Sweetwater Music Hall
Sweetwater Music Hall Continues Its Legacy As A Live Entertainment Venue & Community Meeting Place
It's not easy for small music venues to succeed. It's hard to compete with well-funded corporate promoters like Goldenvoice, which books popular, successful musicians into large concert halls and mega-stadiums. There are, however, still many people who prefer to see live music in smaller, more intimate settings that have more of a community, rather than a corporate feel, and Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Calif. is one of those places. Although it has only been open for six years in its current location, its origin and roots go back more than 45 years.
The original Sweetwater opened in 1972 in a storefront in downtown Mill Valley at 150 Throckmorton Avenue. The former site of a local bar called the Office, it was just a single narrow room with low ceilings that could accommodate around 80 people. Jeanie Patterson and her husband Jay, a realtor, bought the place, and Jeanie ran it. She traveled to music festivals to find interesting and unusual acts to introduce to the small town, and luminaries like Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Marty Balin, Ry Cooder, John Lee Hooker, Elvis Costello, Sammy Hagar, Van Morrison and Richie Havens were booked to perform, or just dropped by to sit in. That was the cool part—you never knew who might stop in to jam. Over the years, Sweetwater blossomed into a popular place for both the community and musicians to convene.
In 1999, Patterson decided to leave town and sold the club to another couple, and in 2007, it closed. But it left a gap in the community, and after a few years, a group of local investors got together and decided to resurrect the iconic venue in a larger location nearby, the old Masonic Lodge at 19 Corte Madera Avenue. One of the investors was former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. The club reopened in 2012 after extensive remodeling as the Sweetwater Music Hall, with the intention of reigniting the spirit of the original hall.
The new digs feature a large outdoor patio and a smaller indoor cafe and bar where food is created and served by Chef Gordon Drysdale, and a cozy and intimate, 300-seat concert hall, with its own bar. The room is trimmed in dark wood, with red velvet banquette seating along one side with small cocktail tables. Rows of chairs, along with high tables and barstools, are set up on the main floor, which is sometimes left more open for dancing. It has a cozy, comfortable, unpretentious retro vibe—you really do feel like you are in a friendly, small-town music hall.
"It was such a community hub for Mill Valley," said General Manager Madison Flach as we sat and chatted on Sweetwater's outdoor patio. "That is why the almost 30 owners came together to fundraise for it. Most of them live here and have raised their kids here."
Flach has been at the new Sweetwater since it opened. She worked her way up into the management role and officially took the title a few months ago. "I just can't shake this place," she said with a smile. "It's really special and has a lot of meaning for the community." She went on to explain that most of the staff has worked there from the beginning—there is very little turnover because the place has such a pleasant family feeling.
To attract and maintain the community, they try to have a live event every night—music, trivia, an open mic or a comedy show. "That was one of the ideas of the ownership group," said Flach. They really wanted us to be a lively part of the community—a place for people in town to come to on Friday and Saturday nights and enjoy some live music." The new Sweetwater has featured acts such as Mavis Staples, Snoop Dogg, Chris Robinson, Jim James, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello. It's also a place where Weir, who lives nearby, can stop by and sit in, much to the delight of the local Deadhead community. He will be performing at the club in 2020 with his group, the Wolf Bros.
Snoop Dogg performs at Sweetwater Music Hall
Photo by Christopher Markisz
In addition to live entertainment, Sweetwater also does a lot of community events—fundraisers, weddings, and many local music school concerts. They also try to help create audiences for local and lesser-known bands, some of whom began as opening acts and are now headliners. They have often partnered with the Mill Valley Film Festival, hosting live music events.
Another key member of the team is Aaron "AJ" Johnson, who recently came on board as the talent buyer. An acclaimed musician and arranger in his own right, he has worked for many years as a manager and booking agent, including at the Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, and as an associate artistic manager at SFJAZZ. He is currently an artist manager at Knitting Factory Entertainment.
Johnson, a current voting Recording Academy member, explained that it's all about building relationships with the artists, the agents and the audience. "The most important thing is giving the audience and the community what they want to see, and try to get them out and engage them," said Johnson by telephone. "Most of the audience is coming from Mill Valley or nearby in Marin County, so we want to be conscious of that and make sure the programming reflects things that people in the community want to see, and at the same time try to expand that, and show them things they haven't seen before."
Johnson explained that although there are challenges in booking a small venue of only 300 seats, the advantage is that you can sometimes offer the community the chance to see top tier artists in a small, intimate setting, which is very special. He plans to expand the programming at Sweetwater to include other genres, including more Americana, jazz and world music. He will also continue what Sweetwater had already begun—partnering with other venues in the Bay Area to form a network when booking performers. For example, they might book a night with a certain band, and partner with another club like Freight & Salvage in Berkeley to book the band another night. "It helps us and it helps the artists," said Johnson. "It works for everybody."
Along with expanded programming, Flach said that they are planning to renovate and cover the front patio area with an awning, which is currently open air, so they can use it year-round. They are also planning to put on another Sweetwater in the Sun festival at Stafford Lake Park in Novato. The first one in 2018 featured Steve Kimock & Friends, with Bob Weir sitting in, and drew 2,000 people.
Ultimately, Sweetwater Music Hall is about community. "When Jeanie Patterson ran the old Sweetwater, it was like her living room. You walked into it and felt like you were part of her world," said Flach. "We really try to be that place where you feel like you are part of it — where friends can come out to dance and have a party while listening to live music. We think about what the old Sweetwater was to Mill Valley, and we try to keep that going."