MILL VALLEY — The second annual Mill Valley Music Festival brings an eclectic array of talent to Marin County with performances by local hero Michael Franti and Spearhead, Sacramento alt-rockers Cake and much more.
Started in 2022 as a single-day event held at Mill Valley Community Center’s Friends Field that featured sets from Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Lettuce and Los Amigos Invisibles, the success of the inaugural edition led to the return of the festival now expanded a two-day line-up of live music and good times.
In addition to a full schedule on the main stage, the Mill Valley Music Festival offers up the intimate second Sweetwater Stage with a variety of entertainment, a curated line-up of North Bay restaurants and food trucks providing delicious culinary options, an arcade area with old-school video games and pinball, a wellness tent with massages and vitamin injections, a family fun zone with children’s activities and an array of local arts and crafts vendors in the Manzanita Market.
The first day of this year’s festival finds Bay Area staple Michael Franti and his longtime band Spearhead topping the bill. Born and raised in Oakland by his adoptive parents, Franti would attend the University of San Francisco on a basketball scholarship, but shifted his focus to writing and music while studying there. Along with percussionist/dancer Rono Tse, Franti became a part of the politically charged industrial/punk group the Beatnigs as their bassist, frontman and principle lyricist.
After the group dissolved following their sole album release, Franti and Tse would form the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy with talented guitarist Charlie Hunter. Early on, Franti regularly played duo sets with Hunter that sounded like a collaboration between Public Enemy’s Chuck D and jazz guitar virtuoso Joe Pass. While still including some industrial elements, the new group hewed closer to traditional hip-hop and highlighted Franti’s fiery humanist lyrics and vivid storytelling on the group’s remake of the Beatnigs song “Television: The Drug of the Nation” and “Language of Violence.” MTV and radio airplay led to the band opening for such notable acts as like-minded political firebrands Rage Against the Machine, Seattle favorites Nirvana and, most notably, U2 during the hugely popular Irish quartet’s massive Zoo TV stadium tour.
The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy would also split, leading Franti to move in a more accessible direction with his next project, Spearhead. Initially taking an organic approach to hip-hop, funk and soul, Franti and the group have explored a wide range of musical territory over nearly 30 years, touching on everything from the globalist protest music of Bob Marley and the Clash on alt-rock/reggae albums like Yell Fire and All Rebel Rockers to Franti’s more personal anthems of positivity heard on 2010’s The Sound of Sunshine. The barefoot guru of good vibes performs songs from throughout his career with a focus on the band’s latest effort Follow Your Heart from last year.
The balance of the main stage performers features a number of acclaimed soul and funk acts including renowned New Orleans party starters Tank and the Bangas — who vaulted to fame after winning NPR’s annual Tiny Desk Contest in 2017 — Seattle’s indie funk outfit the Dip, the pugilistic mix of wailing blues, horn-heavy soul and vintage garage-rock delivered by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears and Oakland Afrobeat crew Orchestra Gold.
On Sunday, the festival will be closed out by one of the biggest alt-rock bands to emerge from California’s capitol city during the ’90s, Cake. Formed around singer and principle songwriter John McCrae in 1991 after returning to his hometown following an abortive move to Los Angeles that split up, the musician poached its members including guitarist Greg Brown and trumpet player Vince DiFiore from other area bands. Similar to contemporaries Beck and NYC band Soul Coughing, Cake crafted genre-busting tunes that touched on honky-tonk country, mariachi music, rock, funk and hip-hop around McCrae’s dry humor, ironic lyrics and deadpan vocal delivery. They started building a Northern California following with regular trips to San Francisco and caught the ear of some music industry heavyweights.
After independently recording and releasing their debut Motorcade of Generosity in 1994, new band management would get Cake a record deal with Capricorn, who re-released the album as well as their second hit effort, Fashion Nugget, featuring the group’s biggest tune “The Distance.” While Brown would depart from the band with a number of local luminaries lending a hand to fill his shoes — among them longtime member and former guitarist with East Bay mod outfit the Loved Ones and soul band the Kinetics, Telecaster maestro Jim Campilongo and noted songwriter Chuck Prophet — McCrae, DiFiore and drummer Todd Roper (who left the band in 2001 only to return 15 years later) have soldiered on. Despite not releasing a new album in over a decade, Cake remains a popular live act and festival attraction.
Besides the closing set from Cake, fans will get to see the celebrated Bay Area return of Remain in Light Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison and guitar legend Adrian Belew (who has also played with such giants as the late iconoclasts Frank Zappa and David Bowie and prog greats King Crimson), a group that blew minds at both BottleRock Napa Valley in 2021 and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass last year with its rendition of the classic Talking Heads album in full, powerhouse soul singer Durand Jones — who just released Wait Til I Get Over, his first solo album separate from his longtime band the Indicators — acclaimed country/roots songwriter Valerie June and young local rock crew the Alive who kick off the Sunday proceedings. Additional information on tickets, how to get to the festival (there is limited paid parking near the site) and more are available at the Mill Valley Music Festival website.