Photo courtesy California Roots Festival / Marissa Elder.
For decades, Monterey County’s music scene has captured attention near and far. Thanks to a solid lineup of annual events and enhancements to dynamic live entertainment venues, the beats go on — stronger, and perhaps better, than ever before.
By Mark C. Anderson
Monterey music can be difficult to describe without drifting into what sounds like hyperbole. But that’s not without cause — this geographic region is precisely where certain music festivals changed the way the world understood and appreciated music, from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 to legendary performances that span decades à la Monterey Jazz Festival. Fortunately for live music pilgrims across the state, Monterey Bay continues to host major annual festivals and one-off touring acts while cultivating a small but worthy lineup of reliably fun venues for live music and dancing. Here’s a peek at both.
Best of the Fests
Good Old Days
Pacific Grove, “America’s last hometown,” plays the part with gusto for a full weekend of fireman races, amusement rides, arts and crafts booths, food stalls, and an overload of music with 60 acts and five stages right in the middle of the city’s Victorian downtown. Admission is free.
PACIFIC GROVE, pacificgrove.org
California Roots Music and Arts Festival
The three-day event, better known as Cali Roots, pulls in more than 30,000 fans each May. Reggae faves like Rebelution, SOJA, Dirty Heads, Matisyahu, and Iration cement the irie cred, while an influx of hip-hop flavor — think Cypress Hill, Nas, and Dilated Peoples — widens its appeal.
Carmel Bach Festival
Now 82 years young, the Bach Fest goes for Baroque in a most ambitious way, piling up scores of events — concerts, recitals, master classes, lectures, and open rehearsals — across a range of venues. Its stated vision: “To be a world-class festival of music and ideas transcending the traditional boundaries of performance and presentation.” Vision realized.
West End Celebration
This grassroots community arts gathering has exploded into the region’s best free concert of the year, with multiple stages and two long days of continuous live entertainment, 100-plus artisans, and food and beverage vendors. Recent performers have included Last Bandoleros and reggae legend Pato Banton.
SAND CITY, westendcelebration.com
Monterey Jazz Festival
It was already a beacon for jazz fans from around the world, drawing the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Louis Armstrong, and Christian McBride to perform on eight indoor and outdoor stages over three days. But after six decades, the MJF powers-that-be pivoted to include artists who aren’t 100 percent jazz but can channel it beautifully, allowing performers such as The Roots and Common.
First Night Monterey
The New Year’s Eve party floods downtown Monterey with parades, music, crafts, dance, food, costumes, and more for a family-friendly affair that stretches from midday until past midnight.
Photo courtesy Sly McFly's.
Stellar Nightly Venues
This little spot has blossomed into Carmel’s one true stage (outside of the much larger Sunset Center) with touring acts appearing several times a week and lively DJ-driven dancing that brings in more bachelorette parties than anywhere else in the area.
The Britannia Arms
Pub & Restaurant
Brews matter here, but the DJ spins something mighty, making this pub a sweet spot to dance and appreciate the music mix. Live entertainment comes via, well, you. Karaoke is on the docket Tuesday through Thursday and on Sundays.
Bull and Bear Whiskey Bar
One of historic downtown Monterey’s liveliest night spots — and owner of its busiest entertainment schedule — the Bull and Bear has something social going on a daily basis, with trivia, open mics, karaoke, and a generous happy hour. Rotating live music acts complement a strong menu of refined pub fare and the big fire-pitted patio out back.
Cibo’s Ristorante Italiano
Italian food and martinis may draw in the lunch and dinner crowds, but for decades, locals and visitors have enjoyed the entertainment lineup. Live music fills the popular outpost six nights a week. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, expect soothing jazz with your dinner from 7 to 10 p.m. The scene becomes more festive Fridays and Saturdays (9 p.m.–12:30 a.m.) with a mix of classic rock, funk, soul, and R&B dance music. Best of all: no cover.
Rustic and perched in a mystical forest setting, the tavern may be the go-to for food and drinks, but over the past decade, live music has generated some creative sparks here (typically Thursdays through Saturdays at 10 p.m.).
BIG SUR, fernwoodbigsur.com
Here, in the heart of historic Cannery Row, live music is a nightly affair. A big dance floor and raised stage host a wide range of acts like The Money Band, The Stingrays, and Santana’s Tony Lindsay. While the style varies from rock to R&B to blues, every group shares a key quality: danceability.