The 2015 Sonoma Music Festival Crushes It With Three Days of Rockin’ All-Starrs

By Tamara Gorman
Photography by Rey Del Fierro

When the sun comes up on a sleepy little town, down around San Francisco, and the folks are risin’ for another day…   Another day of unforgettable music, fantastic food and world-class wine as the first ever Sonoma Music Festival –formerly known as the B.R. Cohn Charity Fall Music Festival –  rocked downtown Sonoma for three incredible, star-filled days.

You may recognize the name B.R. Cohn for their great wines and out-of-this-world olive oil, but B. R. Cohn is also known for his connection to rock and roll, catapulting The Doobie Brothers to fame as their manager for most of the last forty-some-odd years. After three wonderful decades and raising over $6 million for local veterans groups and children’s charities, the B.R. Cohn Charity Events broadened its boundless perspective and expanded their already great music festival into an even better one: the Sonoma Music Festival. The festival’s name may have changed, but the song and spirit remains the same:  hope and healing through live music.

What an exciting classic rock weekend it was, as nearly 10,000 music fans from around the world gravitated to the Field of Dreams in Sonoma.  While festival-goers eagerly awaited Ringo Starr and an amazing three day lineup of rock star legends, California brought it like no other place can with beautiful weather, first-rate eats, and luscious wines from local Sonoma and Napa vendors.

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Day one of the 2015 Sonoma Music Festival kicked off today with spectacular electronic violinist, Carlos Reyes as the opening act followed by two classic rock greats, America and Chicago. It was a hot Indian summer afternoon, and music lovers were happy to be swimming in a sea of wine, sunscreen, and cell phones.  Festival-goers came ready to hear some serious jams, and B. R. Cohn Charity Events abides with a quintessential lineup of classic rock, blues, and Beatles music.

Pre-concert, there were plenty of ways to entertain yourself and your tastebuds: savoring some great eats from local vendors like Rocket Sushi and Tri Tip Trolley, sipping on superb Sonoma wine, having a brew in the pop-up beer garden where the Hopmonk Fest Garden Stage ran shows between the Main Stage acts, or checking-out the awesome rock and roll memorabilia at the Charity Auction Tent. For B. R. Cohn Wine Club members, the B. R. Cohn Wine Tent was the happening place to be.  It provided a direct view of the stage and great space to meet other devoted members from around the continent.

As the first of the Friday headliners, America, takes the stage,  there was a great vibe in the air.  Fans came ready to sing. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a person who didn’t know all the words to either an America or Chicago song.  Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, original members of the band, open their set with “Tin Man.”  Showing a relaxed confidence, Beckley jokes with the crowd about how long the band has been together and quips, “We have been together for 45 years. That wasn’t plan A, and we call our music classic rock not oldies.” The smiling, blissful crowd swayed with their hands high singing along to every word of “Sister Golden Hair,” “Woman Tonight, ”You Can Do Magic,” and “Lonely People” — enjoying  all America’s hits, sweet harmonies and acoustic guitars.  They finished a gratifying set, with an encore of  “A Horse With No Name.”

Like a music store come to life, Chicago – clearly one of the best bands to see live– came to get down. Original members Jason Scheff, Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and Leigh Loughnane were all present and in shape both physically and vocally.  Looking fit and conquering the stage with a cordless keyboard, you could feel the emotion when Robert Lamm opened their set with “Beginnings” – one of the best concert opening songs of all time – as the band killed it with a nice horn jam and Latin beat at the end.

They played so many great tunes.  Filling the Field of Dreams with the sweet sound of his flute, Walter Parazaider lured everyone to their feet with “Color My World.”  Mellow fans reminiscing about their high school dances long ago, held on to their sweethearts as Chicago dished out one love song after another: “Just You and Me,” “You are the Inspiration,” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” to name a few.  Then the group uplifted everyone with the elevating horn crescendo of “Feeling Stronger Everyday” and powerful dueling drum solos. To finish off the night, Chicago brought down the house with their signature encore –possibly one of the best-ever rock songs – 25 or 6 to 4!

Day two was an electrifying day as the entire town knew Ringo was in the house!  And concert volunteers weren’t kidding when they said people from all over the world have to come to the Sonoma Music Festival this weekend.  Visiting from India, Zameer Vahanvaty, caught several planes and flew 10,000 miles to watch three days of rock and roll and see Ringo.

