Illicit concert series goes legit, but secret maps and moonlit merriment are here to stay

A Berkeley composer has been organizing hike-in covert concerts since 2018. Last weekend, blessed with city funding, he hosted Moonstruck’s first legal performance.

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Trapeze artist Shannon Gray performs to music played by cellist Mia Pixley’s band at the Moonstruck event, held at César Chávez Park on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

It wasn’t until the sun had begun to set behind Mount Tam, its final rays striking the performers and audience gathered at the solar calendar in Berkeley’s César Chávez Park, that the moment the folks had gathered for on a cold and windy Saturday evening really set in.

Watch a video showing past concerts

While several dancers swayed their bodies to a one-time-only, site-specific piece choreographed by Alex Law and set to music by composer Jaren Feeley, the blending of nature, music, movement and community was delightfully obvious in the pale, pink and purple light.

This was “Moonstruck”: a once-renegade, now public gathering of artists and community in natural settings to create a sense of space, culture and connection.

Created by Feeley four years ago, Moonstruck started as small gatherings the Berkeley resident organized just occasionally and just at the right time in East Bay parks. It was born from the sense Feeley had that he wanted to find more of a home in the East Bay again after living abroad for a while.

Choreographed by Berkeley resident Alex Law, moonstruck culminated in a site-specific work of movement and music on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“I was going on a walk in Tilden and thought, ‘Wow, this is such a magical place,’” he said. Feeley, also a music teacher, had organized house concerts and other events, so why not make one where the grass hits the audience’s feet and the air brushes against their cheeks?

Feeley said that though the East Bay Regional Parks District never responded to his request to host concerts in their parks, he decided to hold the concerts anyway — illicitly. (The park district could not be reached for comment as of publication time.)

“Our concerts weren’t authorized, and we felt they were important to do, and really meaningful to people,” Feeley said. “It’s eye opening to see these people want to combine meaningful outdoor experiences with meaningful cultural experiences.”

Through word of mouth, Moonstruck was born and grew. The idea was that both performers and audiences would hike a mile or more into a relatively desolate area of an East Bay park before sunset, hear, see, and feel a great performance, then walk back in the light of the full moon. Highly recommended: heavy sweaters and flashlights.

“It was super magical, DYI, renegade” said Alex Roe, who attended an event at Wildcat Peak in Tilden Regional Park, a moderate, 3.4-mile trek. “It was a lot of people having respect for the land they were on.”

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A Moonstruck attendee consults an unlabeled map to reach the event on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

For performers Thu Tran and Rachel Garcia, who make up the modern folk duo The Singer and the Songwriter, getting their gear to and from their 2020 performance in Tilden required a wheelbarrow and some tenacity. They had met Feeley at a house concert and loved the vibe of the event, so they signed onto Moonstruck and found a similar, quiet, appreciative audience.

“We often lose the fight in a bar” to be heard, singer Garcia said.

Garcia said the Moonstruck event The Singer and the Songwriter performed at was like a pop-up event – it appeared, dispersed, then disappeared.

“It was also a really warm reception,” Tran added.

Yet Feeley wanted to bring Moonstruck to a larger audience and could no longer keep the secret. He worked with the City of Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission last year and got guidance and a $5,000 grant, which came from a $200,000 fund intended to bolster the city’s post-pandemic spirits through art.

That’s how the audience of 250 landed in César Chávez Park last weekend listening to cellist Mia Pixley play “Passage” with her band beside trapeze work by Shannon Gray.

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Cellist Mia Pixley performs with a band at the Moonstruck event, held at César Chávez Park on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

This event was decidedly not secret. It was posted on message boards, advertised to the press and $22 tickets were sold to anyone who could afford them — and given away for free to those who couldn’t.

As in times past, the audience was told the day before the event where to go. The email message was pretty sweet and simple: Meet at the tip of Berkeley’s Aquatic Park and get a copy of the hand-painted hiking map from the “wizards,” volunteers dressed like, well, wizards. Feeley added smiley faces and cheer while warning of the cold and the terrain.

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Volunteer wizards Joe Smith and Brit Mathat hand out maps to Moonstruck attendees at Berkeley Aquatic Park on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The maps distributed by the wizards were used by attendees both as a guide to finding their destination and also as an interpretive travelogue to the flora and fauna, like the sandpiper and pineapple weed they’d see along the trail.

“I like the full moon. I like music and I like to walk,” said first-time Moonstruck audience member Natalie Jones of Oakland, who saw the event advertised on a Bay Area events message board. “I haven’t been to many live music events since COVID and I’m missing that. There’s no dilemma here.”

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Sunny Elliott and Casey Walker look at posters sold to benefit the Moonstruck event, held at César Chávez Park on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

And although the event is legal and therefore no longer one of those secrets you like to revel in being special enough to know, Roe said it’s still the nature-focused, cultural attraction it was when the fuzz wasn’t in on it.

“I think it’s really good to have it public, honestly, in a sense,” Roe said. “It will be more accessible and allow it to grow.”

He smiled slyly, then said, “but there was a certain magic of walking in the forest, and you’re not supposed to be there.”

Keep checking the Moonstruck website to learn about upcoming concerts.

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Moonstruck attendees walk over the I-80 pedestrian bridge toward McLaughlin Eastshore State Park to reach the event destination on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
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Moonstruck attendees hike through McLaughlin Eastshore State Park to reach the event destination on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
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Moonstruck attendees hike through César Chávez Park to reach the event destination on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
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A dancer performs in an ensemble work of music and movement at the Moonstruck event, held at César Chávez Park on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
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Moonstruck attendees watch the performances at César Chávez Park with the San Francisco skyline behind them on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
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Alex Law and Jeren Feeley address the Moonstruck crowd at César Chávez Park on April 16, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay.