When she belted “everything is everything; it’s going to be all right” early in her set, Bay Area vocalist Ledisi melodically summed up the feeling Sunday at the Stern Grove Festival’s first in-person show in the historic San Francisco grove since the pandemic hit.
The sentiment of the R&B/jazz singer’s tune “Alright” reflected the setting as well as tone of the day. The park, in the first concert of Stern Grove’s 84th season of free entertainment, was delightfully, pleasantly populated – rather than packed like sardines — at about a third of a non-pandemic year capacity, and most folks seemed cool not wearing masks.
Though the skies were gray, the temperature was unusually moderate and it was fun to be able to move to all of the afternoon’s dance-worthy tunes by Ledisi and opening local acts The Seshen, La Doña and DJ LadyRyan without smacking a neighbor or stepping on someone’s toes.
Though the extra space, required reservations and gates set up due to COVID concerns were different from a usual year, some longtime festival fans more or less followed their routine protocol by arriving early – gates opened at noon — to stake out a good spot.
“We usually come at 6:30, but we came at 9,” said Fenicia, a San Francisco resident sharing a prime space with two friends from Oakland, who were among many who were unsuccessful in securing online reservations. Fenicia, who didn’t provide her last name, said she followed the website instructions carefully, and jumped online a bit early to grab a reservation.
David Park and William Johnson, a couple who lives nearby in the neighborhood, splurged to pay for a VIP table at the last minute, less than a week ago, and invited friends to celebrate Johnson’s 53rd birthday. Park said there was no difficulty getting their party’s reservation.
The day began with a visit from San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who appeared in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Festival’s Board Chair Matthew Goldman and Executive Director Bob Fiedler. Bay Area TV personality and food expert Liam Mayclem served as host, and reporter Justin Andrews from KPIX popped in to co-host.
San Francisco singer La Doña, who plays a mix of Caribbean beats, reggaeton and hip hop she calls “femmeton,” opened the show with a lively set. Her father, with whom she’s played through her upbringing, was in the band. She thanked him and wished a happy Father’s Day to all the dads in the audience.
Preceding Ledisi was the groovy six-piece Bay Area electro-soul band The Session, led by vocalist Lalin St. Juste. At the end of their set, her bandmate, percussionist Mirza Kopelman bid the crowd farewell on an up note, saying, “This is our coming back party. We haven’t played music for 15 months.”
Headliner Ledisi, however, whose excellent set featured old-school R&B, a jazzy tribute to Nina Simone and a great band including Lynette Williams on keyboards, had a positive report about her music in the past year: After 13 nominations, she at last won a Grammy Award for best traditional R&B performance for “Anything for You,” a tune she wrote.
It was a swell start to what promises to be another great season at Stern Grove.