Stage, Marin County’s Jon Chi brought his Americana / Jam Band guitar and songs to the day’s largest second-stage crowd. Leaning into a band of renowned local players including keyboardist Jordan Feinstein, bassist JP McLean and drummer Jeremy Hoenig, Chi’s music stood out as main stage-worthy and received well-deserved appreciation from the audience despite being in the difficult pre-headliner spot in the highest heat on the final day of the weekend.

Jon Chi @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Jon Chi @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Greensky Bluegrass provided the perfect ending to a beautiful Mill Valley Music Festival Weekend from the main stage. Their blend of bluegrass / jam-band / Americana was the perfect balance of energy and mellow to wrap everything up. “Sure feels good to be playing this music outside in such a beautiful place,” said Dobro player Anders Black. “For me, festival season starts today.”

Greensky Bluegrass @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Greensky Bluegrass @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The Mill Valley audience was treated to a special treat as frequent Greensky collaborator and Bay Area jam scene piano legend Holly Bowling joined the band for the entire set. Together, they had released the four-song EP The Iceland Sessions just two days earlier and everyone on stage seemed thrilled to have new material to showcase. Bowling provides added depth to Greensky’s already layered sound on the album’s songs for arguably the best new material the band has released in recent times. Live, songs like “Distracted” and “Born Again” filled Family Field with rich texture. Mandolin-player and vocalist quipped “It’s a Holly-day weekend. We released new music with Holly Bowling. Her birthday was yesterday and she’s a mother!”

Anders Black of Greensky Bluegrass @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Anders Black of Greensky Bluegrass @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Greensky demonstrated their ability to not only enthusiastically deliver their originals, but to also breathe new life into long-established covers. Their unique performance of Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City” was met with strong audience approval and was just as interesting as the version Bruce & The E Street band presented at Chase Center at the end of March. The string-band’s multi-vocalist approach also kept things fresh with guitarist David Bruzza taking lead vocals on songs like “Kerosene” and “Take Cover.” “Entirely Mine” off The Iceland Sessions also stood out in their set as it was presented as more of a Southern Rock ballad than traditional bluegrass.

Holly Bowling @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Holly Bowling @ the Mill Valley Music Festival (Photo: Sean Reiter)

As smiles abounded and hugs were shared at the end of the weekend, it was obvious that Jim Welte and festival-organizers have got a unique music-going experience formula. Just as it had the year before, the weekend was filled with diverse music, a wide-aged crowd and an incredibly welcoming vibe that spectacularly kicked off the Bay Area Festival season and had many buzzing about looking forward to next year’s return to Marin County.

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