On Sept. 23, to the delight of Bay Area live music lovers, Sweetwater Music Hall hosted the inaugural Sweetwater in the Sun festival in Marin County, California. Concertgoers nationwide are familiar with the legendary Sweetwater, an intimate venue that has hosted great acts over the decades ranging from Elvis Costello to New Riders of the Purple Sage. While the storied venue has a legacy for its high-profile acts in cozy confines, nothing could have prepared fans for the announcement of Sweetwater in the Sun. All of the attributes of a great festival existed within the Sweetwater Music Hall previous: quality billing with diverse artist lineups, a professional yet compassionate staff, a loyal community of regulars, and a space where fans and the bands coexist.
One of the fans and venue favorite resident musicians, iconic bandleader Steve Kimock, was tapped to headline amongst an array of other exciting acts assembled for the occasion, with many sit-ins announced and unannounced. What was likely not a surprise, but an embraced addition was the announcement of Dead & Company’s (and Sweetwater partner) Bob Weir and the eventually unveiled lineup of their talented accomplices; Robin Sylvester, Mookie Siegel, Jay Lane, and Wally Ingram. While Weir and Kimock have been heavily music-active in 2018 in their respective bands, the one-off slightly-RatDoggie outfit was heavily anticipated with such intimate, gorgeous confines to boot.
The festival grounds opened at 11 am Sunday at stunning Stafford Lake Park, a protected state park on the outskirts of Novato, California, nestled between West Marin hills and wine country. Aside from the surroundings, majestic wildlife, and perfect weather, the hardworking festival staff (mostly friendly faces from The Sweetwater) clearly had their act together, keeping it friendly and laid back on all fronts. Quality food and beverage vendors added to the atmosphere.
The heavily family-attended crowd cozied up with camping chairs and blankets as the Steve Kimock, and Jerry Joseph duo took the stage at noon to start the musical proceedings. The long-time partnership between the two shined true along with song percussion assistance from Wally Ingram. The inspiration behind his moving song “Giraffe” led Joseph to open up about his past, struggles with substance abuse, and choosing love, life, and music above it all. A set highlight came with set closer, “Wisconsin Death Trip.”
The chill opener set the stage for the charming Maggie Rose and her seven-piece band. The talented Nashville ensemble boasted beautiful harmonies, strong musicianship, some originals from “Change the Whole Thing,” her new album that was released just two days before this show, and gospel-oriented covers. While the rest of the day’s lineup was likely more familiar to the majority of the crowd, Maggie Rose more than won over Sweetwater in the Sun, undoubtedly building a strong local following for future gigs.
Next up was Jennifer Hartswick Band. The adored powerhouse trumpeter/vocalist’s resume (aside from bandleader) includes a longtime tenure in the Trey Anastasio Band, collaborations with Christian McBride, and Phil Lesh, and the very recent release of her new album, “Nexus.” Hartswick’s dynamo band included “artist in residence” Eric Krasno, seasoned fusion drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Bobby “Bobzilla” Vega, and guitarist Nick Cassarino. The enthusiastic crowd got onto their feet and into the groove big time. This lineup will make for a sensational evening headliner in the future at The Sweetwater Music Hall. If the set was abbreviated, as all on Sunday arguably were, the quality made up for it.
The Skiffle Players, features Neal Casal, Cass McCombs, Dan Horne, Farmer Dave Scher, and Aaron Sperske in a diverse spectrum of genre and expression. For those less familiar with their collective sound (as I was), an honest array of Americana and polished vocals took precedent. What some have referred to as rattag or alt-country boiled down to focused songwriting with an acoustic-jam backbone. One original was dedicated to Jerry Garcia, which revealed the folksier roots of The Skiffle Players. It was a great contrast to previous acts, another testament to the thoughtful booking behind the festival.
In an unannounced arrival, the iconic Wavy Gravy made way to the stage. The beloved scene fixture engaged the crowd in some of his classic humorous banter. Gravy bought Kimock and Friends time to get everything “just exactly perfect.” In a perfect segue; the band, sans Weir, began noodling into classic Kimock. “It’s Up To You,” from his Zero days, can set the stage as an opener with thematic improvisations and heavy jams mid-way. In this case, a loose yet purposeful prelude jam with a familiar shuffle led into the nucleus melody. The tune stretched out well beyond the 15-minute mark, boding well for things to come. Jerry Joseph came back out to lead the band through Toots and the Maytals, “54-46 Was My Number.” Notable was the strong rhythm duo of Lane and Ingram, on drums and percussion respectively. A passionate cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” also led by Joseph, was a well-suited choice that might have been his strongest vocal performance of the afternoon. Despite obvious glee and enjoyment from the ensemble thus far, there was a feeling of anticipation (Where’s Bobby!?) as one member of the band was conspicuously absent. Bobby Weir casually hopped onstage, almost as if wasn’t announced as co-headliner.
Weir surprised the crowd by straightaway pulling out his slide and leading a chilling rendition of “Little Red Rooster,” the Willie Dixon blues standard, often performed by The Grateful Dead. Weir’s vocals boded well for this intimate performance, perhaps rested from the recent Dead & Company stadium summer tour. Next, Kimock stepped over to his fretless slide guitar with a gorgeous resonating tone, to accompany Weir and Friends on the celebrated Grateful Dead ballad, “Stella Blue.” Kimock’s rendition of the timeless Robert Hunter ballad has become somewhat of a signature instrumental for him in not only his own bands but alongside The Other Ones, Phil Lesh & Friends, and RatDog. The biggest surprise of the evening came with a cover of Jesse Stone’s “Don’t Let Go.” Deadheads know every word of this tune, as it was a staple of the Jerry Garcia Band. The jam-vehicle was a captivating alternative take on Weir and Co.’s part. His enunciations and vocal punch were flawlessly executed with impeccable backing vocals coming from Siegel and Lane. The jam unfolded with each player getting a stab at his own individual discoveries. Clearly, the lineup was relishing the reunion of sorts, keeping it loose but purposeful.
The vibes shifted gears with the familiar guitar and drum thematic indicating that “The Other One” was manifesting. The first tune Weir wrote for the Grateful Dead has stayed with him for all these years, in many different twists and turns. Sly Robbie took on some experimental bombs during the opening jam stanza before Bobby delivered the words the whole crowd sang alongside him. After a lengthy passage between verses and ultimate climax, the band simmered the tune down to a halt; as opposed to the more typical segue way to the next tune. What would be the final tune of the night (no stage lighting was installed with a strict 7 pm curfew end) was Bobby’s Sunday-steady “Samson & Delilah.” Convincing vocal-work from Weir egged the boys on harder to play the hell out of the final tune, one that had the entire Sweetwater in the Sun assemblage gleefully swinging and singing. After the final choral proclamation, the undoubtedly abrupt ending was lightened up with Kimock’s good humor (Weir already gracefully ducked offstage), responding sarcastically to a cry for one more song, “are you fucking kidding me?!” The band appeared up to it, but the management affirmed that the show had to end.
One could always beg for more, but what happened was plenty to be Grateful for. The scene has boiled down to intimate venue spaces, with both Weir and the other surviving members of Grateful Dead opting for smaller-scale shows. None of us can complain. A very big thanks to Sweetwater family for a fantastic first year for Sweetwater in the Sun, and to Stafford Lake Park for letting us be us.