Skip the alcohol, go for the music at RockSoberFest
Google the phrase “alcohol at music festivals,” and the first entry that comes up is “15 Ways to Sneak Alcohol into a Music Festival.” The second is “Music Festival Essentials: Alcohol Drinks.”
That should give you an idea of the general cultural climate facing Jeffrey Trotter, promoter of the family-friendly, substance-free RockSoberFest music festival, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in Boonville.
“Everywhere you go, people identify music festivals with drinking and drugs. Festivals can book really big bands with the money they get from selling alcohol. We don’t have that. We have ice cream and coffee,” Trotter said. “Because we don’t have a large budget, it’s difficult to spread the word. It’s basically grassroots.”
From the start, RockSoberFest met with some bad luck. The inaugural year was to be 2017 and the event was scheduled for Oct. 14-15 in Boonville, but the historic wildfires that tore through Northern California forced its cancellation.
Trotter rebounded in 2018 with two festivals: one in June in Boonville and another in September at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center in Marin County, each attended by 500 people.
This year’s festival will feature a full lineup of more than a dozen local and regional musicians. Among others, The Levi Lloyd & Friends blues band, a longtime Sonoma County favorite, and Stefanie Keys, who toured with Big Brother & The Holding Company for five years, will perform.
“I’m a sober person, as in recovering, for more than 17 years,” said Keys. 51. “I’ve working in music for a long time and I got sober when I was 34. In the beginning it was a big shift me, because I wasn’t hanging out in bars but I was still playing everywhere, but it’s totally fine now. I’ve built a following and I’m playing for the people I’d be partying with anyway, but I’m not drinking.”
Keys played at last year’s RockSoberFest and loved it.
“We’re not a glum crowd. I feel the same kind of love from the people. It’s a celebration of life,” she said.
The lineup for this year’s RockSoberFest also includes Paul Hayward, Mumblefinger, Clean Sweep, Tyler Allen, Cole & Mikki Tate, Michael Sheller, The Happys and The Real Sarahs. On Saturday night, there will be live comedy with Jake Bernie, Mean Dave and Kristee Ono.
And the roster features keyboardist and singer Wendy DeWitt of Ukiah, long recognized as the Bay Area’s “Queen of Boogie Woogie,” who will perform with longtime musical partner Kirk Harwood.
“I am thrilled to see support for an event where it’s really all about the music. You can come to this festival to relax and not feel any pressure. I’ve performed at Alcoholics Anonymous events, not big like this, but it’s like when you were little kids at a party,” DeWitt said. “You don’t have to be drunk to have a good time. You’re not going to see someone passing a joint or sitting there with a six-pack of beer. You don’t get any of that out-of-hand behavior when there’s no alcohol,” she explained.
While DeWitt is not in recovery herself, the 60-year musician has known others during her long career who have struggled with addiction, and she’s supportive of those who are working to take back their lives.
“In olden days, an overuser was seen as a bad, sinful person, You were shunned if you had an addictive personality,” DeWitt said.
Trottter, 59, a concert producer who lives in Point Reyes Station, has very personal reason for his commitment to this project. As a young man, he studied acting at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco and the College of Marin, but then his theater career was sidelined.
“I lost my way through alcohol and drug addiction, until I finally found my way into recovery,” Trotter said.
Now he has been sober for the last 23 years, and he managed to have a career in theater after all, serving as artistic director of the Shakespeare at Stinson festival at Stinson Beach for 20 years, until 2012.
He has long seen a need for a substance-free environment for music festivals. “There are lots of people who go to music festivals based on drink, and using drinks in order to have a good time,” he said.
“Everybody’s out to rescue alcoholics, but with local support, we’re perfectly able to rescue ourselves,” Trotter said.
“This is an opportunity for like-minded people to get together from many corners of Northern California.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.