ON THE PLINK PATROL: Odd though it may seem—and perhaps for the first time in Santa Barbara history—it’s safe to say that the big events on this weekend’s musical agenda are lorded over by the almighty banjo. One day, perhaps we will say the same about other great, under-sung instruments, e.g., the accordion, trombone, or pedal steel guitar. Or maybe not.
It begins on Friday night, October 8, at the Granada with comic/writer/oddball/eclectic neatnik (and non-beatnik) Steve Martin, in banjo-picker mode. As a banjoist and banjo-oriented songwriter of no small talent, the semi-Santa Barbaran has been diving deeper into a formerly more private, part-time passion. Now 65, Martin got serious about the banjo only in his sixties and now has a thoroughly happy-fingered, happy-feet-ish Grammy-winning album, The Crow, and another in the can. Live, he is joined by young North Carolinians the Steep Canyon Ramblers.
And in other banjo news this weekend (I love being able to type that), the always enjoyable Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention settles in at the magical Stow House property in Goleta this Sunday. Now up to its 39th annual, the daylong event is cemented as a great, must-check-out cultural doing in Santa Barbara for casual and diehard fans of antique Americana (participants are encouraged to play nothing younger than 50 years, although rule-breaking is also encouraged). Expect a bounty of banjos, fiddlers, flat-picked guitars, twang-loving singers and the like, on mostly bluegrass and old-timey themes. Atmospherically, the Stow House and rustic, strictly non-suburban surroundings, including Lake Los Carneros, is a regional sweet spot to savor, before corporate franchises completely gut and sully our remarkable town.
Much remains the same, thankfully, at the Fiddlers’ Convention, with its flowing roster of contestants at various skill levels and impromptu jam sessions popping up all around the loveable property like unplanned but agreeable sonic volunteers in the garden. But things are changing, as well, with more well-known outside artists playing sets, including Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, National Reso-Phonic guitar specialist Steve James, Portland’s The Foghorn Trio, and Little Black Train. All told, visitors can devise their musical menu, while strolling idly and dreaming of life beyond and before the 21st century.
L.A. LOGBOOK: After the sturm und drang und über-cha-ching of the Ring, the L.A. Opera has opened its 2010-11 season portals on a much lighter note, emotively and fiscally, with the world premiere of Il postino, Daniel Catán’s sweet lyrical breeze of a thing. What better way to clear the air and launch the 25th season than a film-to-opera adaptation, starring Placido Domingo as fave romantic poet Pablo Neruda. Make no mistake, last season’s Ring Cycle—memorably realized by visionary German director and dreamer Achim Freyer—was a milestone, probably the West Coast’s cultural pinnacle, and a crowning achievement in L.A. Opera’s history. Okay, so the price tag was $32 million, but what price great art? We spend more than that weekly on our military follies in the Middle East. L.A. Opera’s long-awaited entry into the ranks of major companies tackling Wagner’s epic has turned into the company’s greatest achievement.
But now, something breezy this way comes in the mail, with Il postino. L.A. Opera domo Domingo was in fine voice at last Wednesday’s performance (albeit a much easier role than his Ring nod). Over Catán’s lovely Debussy-meets-John Adams musical vocabulary, with fleeting bits of turbulence, Domingo gave the proper avuncular sagely warmth as Neruda, exiled from his turbulent Chile on a small Italian island, befriending and mentoring our humble postman protagonist, Mario (the sweetly sonorous Charles Castronovo). It’s operatic, minus the extremes, a “summer’s” taste treat in time for our “summer” weather.
We’re lucky, as Santa Barbarans, being in close proximity to the urban resources of L.A., soaking in world-class culture such as the L.A. Opera and getting the hell out of that seething metropolis to enjoy the therapeutic plink of banjos on the Stow House lawn. It’s all good.