The famous Marin County act, Pablo Cruise was up first. Opening for Ringo Starr, Pablo Cruise frontman and lead guitarist, David Jenkins,  along with original band mate and keyboard player, Cory Lerios, got the night rolling in more ways than one. Not only did the group pour on heaps of serious jamming with  guitars and keyboards, they entertained festival-goers singing a cappella, and teased a rather well-mannered audience about controlling themselves and not charging the stage.  Sharing his relaxed sense of humor, Lerios made fans laugh when he shared a new song he wrote for his children: “I Get Tired Just Thinking About You.” Working the crowd with smokin’ hot guitar riffs and serious musicianship, Pablo Cruise and friends finished a fun set with crowd-pleasing hits “Love Will Find a Way“ and “I Go to Rio.”

Finally, walking on stage larger than life, greatness appeared: Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band with Todd Rundgren on guitar, Richard Page of Mr. Mister on bass, Gregg Rolie of Santana on keyboard, and Steve Lukather of Toto on guitar. The energy in the air changed. Doing the Ringo swagger and strut like only a happy Ringo can do,  the All-Starrs opened with “Matchbox,” an old-time rockabilly song the Beatles loved and recorded in 1964.  This was a meaningful choice and the signature opening song for Ringo, as it is one of the few Beatles’ songs featuring Ringo on vocals as well as on the drums.

Richard Page’s ageless, powerful voice was strong as ever on all songs, but he really captured the crowd and filled us with emotion when he sang Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings.”  Steve Lukather’s guitar was on fire as he enjoyed stretching out Toto’s biggest hits into lengthy jams, and Gregg Rolie led everyone through Santana’s “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va,” and “Black Magic Woman.” And then there was Todd.  After tonight,  it became easy to understand why everyone loves Todd Rundgren. The man is wonderfully wacky and incredibly gifted. With his two-toned hair, his psychedelic PJ’s, his witty stage banter, and. fabulous dance moves, it was a trip to watch him!

While everyone on stage clearly reveres Ringo, it was also obvious there is a mutual respect and warm rapport between all the players. Ringo seemed equally at home as the frontman and as the drummer, even pointing out that, “I’m still a band guy.”  It did somehow seem strange – but fun – to watch him play drums on the other guys’ hits like “Rosanna,” “Africa,”“Kyrie,” and especially Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” and “Love is the Answer.”

As for Ringo, he has never been taken as seriously as his former bandmates, and that’s fine. He knows what he’s good at and rolls with it, bringing his loving energy to classic Beatles songs and solo originals like “Photograph” and “It Don’t Come Easy” (my favorite).  But at the end of the day,  there’s nothing like Beatles songs. When Ringo, a man who once played in the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, played any of them – from “I Wanna Be Your Man,” to “Don’t Pass Me By” to “Yellow Submarine” (especially) – the joy from the crowd was palpable.

This phenomenal evening ended with Ringo bringing Edgar Winter, Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers on stage and informing them, “You never know. This could lead to big things.” They closed the memorable evening with a touching rendition of  the timeless classic, “With a Little Help from My Friends.”  Giving the rapturous crowd double peace signs as he exits the stage, Ringo shouts, “Peace and love. Peace and Love. I love you all.” If you had told me when I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, that I would one day be making eye contact and sharing a smile in the same space as a former Beatle and a crew of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, I would have said, “In my dreams, maybe!” Well, dreams do come true.

It’s day three, and Sonoma was rocking with another sold-out crowd.  The Sonoma Music Festival’s fundraising efforts were in full swing throughout the weekend with live auction items being sold to benefit groups which support disadvantaged children and military veterans. Some of the more exceptional pieces on display were a Lou Reed guitar signed by all the festival’s artists (except Ringo), and the late Doobie Brothers Keith Knudsen‘s rose quartz drum set.  This afternoon, the guitar sold for $7800 and the beautiful drum set brought in $11,000 for charity.

Today has been like one big jam session starting with local blues and rock guitarist, Tommy Castro and The Painkillers. With soulful originals like “Greedy” and “The Devil You Know,” Tommy and his band lit up the stage with raw, stripped-down guitar playing and vocals.

