The hills of Marin are alive with the sound of new music ... venues.
Less than a week after former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in San Rafael, a group of partners including Mill Valley resident and Lesh’s longtime bandmate Bob Weir said they'll open the Sweetwater Music Hall, a much-heralded concert hall and café, on Jan. 27.
The project, which in September 2010 and underwent extensive renovations of the 107-year-old Masonic Hall in which it is located, hopes to revitalize the local music scene and infuse downtown Mill Valley with an energy many say has been missing since the old Sweetwater closed in 2007.
The Sweetwater garnered legendary status in the Bay Area as the living room jam session destination of choice for world famous musicians like John Lee Hooker, Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia, Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, who would rub elbows on stage with whomever was on the bill that night.
"For years, the Sweetwater was the place many of us local and visiting musicians headed to when we were looking to play for fun,” Weir said in a statement. “Well, our clubhouse is back – and it belongs to all of us. Woo hoo – Mill Valley finally has its playpen back! Here we go..."
The venue is set to open Jan. 27 with a show by the Outlaws, the Tampa, Fla.-based Southern rock band. They’ll be followed by a pair of dates from longtime Bay Area stalwart Steve Kimock, who will be joined by a number of special guests. Shows by Grateful Dead extended family member Mark Karan, the New Orleans funk of Rhythmtown-Jive with guest Bonnie Hayes, singer-songwriter Dan Bern, Bay Area Latin funk band Vinyl and the annual Youth Rock the Rebuild benefit show from a host of local young musicians.
In a nod to what the owners hope will be a major facet of the new venue, Kimock will teach a “master class” in guitar playing on Sunday, Jan. 29. Veteran Mill Valley keyboard player and band leader Austin de Lone is set to host a weekly Monday Open Mic night, as he did when the Woods Music Hall, the short-lived previous iteration of the venue, opened for a spell in 2010.
“I'm looking forward to swinging back into that place,” said de Lone. “Everybody’s been waiting for it to happen and I’m sure it will be a great thing for the town. Fairfax has its scene – let’s get Mill Valley back on the musical map.”
De Lone’s daughter Caroline, a sionger-songwriter, hosted an open mic night for kids at the Woods, and de Lone said he plans to incorporate kids into the Monday Open Mic night.
“I’m excited to get the kids involved again,” he said. “For now, we’ll try to get the kids on earlier and put all those crazy grownups on later.”
The group of investors behind the new venue have made efforts in recent months to stay behind the scenes. But in a conversation many months ago, owner Ged Robertson, who spearheaded the effort to garner approval for the venue, said the venue’s driving mission was to reconnect to the rich history of the Sweetwater and the Mill Valley music scene.
“The town wanted it and needed it and it’s good for the town,” Robertson said at that time. “It’s not about me or the investors. It’s really about the community and the heritage here and to get that flowing again.”
The investors have taken a back seat in recent months as Sweetwater General Manager KR Holt took over the operations and booking of the venue.
Holt, a Laguna Beach native who has lived in the Bay Area since 1997 and in Mill Valley since 2007, has been involved in management of many of the most well known concert venues in the region. She’s managed the Fillmore, the Warfield and Slim’s, among others, and most recently oversaw local booking and operations for concert promotion giant Golden Voice.
In addition to Robertson and Weir, the investor group includes Michael Klein, who runs Modulus Guitars in Novato. Klein told the Marin Independent Journal in July 2011 that he and Weir have been Sweetwater investors and supporter since it became a Mill Valley institution under owner Jeanie Patterson, who retired in 1998 after 20 years as its heart and soul.
When Thom and Becky Steere, the local couple who took over for Patterson in 1998 and ran the Sweetwater until it closed in 2007, attempted to reopen the venue at 32 Miller Ave., Klein told the IJ that the investors negotiated “very specific agreements on rights to the name and memorabilia if they failed. And we have exercised those rights."
Neither Patterson nor the Steeres could be reached for comment.
Fred Martin, who opened the Sweetwater in 1972, said the Sweetwater name is steeped in the history of Mill Valley, with many people telling him over the years that they met their wife or husband at the venue.
“The Sweetwater holds a special place in the hearts of a lot of people in Mill Valley,” he said. “I had always thought we were creating magic down there, and I never really cared if we sold a drop of whiskey or not. Members of some of the biggest bands in the world came down and played all the time.”
John Goddard, owner of the Village Music record store that closed around the same time the original Sweetwater did in 2007, said he took a tour of the new Sweetwater. Goddard booked star-studded parties at the old Sweetwater for years and said he liked what he saw of the new space.
“I think it’s going to be a fabulous club,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a different club that Sweetwater, but technically I like the feel of the space and I love the café. And I’m crazy about the building.”
From the April 2011 removal of a decades-old spruce tree in the courtyard to the installation of a cutting-edge Meyer Sound system and “streaming video technology capable of bringing exceptional live events to broader audiences,” the investors had a major overhaul on their hands and the renovations took longer than planned.
But several people who have seen the space said that the community will be thrilled with the results. And Old Sweetwater regulars will pleased to hear that a pair of much-loved mermaid paintings from the old venue have been retrieved for display at Sweetwater Music Hall. Martin owns the paintings, having commissioned them from artist Pamela Helvie.
Goddard noted, however, that the ultimate success of the new Sweetwater will depend not on the space itself and its connection to the Sweetwater's storied past but on the quality of the musical acts that are booked and the customer service experience people have there.
“That’s what Jeanie did best – she booked great acts,” he said. “You can’t just depend on the local audience to come out every night. The Sweetwater survived in spite of the town, not because of it. It was the quality of the acts that kept the Sweetwater alive for so long.”
“But God knows the town could use it,” he added.
“It’s nothing but a good thing,” added Gary Schueunstuhl, owner of and member of local band Lucky Finn, which played to a packed house at the on New Year’s Eve. “It’s a no brainer. I’m all for it.”
In addition to the music venue, a major portion of the Sweetwater’s application to City Hall in 2010 was for a restaurant-café. Renowned chef-restaurateur Gordon Drysdale is overseeing the kitchen at the Sweetwater.
“While initially focusing on evening and happy hour fare, it is expected that by spring the Sweetwater will introduce breakfast and lunch, patio dining and musical Sunday brunches featuring fresh-squeezed juices and super-premium coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters,” the owners said in a statement Wednesday.
The 411: The Sweetwater Music Hall is in the Masonic Hall at 19 Corte Madera Ave., across from City Hall. Go to the Sweetwater website or its Facebook page for more info. Tickets for all shows will be available here. For bookings, contact General Manager KR Holt at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. For more info call (415) 388-3850 or visit the Sweetwater's website or Facebook page.