GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — Funk, hip-hop and soul were on the menu Sunday at the BR Cohn Winery in Sonoma Valley for the second of four days at the Sonoma Harvest Music Festival.
The sun shined but temperatures cooled slightly from a sweltering first day at the picturesque venue. The festival, produced by BottleRock Presents, has a loosely thematic curation. Saturday’s lineup was a grab bag of Americana, indie rock and reggae, for example. Sonoma Harvest included food by local restaurateurs like The Girl and the Fig, and Zazu, which were spotlighted in the restaurant pavilion while local wines from Vintage Wine Estates, owner of BR Cohn, were served up throughout the afternoon.
The vibe for Sunday’s afternoon of music was even more relaxed than last year’s inaugural festival. Fans wandered and explored without having to sacrifice any of the entertainment.
Sunday’s headliner was Ms. Lauryn Hill.
It’s easy to have some cynicism about Lauryn Hill, who has a tendency to take the stage late for her performances. It was no different on Sunday, but with a festival that was due to wrap up by 6 p.m., it meant no one would have to cut early to catch some Zzz’s. She took the stage at 5:45 p.m., an hour later than planned, after a DJ spun some classic hip-hop.
A vast majority of the crowd remained, with only a handful of attendees choosing to give up the wait, until the DJ announced that “the Queen was walking to the stage.”
It became abundantly clear right away why she’s so highly regarded in both soul and hip-hop circles. Hill’s set was tight, compelling and thrilling, with the vocalist offering equal parts rhymes and heartfelt emotion. After acknowledging that 21 yers have passed since the release of her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she dove into the album’s intro, “Lost Ones.”
Hill was backed by an ace band with a trio of backing vocalists who infused a gospel choir-like vibe to her performance. Often mixing into “Sonoma” into her lyrical flow, Hill was confident, engaging and enigmatic. Tearing through “Superstar” and “Final Hour,” Hill spoke about her mindset as an artist and fighting back against the industry’s attempts to commoditize her.
Sure, she was late, and she blew right past the festival’s 6 p.m. curfew, closing with one of her biggest hits, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” But after witnessing her performance in person, any cynicism over her tardiness was wiped away.
R&B maven CeeLo Green brought the crowd to its feet for an hour with a groove-heavy set. Green played DJ, MC, crooner, dancer and the best party host one could ask for as his band tore through his solo material along with plenty of covers. Opening with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Green then transitioned to the danceable “Bright Lights Bigger City.” Throughout, he kept his stage banter positive and uplifting.
Mixing in samples and covers of The Jackson 5 and Childish Gambino, Green even toyed with the audience as he kicked into the opening notes of one song before abruptly moving onto the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” cover.
“Tricked you!” he yelled.
Green’s rhythm-heavy band provided the danceable foundation for Green to do his thing. For his smash, “Fuck You,” he left the audience to yell the refrain. The vast majority of them sang the tamer radio single (“Forget You”)—begging the question: How many people there knew the album version?
Green concluded with Earth Wind & Fire’s classic song “September,” which proved to be one of the day’s highlights.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe kept up the adrenaline rush throughout its midday performance, with soulful grooves never letting a single dull moment slip its way in.
Even though Karl Denson, the bandleader and saxophonist, came out sporting a bright pink blouse and matching print tie, all of the band members remained equally noticeable throughout the entirety of the set. Between a plethora of breathtaking solos, Denson and trumpeter Chris Littlefield broke out in elevated dancing on multiple occasions. Drummer Zak Najor also stole the focus with a variety of contagious facial expressions.
This septet performed its latest album’s lead single, “Gnomes and Badgers,” third in the set, allowing keyboardist Chuck Leavell to take control for an electrifying solo. This brass-heavy piece addressed the trying times of the world we live in, depicting a frustrated gnome arguing with an angry badger as the two can’t find compromise.
“Train” had a popping saxophone and trumpet duo. At one point, Denson pulled a flute from practically nowhere and jammed out a solo after barely taking a breath from his vocals. He bounced right back to singing straight from the flute as if it were second nature. Earlier on, Littlefield had taken over on keyboards to mix it up.
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“Let’s do it!” yelled Luther Dickinson, the singer and guitarist of The North Mississippi Allstars, before jump-starting the band’s performance with a heart-pumping rush of punk, rock and psychedelia. The trio’s set was also filled with endless solos, guitar duals and unique transitions.
Joined by his brother Cody on drums and an accompanying bassist, Luther’s vocals retained a sultry touch as the band addressed political and societal refrains, at one point chanting repeatedly to “pray for peace” before the bandleader blasted off into another one of his exhilarating solos.
Cody Dickinson then hopped off the stage to perform an entire piece solely with an electric washboard. Momentarily drifting from the Southern rock style, he brought on an intense EDM rave with an old-school instrument that he made new (with his brother on drums).
Monophonics stole the show from the moment the nine-person ensemble hit the stage.
The soul-filled group brought a contemporary touch to what sounded like classic New Orleans jazz, redefining collaboration. Playing off of each other’s melodies, the musicians seemed to be carrying on a vibrant musical conversation.
At one point, singer-keyboardist Kelly Finnigan became so energized—possibly by his connection with his lyrics—that he eventually caused his own seat to fall to the floor. Moments like this helped the hourlong set feel as though it flashed by in an instant.
On the powerhouse “Sounds of Sinning,” trumpeter Ryan Scott not only pulled out an exemplary solo but traded off between trumpet and maracas mid-song.
Monophonics brought out a new piece called “It’s Only Us,” which introduces a Finnigan church-organ solo as the rest of the ensemble slowly rises to chime in, creating a romantic atmosphere with its slow and sassy nuances. Finally, “Foolish Love” proved to be a crowd favorite as audience members loudly sang the song’s refrain with Finnigan: “I don’t wanna be anybody’s fool!”