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The Stern Grove Festival, Even Older Than the Summer of Love, Is Aging Beautifully

Free summer concert series kicks off this Sunday with Kool and the Gang.


Bob Fiedler may be new on the scene in San Francisco, but he knows a good thing when he sees it. When the longtime veteran of nonprofit arts organizations in Chicago was hired in May as executive director of the Stern Grove Festival Association, which will begin its 80th season this Sunday with a performance by ’70s funk legends Kool and the Gang, he knew not to mess with a winning formula. 

While Stern Grove’s larger and more opulent festival cousins continue to grow, the free westside shows have remained down to earth, family friendly, and smelling like fog and eucalyptus. “The first time I went and visited the Grove, the first thing I noticed was the smell,” says Fiedler. “The air was clean and so aromatic. You’re transported a world away.” 

Fittingly in this summer of anniversary tributes, the Stern Grove Festival is throwing what he describes as a “birthday present to itself”—inviting back favorite acts from previous years. Among the groups performing this year are WAR (who played Stern Grove in 2003), Mavis Staples (2006), and the Stone Foxes (2012).

While adhering to the old if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it maxim, Fiedler is looking forward to expanding Stern Grove’s ancillary programming in coming years: more community events, more arts education, more visual arts, and more local artists. “But a lot isn’t just up to me,” he says “I’m new here, so Judy [Tsang, Stern Grove’s director of programming] and I are going to be working together with the board to bring new artists and a push our mission forward in the coming years.”

It’s a sentiment Tsang and others are embracing. “We want our program to reflect the diversity of the Bay Area,” she says. Fiedler notes that even in a year meant to honor the past, many of the acts who’ll perform at Stern Grove continue to push the envelope. He points to Mavis Staples, who won a Grammy in 2011 for best Americana album, and recently released the album Living on a High Note, which featured collaborations with contemporary artists like Valerie June, M. Ward, Aloe Blacc, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

Not all of this year’s performers are golden oldies, either: Perhaps the most enticing act on bill this summer is Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, fresh off his own Grammy win for Best Contemporary Blues Album, with fellow Bay Area singer Nicki Bluhm—the show Fiedler acknowledges he’s most excited for. 

Tsang, diplomatically, stumps for them all equally. “I’d love for people to check out something they don’t know,” she says. “I’m hoping they’ll be surprised.”  

The Stern Grove Festival
runs from June 25 through August 27. 


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