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Ojai and Live Oak Festival Reports

Two Area Music Festivals Herald Summer


FOR WHOM THE PIPERS PIPE: In a long-standing tradition now moving on to a next generation, the Live Oak Music Festival closed down last Sunday to the tune of bagpipes in the chilled night air. Veteran piper Joe Dickerson passed his well-worn torch to the young bothers Riley and Aiden Foster Evans—14 and 12 years old, respectively—but the song, sound, and symbolism remained the same.

In a way, that ritual nocturnal bagpipe salute each June signifies not only another Live Oak encounter gone down in history—this year was its 22nd annual fête—but also the summation of a more general micro-festival season in the area. Each year as we hit the onramp to summer, we are treated to the world-renowned contemporary classical spread of the Ojai Music Festival—this year, up to its Beatles-esque 64th anniversary—in early June. On a less “serious” note, the Live Oak’s Bedouin campout village affair lords over each Father’s Day weekend. Strangely, these two world-class festivals take place on either side of Santa Barbara proper, which still seems like a ripe music festival town waiting to awaken. But that’s another story, sort of.

This was a great year in Ojai, with the West coast debut of Germany’s new-music scene-stealers Ensemble Modern. Friday night at the Ojai Music Fest two weeks ago was devoted to a hot, long-overdue celebration of the impressive “art music” side of Frank Zappa, which Ensemble Modern has masterfully played and recorded.

Earlier last Sunday night, the mainstage area of the Live Oak camp played host to jazz organ great Dr. Lonnie Smith (who transcended some bass pedal mishaps); to potent, literate, and rocking mid-career singer/songwriter Josh Ritter; and to headliner Rickie Lee Jones, who was in a more wistful, oldies-centric mood than usual. This wondrous and warm-spirited festival, extra warm in that it benefits the San Luis Obispo-based public radio beacon KCBX (89.5 FM), continues to amaze.

Friday’s program, for instance, included my vote for revelation of the festival, the rousing and unique progressive-folk sounds of the great Swedish folk group Väsen (gotta love Olov Johansson’s nyckelharpa, and those natural odd meters). The spotlight then swung to the raucous retro goods of the Chicago Blues Reunion, and a juicy Hot Licks Stage after-hour dance jam with Portland’s Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside. This intriguing band is a ripe candidate for a date at SOhO.

Fast reverse to two Sundays earlier, to the south of Santa Barbara proper, and the Ojai festival closed its splendid weekend outdoors in Libbey Park with a grand, brainy, and visceral finale, courtesy of Ensemble Modern’s sharply focused brilliance. Enticing work by resident composer/conductor George Benjamin blended in with the music of acknowledged modern music masters Pierre Boulez (who has presided in Ojai several times, including in 2003), György Ligeti (the startlingly involving Chamber Concerto) and Olivier Messiaen, who also paid a visit to Ojai, in the late ’80s. Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques was heard at Music Academy of the West two years ago, but as the festival-capper in Ojai, the ambient relevance of his birdsong and nature fascination and musical profundity left us in a happy haze for days. Now, the summer can commence.

Tyler Blanton
Click to enlarge photo

Timm Eubanks

Tyler Blanton

JAZZ SHOW OF THE WEEK: One of the finer Santa Barbara jazz shows of last year, outside the usual concert season events at the Lobero and Campbell Hall, occurred when promising young vibist Tyler Blanton came to SOhO a year ago. We were momentarily spoiled, catching a whiff of the bounteous and intelligent young jazz talent that exists in N.Y.C. but too rarely filters its way out west. Blanton, who grew up in Ojai and has been in Brooklyn for a few years now, has taken the next step in his musical life by releasing a strong debut CD, Botanic. His album is blessed with sturdy original compositions—modern in spirit, but also accessible on the ear—and fine playing from the leader and allies including saxist Joel Frahm and drummer-deserving-wider-recognition Richie Barshay. Blanton returns to SOhO, on Sunday. Check it out.

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