Music, Crafts, and Community: A Recap of Mill Valley's Annual Festival

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The third annual Mill Valley Music Festival on May 11-12 combined elements of a delightfully eclectic daytime concert with a town fair, providing two days of entertainment for all ages in this quintessential Marin County locale. Headliners Greensky Bluegrass, Fleet Foxes, and many other performers thrilled adults and children alike, and a host of crafts and activities across the aptly named Friends Field provided hours of fun for those who preferred to keep the music in the background.

Mill Valley Music Festival

"This is about as homegrown of an event as you can possibly have," said Jim Welte, Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and festival producer. "We're proud of it and happy to put our community on the map in a way that brings people in from out of town." Over 10,000 total attendees were part of this year's festivities.

Mill Valley Music Festival

Amelia Einhorn aka Meels | Mill Valley Music Festival

In addition to arts, crafts, and food almost exclusively provided by over 50 southern Marin County vendors and volunteer groups, the hometown ambiance was also represented by numerous local musical acts. For instance, the first main stage performer on Saturday was singer-songwriter Meels, the stage name of Mill Valley native Amelia Einhorn. In fact, most of the performers on the smaller Sweetwater Stage, hosted by the venerable Mill Valley nightclub, were locals too—like childhood friends Maia Ciambriello and Sasha Goldberg, who perform together as The Army, The Navy. "We grew up in Mill Valley playing soccer on this field," they told the adoring crowd of parents, friends, and newcomers who came to hear the duo's charming harmonies.

The Army, The Navy | Mill Valley Music Festival

Danielle Ponder | Mill Valley Music Festival

The first "national" act on the main stage on the other side of that soccer field was Danielle Ponder. Now 42, the Rochester, NY, native spent most of her adult life as a practicing attorney. Many Bay Area music fans got their first taste of Ponder when she got tapped one morning to fill in for someone who was not able to perform on one of the big stages at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2022. She wowed the crowd then with her striking voice singing a mix of soul, R&B, and trip hop, and did so again on Saturday.

Danielle Ponder | Mill Valley Music Festival

Ponder sang some of her self-described "breakup songs" from her debut album, including "Only the Lonely." Then she made a request to the audience: "This is literally the last song I wrote about my breakup. So now if anyone wants to date me, and it's very toxic just for like six months?" You know, so she can write more breakup songs. (No word on whether she had any takers.)

Eric D. Johnson | Fruit Bats | Mill Valley Music Festival

Next, the mood shifted from R&B to the lo-fi alt-folk music of Eric D. Johnson's Fruit Bats. The band's website describes Fruit Bats' music as "a pitch-perfect blend of tone and lyricism that taps into our shared apprehensions and hopes for a post-pandemic life." It's not quite shoegaze material, but perhaps shoegaze-adjacent. (Johnson is also a self-avowed Deadhead, and he's been on stage with Joe Russo's Almost Dead a few times.)

Fruit Bats | Mill Valley Music Festival

Johnson led his band through a set of songs familiar to many of the indie fans in the crowd. Some sang along to "The Bottom of It" and "Humbug Mountain Song." Johnson smiled in response to the applause he received after each tune, but he only addressed the crowd a few times. On one occasion, he asked, "How is everyone?" Someone in the audience asked how he was doing. He answered humbly, like nobody had ever asked him that before: "I'm doing great! Thanks for asking."

Mill Valley Music Festival | Mill Valley, CA

Mill Valley Music Festival | Mill Valley, CA

Meanwhile, further back on the field, kids were getting their faces painted, making tie-dye t-shirts, and playing with hula hoops and giant blow-up honey bears. The food lines grew longer during the afternoon, but none were as long as the line for Angela's Ice Cream.

Josh Lane | Thee Sacred Souls

Thee Sacred Souls | Mill Valley Music Festival

San Diego "sweet soul" band Thee Sacred Souls was 20 minutes late due to technical issues, but singer Josh Lane and company lost no time revving up the crowd once they hit the stage. A fanatic fanbase found their way to the rail, and they were rewarded when Lane came down from the stage to get right in their faces in the pit for "Will I See You Again?"

Josh Lane of Thee Sacred Souls

Josh Lane making new friends at Mill Valley Music Festival

Later, Lane went even further into the crowd during "Running Away." Testing the distance limits of his wireless mic, Lane literally jogged throughout the crowd while singing, and then plopped down for a moment to sing a line in an empty lawn chair next to some guy like they were best friends.

