Bay Area music fans are known for intellectual curiosity and eclectic taste, and this coming fall, there’s no shortage of performances by boundary-pushing artists in every genre under the sun. In the current political climate, music can be a source of empowerment or a vehicle for crucial insights. But sometimes it’s just about having fun — which is equally important. So, free-jazz fans, hip-hop heads, new wave disciples and opera aficionados, rejoice! Our fall music guide is here, with 10 hand-picked events to inspire, spark conversation, and remind us that life is worth celebrating.
Fox Theater, Oakland
Through savvy branding and a seemingly endless stream of releases, East Bay rapper-producer IAMSU has carved out a niche for himself as the king of new-school Bay Area party rap. He originally rose to prominence as the founder of his crew, HBK Gang, a versatile collective of fellow Richmond and Pinole natives including Kool John and P-Lo. Though he’s had some big opportunities, like touring with Wiz Khalifa and working with Dej Loaf, Su remains independent with his own label, Eyes on Me. His music, with glossy synths and big, hyphy bass lines, is as motivational as it is celebratory, reminding listeners to strive for their goals and toast to their successes.
Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
The 8th annual J-Pop summit comes to San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center on Sept. 9 and 10, bringing the latest in Japanese music, food, gaming, film, and more. This year’s musical guests include all-girl pop-punk bands Band-Maid and Babyraids; May’n, a singer who’s done soundtrack work for a variety of TV shows and video games; Misaki Iwasa, who specializes in the traditional Japanese genre Enka; and J-pop duo Yanakiku. There’s also a drag contest, Q&As and meet-and-greets with several of the artists, and dance performances by Tokyo Gegegay and Zoomadanke.
Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival
Johnson’s Beach, Guerneville
Imagine yourself floating down the Russian River in an inner tube, beer in hand, as the soulful tunes of Tower of Power waft through the air. That’s the scene at this year’s Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival, which has the legendary Oakland R&B band headlining on Sunday, Sept. 10. (Tower of Power’s original vocalist, Rick Stevens, passed away from cancer this week; expect them to dedicate “You’re Still a Young Man” in his honor.) The festival’s lineup features a wide range of new and old-school R&B, soul, funk, jazz, and blues artists, including jazz singer and Broadway actress Stephanie Mills, bass prodigy Julian Vaughn, San Francisco soul band Con Brio, and blues-rock band Southern Avenue.
Celebrating Bernstein’s Centennial
Sept. 14, 2017–Feb. 24, 2018
San Francisco Symphony
Influential composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old next year, and to celebrate, the San Francisco Symphony is dedicating its 2017-18 programming to the artist with a series of concerts starting Sept. 14. Bernstein, one of the first American-born and educated composers to reach international acclaim, was credited with putting classical music in dialogue with pop culture in the mid-20th century. He’s responsible for the soundtracks of Peter Pan, West Side Story, and Candide – and music from the latter two is part of the San Francisco Symphony’s event series, along with other important works like Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety.
Oracle Arena, Oakland
2017 has been Migos’ year. The Atlanta rap trio topped the charts with “Bad and Boujee,” with other tracks from their album Culture, “T-Shirt” and “Slippery,” trailing closely behind. Migos spent years as unsung influencers in Atlanta’s trap scene, and now, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff are finally getting their due shine. While others continue to imitate the group’s signature staccato flow and animated ad-libs, Migos continue to evolve rap into something stranger, more abstract, and more malleable. Catch them at Oakland’s Oracle Arena with support from “Bodak Yellow” rapper Cardi B, Tee Grizzly, YFN Lucci, and Vallejo’s own SOB x RBE and OMB Peezy.
Pharoah Sanders Quartet
76-year-old jazz legend Pharoah Sanders has had a storied career since arriving in Oakland from Arkansas in 1959: he pioneered free jazz alongside John Coltrane and performed with other greats like Alice Coltrane and San Ra, who encouraged Sanders to change his name from Farrell to Pharoah. Sanders’ work is deeply spiritual and psychedelic: “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” a thirty-minute composition that oscillates between breezy instrumentation, R&B vocals, and abstract chanting, exemplifies his innovative blend of jazz with Eastern influences and popular music. The Pharoah Sanders Quartet and Ravi Coltrane celebrate John Coltrane’s legacy with a special concert at the SFJAZZ Center on Sept. 22.
SAP Center, San Jose
Depeche Mode is one of the most iconic bands of the ’80s and ’90s, and tracks like “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence” came to define an era of synth-driven pop that still remains hugely influential today. The legendary trio is currently touring to promote its new album, Spirit, whose dark, pensive single, “Where’s The Revolution,” speaks to today’s turbulent political climate. If you miss the Oct. 8 stop at the SAP Center in San Jose, Depeche Mode also plays the Oracle Arena in Oakland on Oct. 10.
Korean National Gugak Center Creative Traditional Orchestra
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Seoul’s Korean National Gugak Center specializes in a musical history over a thousand years in the making, and is the leading institution for traditional Korean court and folk music today. Its Creative Traditional Orchestra comes to Berkeley for a concert on Oct. 28 at Zellerbach Hall as part of a two-part concert series. Between the 3pm and 8pm shows, a free Korean parade runs through UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza with traditional costumes and percussion ensembles.
Greek Theater, Berkeley
Few works of art have cut to the core our political reality as beautifully and subtly as Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table. The warm, soulful project is at once a source of comfort and a wake-up call: It addresses serious topics like mental health and racial inequality in poetic terms, couching these realities in gorgeous vocal harmonies and retro instrumentation. Her live shows — with their immersive light design and inventive choreography — are as visually stunning as they are emotionally impactful, which is why her Oct. 20 show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre with Flying Lotus and Earl Sweatshirt is already sold out (though tickets are still available on third-party websites).
Girls of the Golden West
Nov. 21 – Dec. 10
San Francisco Opera
Composer John Adams is known for boundary-pushing works that probe timely sociopolitical topics, and his latest for the San Francisco Opera, Girls of the Golden West, is no exception. Adams culled the new opera from historical texts from the California Gold Rush. The production, which premieres Nov. 21, delves into the lives of the resilient women of the Wild West, touching upon topics like economic scarcity and racism.