Next to set the stage on fire was Edgar Winter.  Born in Texas, the man has the gift of gab and voice for rockin’ the blues.  Edgar sang his brother’s song “Tobacco Road“ and played Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” dedicating both to his brother Johnny, who died last year.  And in a fantastic, energetic display of his vocal range and ‘scat-like’ singing, Edgar challenged each of his bandmates and their instruments in dueling voices: one plugged – one unplugged.  Then engaging the audience once again, he told the festival-goers that he was the first to put a strap on a keyboard and make it mobile. To prove it,  Edgar’s showmanship brings the wonderstruck crowd to its feet as he breaks it down on a synthesizer he built for the monster of all rock songs “Frankenstein.”

The afternoon was still in high gear as another bluesman hits the stage. Gregg Allman played his farewell concert as founder of the Allman Brothers Band last December, but now he’s back with a nine-piece band whose masterful musicianship makes everything appear effortless.  Allman greets the crowd, “They say the night-time is the place for making love and making music. I’m gonna disagree with that today.”  Showing his roots, he opens up with a fast-paced southern rock song like “I’m No Angel.” Then tells the crowd once again, “Y’all can make all the noise you want. Stand up and dance,”  before leaning into his Hammond B3 with inspired, heartfelt renditions of “Come and Go Blues,” and “Whipping Post.”

Allman then moves fans with his classic tunes “Sweet Melissa” and “Midnight Rider.” It was clear that he has been rethinking his life and feeling sentimental as he played “It’s not my cross to bear” and picked “Southbound” for his encore –a great little tune by Mr. Dickey Betts. And to help pull off a memorable finish to a great set by a great songwriter with a hardcore band,  Tommy Johnston lead singer and frontman for The Doobie Brothers steps in to lend a hand. They were a strong band from start to finish.

As the unforgettable weekend comes to a close, Bruce Cohn, the founder of the winery and music festival takes the stage.  Before introducing the band near and dear to his heart, he thanks the crowd for all their support and encourages them to give The Doobie Brothers with Michael McDonald a warm welcome as no band has been more generous over the last 15 years.

What a thrill it was to be upfront and center stage as Tom Johnston, Pat Simmons, John McFee, and Michael McDonald of The Doobie Brothers tear into “Jesus is Just Alright” as the opening song to the festival’s finale.   To watch these rockstars bring their electrifying guitar riffs, rolling piano, choreographed footwork stepping to and fro the mic, as well as a synchronized chorus to the stage with such classic Doobie tunes as “China Grove,” “Black Water,” “Long Train Runnin’,” and “Eyes of Silver” only validated for me what I already knew – these guys are not only talented musicians and songwriters but the are epitome of professional.

From the moment Michael McDonald stepped up to the mic as a background singer with bands like Steely Dan, he caught people’s attention.  Back on the keyboards with the group that helped him establish his front man credentials and make magic, McDonald soothed the crowd with “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” and “Taking it to the Streets.”  Bringing the 2015 Sonoma Music Festival to a close,  the band took the stage one more time for very special encore performance of “Listen to the Music.” This time the band sang with the help of auction bidders who raised over $50,000 for charity in order to be able to sing on stage with The Doobie Brothers.  This brilliant move was the icing on the cake of an amazing three days of rock and roll.

As a music lover this was a concert of lifetime.  You haven’t heard good music and real musicians play, until you’ve heard what I heard over the last three days.  These artists define the word musician. They write. They sing. They each play several instruments, and they love their audience! And lastly, to know that all this greatness was used to help and heal others is a powerful feeling. It’s all about connecting life through music.

 

The Sonoma Music Festival was born from the desire of promotor B.R. Cohn Charity Events to change up its annual fall event formerly at B.R. Cohn Winery and move it closer to town for a more community event. The new Field of Dreams location not only put the concertgoers two blocks from Sonoma’s Plaza, it allowed the festival the opportunity to grow and generate more proceeds for charity.  This year’s beneficiaries include national and local veteran’s organizations including Fisher House, the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Bread and Roses Presents, American Legion Post 489 and Sonoma Splash. Over its 29-year history BRCCE has raised over 6.5 million dollars for charity.

The 30th anniversary event is scheduled for September 29-October 1, 2016. For more information please visit  www.sonomamusicfestival.com