Asher Belsky | Mill Valley Music Festival

When Thee Sacred Souls were done, there was a moment before the next band started up on the Sweetwater Stage. Eight or nine people jumped up to do an impromptu line dance version of The Hustle while Van McCoy's iconic 1975 disco hit played on the PA. But then Asher Belsky and his trio started playing a cover of "Ain't No Sunshine," and everyone's attention turned to the 19-year-old prodigy from San Francisco. Bound for main stages, Belsky has it all—technical guitar chops, a sweet voice, and tasty jazz-rock compositions of his own.

Fleet Foxes | Mill Valley Music Festival

Fleet Foxes | Mill Valley, CA

Fleet Foxes | Mill Valley, CA

Day One ended with Fleet Foxes on the big stage. With their dynamic harmonies and well-crafted song catalog, the seasoned Seattle indie rockers pleased their old fans and made some new ones with songs including "White Winter Hymnal," "Mykonos," and "Blue Ridge Mountains." A superfan on the rail waited patiently to give lead singer Robin Pecknold a bouquet of red roses.

Fleet Foxes | Mill Valley, CA

It was a perfect day of weather, music, community, and good times.

Day Two was no different in that regard. Mt. Tamalpais loomed majestically in the background (as iconic mountains do). It was sunny with temperatures in the high 60s, perhaps a bit cooler than Day One. The only clouds in sight were curls of fog that topped the Marin Headlands hills to the south, which remained there all day and never threatened to advance. A steady breeze all weekend animated the hair of every performer.

Happy Mother's Day, Holly Bowling!

Day Two was also Mother's Day. The audience seemed a tad thinner on Sunday, perhaps due to mothers who insisted on doing something with their families other than attending a music festival. But if so, they missed out the pair of greeters who handed roses to mothers as they walked through the entrance (and to anyone else who wanted one).

Mill Valley Music Festival | Mill Valley, CA

Several of the performers mentioned the significance of the day. For instance, the lead singer of Mullet Daddy, a band of high schoolers from the Marin School of the Arts Rock program playing on the Sweetwater Stage, said, "I want to thank every beautiful mom who came out here today." (She also underscored a generational divide by introducing the band's cover of Toto's "Roxanna": "Everyone's gonna know this one. At least, the parents will know this one.")

Eric Lindell | Mill Valley Music Festival

Sonoma County swamp rocker Eric Lindell kicked off the main stage schedule with a band that included Danny Eisenberg, a frequent collaborator on the Bay Area music scene (and unofficial "fifth member" of local jam faves The Mother Hips) on keys. Lindell sings and plays guitar in a style reminiscent of Dickey Betts, and members of the crowd were on their feet for most of his southern rock set.

Roadkill | Mill Valley Music Festival

Across the field at the Sweetwater Stage, Roadkill was proving that punk rock is alive and well. The trio started off with Husker Du's "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely," followed by a string of originals. First-time Roadkill audience members who were intrigued by the Festival's website description of singer Joshua Higgins as a "5-star Taco Bell cashier" were rewarded with a fun throwback sound.

Rebirth Brass Band | Mill Valley, CA

Rebirth Brass Band | Mill Valley Music Festival

Rebirth Brass Band brought some New Orleans spirit to Mill Valley on the big stage a week after the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Grammy winners who got their start in a Treme district high school over 40 years ago are still going strong with old and new members providing funky beats.

Mill Valley Music Festival

Mill Valley Music Festival | Mill Valley, CA

As festival attendees traversed the field, there were ample reminders that the event was about more than just music. Booths were set up to help promote community events like the annual Mountain Play production high above Mill Valley on Mt. Tamalpais. (This year, the play will be "Kinky Boots.") Mill Valley's Tamalpais High School had a visual arts display, and other local artists had works on display in two walk-in truck trailers hosted by Marin Open Studios. Student writers from the Marin School of The Arts creative writing program created hand-typed "on-demand" poems.

Mill Valley Music Festival | Mill Valley, CA

Another important part of the community landscape: festival proceeds each year are contributed to three different beneficiaries, each an entirely local, nonprofit organization who brings value to the Mill Valley community. This year's beneficiaries were:

  • Kiddo! (, whose core purpose is to provide funding for comprehensive arts programs in vocal and instrumental music, visual art, dance, drama and poetry for children in the Mill Valley School District.

  • Tam High Foundation (, which provides funds for bridging state and local funding gaps to provide academic enrichment programs, technology, guest teachers, equity, and wellness for every student.

  • Mill Valley Friends of Parks & Recreation (, a nonprofit that facilitates, enhances, and promotes the activities and resources of the city's parks and recreation facilities and services.


