Stern Grove Festival, the nation’s oldest continual free summer music festival, kicked off 2023’s iteration on the afternoon of Sunday, June 18th with Grammy-award-winning jazz supergroup Snarky Puppy, with direct support from all-world guitarist Isaiah Sharkey. Stern Grove annually welcomes some of the finest artists in jazz, pop, blues, classical, world music, and beyond. Stern Grove Festival Association is a nonprofit cultural organization committed to providing the people of the Bay Area with admission-free access to diverse performing arts.

The glorious confines of the hosting Sigmund Stern Grove are a Bay Area treasure, a terraced concert meadow in a leafy-green valley nestled in a stunning eucalyptus grove, framed by towering redwoods. The essence of Stern Grove oozes NorCal energy, making an ideal setting for music and picnicking.

In addition to being the 86th festival year, Stern Grove is somewhat reborn after a near-catastrophe: a water main burst flooded the entire venue at the end of the 2021 season, causing the cancellation of the final concert and an uncertain future for the space. In 2021–22, repairs by the City of San Francisco reportedly cost about $20 million and took several months.

The Sunday summer series did come back last year to the best of its abilities, welcoming 70,000 people during the season-long schedule. Now that whole situation feels like a distant memory; on this day in June of 2023, fans could hardly tell there was such carnage, and the grounds looked almost like nothing had even happened. The weather was phenomenal as a capacity crowd turned out in droves on opening day.

The globally-renowned ten-piece jazz ensemble hailing from Denton, TX, Snarky Puppy was fresh off a South American tour and slated as the headlining act on this beautiful afternoon. But first, the astonishing Chicago-based Isaiah Sharkey would lead a stellar quartet through a shorter, satiating opening set that left jaws agape. Isaiah has logged time with the likes of D’Angelo & the Vanguard and John Mayer, and he’s one of the most admired and respected guitarists of his generation.

Sharkey’s personality, dexterity, and style were on brilliant display as he dropped his swinging version of The Spinners’ ‘It’s A Shame” to the delight of the crowd now rapidly filing in. After a couple of choice original numbers, incuding one that welcomed the Snarky Puppy horns, he dug deep into the bag of one of his biggest inspirations, Prince. Sharkey unleashed a scintillating journey through “The Beautiful Ones” that channeled the dearly departed Purple One with reverence and respect, while hinting at Jimi Hendrix and “Amazing Grace” too.

Isaiah Sharkey – “The Beautiful Ones” (Prince) – 6/18/23

[Video: Dearman Real Estate Group]

Captained by bassist/founder Michael League, Snarky Puppy humbly took the stage and dropped right into “Keep It On Your Mind”, from latest LP Empire Central, setting the tone for the performance with a spirited take on vibrant new material. The second cut, appropriately enough christened “East Bay”, was a measured, chill groover that saw saxophone maven Chris Bullock—who wrote the song on the other side of the Bay Bridge—take a prominent role early and often. “Bet” continued the mining of material from the ensemble’s most recent release, as League acknowledged the band would focus on fleshing out compositions from Empire Central.

Related: Michael League On Returning To Snarky Puppy’s Roots With ‘Empire Central’ [Interview]

League was in command on bass guitar, occasionally switching to Moog keyboard basslines that filled up the amphitheater. He was augmented by “The Fam”, a typically all-star collective including guitarist Chris McQueen, violinist Zach Brock, drummer Jason “JT” Thomas, percussionist Nate Werth, keyboardists Justin Stanton and Bobby Ray Sparks, and the horn section of Bullock (sax and flute), plus Jay Jennings and Mike “Maz” Maher on trumpets.

Even though each of these cats is a monster at their craft, with Michael League leading the way, the Snarky Puppy sum stays greater than its esteemed parts. The Empire Central compositions continued in the Snarky tradition of lush, layered, multi-hued excursions that embrace maximalism, brimming with magnificent melodies, emotional passages, and intercontinental rhythms.

Other strong Stern Grove renditions from Snarky’s newest, Grammy-winning effort included the powerful, methodical version of “Cliroy”, a Jay Jennings-penned tribute to Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes. “Belmont” was dedicated to dearly departed friend and collaborator Bernard Wright, a Dallas funk legend who passed away in May 2022. Wright was an inspiration to Snarky Puppy and appeared on Empire Central’s “Take It’, another track performed with a particular gusto that afternoon.

Snarky Puppy – “Belmont” – 6/18/23

[Video: Dearman Real Estate Group]

After over an hour of new material, League announced to the audience that they would play some classics. The group swiftly dialed up an exhilarating take on their timeless “Shofukan”, a number that had the entire venue up and moving their feet to the frenetic pace. To close out this phenomenal performance, the ensemble reached back for the beloved “Lingus”.

League invited Sharkey to join Snarky Puppy for the encore, introducing him as one of the greatest guitarists of his era, and Isaiah proceeded to absolutely stun every last beating heart in the eucalyptus grove with a ridiculous display of sonic storytelling, the whole band basking in his peerless virtuoso. A fitting finale to a fantastic opening salvo at the sensational Stern Grove.

See below for a collection of images from Snarky Puppy and Isaiah Sharkey at Stern Grove Festival courtesy of photographer Kory Thibeault along with some fan-shot videos. For a full lineup of free Stern Grove Festival concerts head here.

Snarky Puppy – “Broken Arrow” – 6/18/23

[Video: Dearman Real Estate Group]

Snarky Puppy, Isaiah Sharkey – “Lingus” – 6/18/23

[Video: Dearman Real Estate Group]

words: B.Getz