The Sweetwater Music Hall Experience Just Got Sweeter

Jackie Greene Band (photo by Jay Blakesberg)

When Maria Hoppe joined Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall as its executive director and general manager last June, she knew she was stepping into an important role. 

“When I met with the board there was a gentleman there named Rich Robbins who said to me, ‘You know, we are just stewards of this legacy, this historical landmark, and it’s our obligation to keep it going.’ And he sold me right there,” says Hoppe, who left her own artist management company to take the once-in-a-lifetime role. And joining a temporarily shuttered music venue during the pandemic offered its own set of unique opportunities, as long-held plans to renovate the music space, the outdoor restaurant and start a nonprofit could finally be realized.

Food and Drink 

By far the biggest renovation was to the outdoor patio, setting the stage for new executive chef Rick Hackett’s (Bocanova, MarketBar) take on food — especially the meats of Argentina — that he developed while traversing through South America. The Rock & Rye menu adds in a bit of Creole flavor (yes, there is a gumbo) and everything features hyper-local ingredients. “There are so many ingredients and things I’d never heard of that now we get to enjoy here all the time,” Hoppe says. “There is something for everyone on the menu, but now they have a twist with a spice or a sauce you’ve never had before.”

And the drink menu by returning bar manager Josh Fernandez also offers something a little different — cocktails named in tribute to independent music venues nationwide that are reopening after the pandemic. Popular libations include the Red on the Rocks (Red Rocks Amphitheatre) and the FeelMore (the Fillmore).

The Performance Space

The performance space also received a makeover that includes some changes Hoppe thinks people will really like. “I think it’s a beautiful space and I know that most musicians also feel that way about the venue,” Hoppe says, adding that she is excited to see what talent buyer Aaron “AJ” Johnson will do now that he can finally spread his booking wings post-shutdown. “We want to obviously show the proper respect to the original genres of the venue, and the history of this place,” Hoppe says. “But we are interested in also spreading out a little bit with some younger acts, adding some modern psychedelic rock, more straight-up rock, and maybe even a little more singer-songwriter music.”

The Nonprofit

The idea to create a nonprofit at Sweetwater had been around for a while but had to be put on the back burner during the pandemic. But now that the Sweetwater Arts Fund, a nonprofit that operates as an entity separate from the music and restaurant side, is created it can finally fulfill the mission to “promote arts education, specifically music in the community in the greater Bay Area.”

And when the Sweetwater opened for live music again in September, one of the first concerts presented was a performance by Mill Valley’s Wow! Music Studios featuring young students in its program who were thrilled to take the stage for the first time. The program will partner with Sweetwater and another Mill Valley school called Helix, which supports children with differing degrees of autism, to offer additional music education events and concerts in the future. 

Hoppe says many more diverse events and programs are on the horizon. One example was a concert put on last month in conjunction with the Mill Valley Film Festival for the film Song for Cesar. In that documentary co-writers and co-directors Andres Alegria and Abel Sanchez honor activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez and celebrate the songs that uplifted Latino farmworkers who otherwise felt invisible and unheard. 

“The part that’s really important to Sweetwater Musical Arts is, in conjunction with the film festival, reaching out to school-age kids, and doing educational events around the film,” Hoppe says. “We have groups of high school students who are currently taking social justice classes coming to have a Q&A with Abel Sanchez to talk about the film, the music and the movement. And that, to us, is the perfect combination of arts and education.”