Anna Jae | Mill Valley Music Festival

Back near the Sweetwater Stage, couples and families queued up to have pictures taken in the Das-Bus photo booth, while Anna Jae and her crew of local musicians provided a fun, good-time rock and roll soundtrack. Holding up a large amethyst crystal between songs, Jae spoke about the pressure it took to create such a wonder—and segued into a life metaphor about the pressure we all feel in our daily lives: "I just have to believe that it's building us to be something beautiful."

St. Paul and the Broken Bones | Mill Valley, CA

Music fans who have experienced the gospel of St. Paul and the Broken Bones know to expect some soulful preaching about love and passion. Newcomers to St. Paul may have been surprised initially by the singer's middle-aged man-on-the-street appearance, but he quickly won their attention with his falsetto—not to mention his striking rock star poses. And when he donned a sparkly preacher's robe midway through the set and came into the crowd to preach his R&B gospel of love, it was hard not to be converted.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones | Mill Valley, CA

St. Paul and the Broken Bones | Mill Valley Music Festival

He may look like an old-school caricature of an accountant or high school principal, but with almost 70 million replays of "Call Me" on Spotify, it's easy to testify that St. Paul has the chops to raise the holy roof off of a suburban soccer field.

Margo Price | Mill Valley Music Festival

St. Paul is a hard act to follow, but Margo Price had no difficulty rising to the challenge. Her countrified Americana was a perfect fit for Mother's Day. She opened with "Been to the Mountain," which includes the holiday-appropriate lyric, "I've been a child and I've been a mother." A mother herself (she has two children with her husband Jeremy Ivey, who plays guitar in her band), she gave an obligatory shout-out to "all you moms out there."

Margo Price on drums | Mill Valley Music Festival

She got a big cheer when she joined her drummer on her own trap set and shredded some skins. Many fans also noticed she had a big pot leaf and a mushroom embroidered on her dress. (Is it necessary to even mention that "the smell of pot was in the air" in music festival reviews anymore?)

Margo Price | Mill Valley Music Festival

The food lines seemed shorter on Sunday. The longest line on Friends Field was at the face painting table—except for the ice cream line, of course.

John Chi | Mill Valley Music Festival

John Chi | Mill Valley Music Festival

The last act on the Sweetwater Stage was local jam band guitar hero John Chi. With a band that included Jordan Feinstein on keys and JP McLean on bass, many patrons of Phil Lesh’s now-defunct Terrapin Crossroads came to see their friends lay down some killer jams.

Greensky Bluegrass | Mill Valley Music Festival

Dave Bruzza and Anders Beck | GSBG | Mill Valley Music Festival

The finale for the two-day festival was Greensky Bluegrass, the venerable jamgrass band from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Greensky is currently touring with piano virtuoso Holly Bowling on keys, adding a non-traditional element to their already non-traditional bluegrass sound. Many of the songs they played were recently written and recorded with Bowling. (Side note: her very young son, often present at her performances, wows crowds everywhere they go with his dynamic toy guitar playing in the background while mommy plays with her friends.)

Michael Arlen Bont | Greensky Bluegrass

Paul Hoffman & Mike Devol | Mill Valley Music Festival

For Mother's Day, singer and mandolin player Paul Hoffman changed the words to "Windshield." He pointed out after singing the bitter breakup song (cowritten with Billy Strings) that he’d honored mothers by changing from "There's nothing for a woman left to TAKE from a man" to "There's nothing for a woman left to GIVE to a man." He said, "That’s for the mothers. I have two; my mom and my wife."

Holly Bowling | Mill Valley Music Festival

Hoffman and Dobro player Anders Beck also joked that they’d dubbed the weekend a "Holly Day" in honor of Bowling’s birthday Saturday and Mother’s Day on Sunday. After the show, Holly's husband gave their little son a bunch of flowers to hand to her on stage. So cute.

Anders Beck | Greensky Bluegrass

But that was after 90 minutes of world-class jamgrass. A cover of Springsteen’s "Atlantic City" melded well with the ensemble’s originals. The picking was supreme on every tune, with Beck, Hoffman, and Bowling sharing turns with banjo player Michael Arlen Bont and guitarist Dave Bruzza. The only complaint? For Greensky, this was a short show!

Jim Welte | Mill Valley Music Festival

After it was over, showrunner Jim Welte could be found spinning records at a DJ table set up behind the main stage mixing board. He expressed positive vibes about the success of the weekend. In fact, positive vibes were all around—evident in the smiles carried home by the exiting crowd.

Mill Valley Music Festival 2024 - photos by Gabriel David Barkin