NOT-FINAL FRONTIERS: Up in our beloved Santa Barbara Bowl, the Eagle has landed, and with it another onward-upward chapter in the evolution of a venue. Recent years have brought a steady succession of major renovations and refinements at the Bowl, whose fund-raising efforts keep flowering. For VIPs, the new exclusive terrace area allows special people a lofty perch above the plebeian din, with a stage view. For VIPs, plebeians, and anyone with a working bladder, the arrival of generous bathrooms to replace the funky models of old felt like a divine intervention to longtime Bowlers.
Now comes the most visually imposing and most expensive renovation to date, the “spaceship,” as locals are tending to call it. The massive Pavilion fixture, made of stone and copper and looming over the stage, allows for bigger acts with bigger production requirements at the Bowl, and will also allow for classical and opera programing, according to Bowl honchos. Smirking UFO or NASA references aside, the Pavilion is aesthetically pleasing, an organic and satisfying answer to the problem of connecting the venue’s WPA-era origins and the tug of the future.
For newcomers to town – a town bubbling over with newcomers and new wealth – the Pavilion may seem an innocent addition. For those of us with a deep history here, it feels disorienting in ways both invigorating and bizarre. It’s like a wild face lift you woke up to discover in the mirror one morning. This scribe began going to Bowl shows in the mid-’70s, while in high school, and over the decades have watched its initially tentative and then determined, moneyed push towards its current status as one of America’s finest outdoor venues.
In one fell week-long swoop, the delayed Bowl season kicked off with four shows in five days, and the concentration and variety of acts microcosmically represented the Bowl’s ideal programming agenda. The varied acts, with their varied audience types, told a happy story for a venue unusually tied to the host community (therefore unusually responsible for addressing community’s needs). Norah Jones and Gwen Stefani couldn’t be more different: Jones’ music does her bidding, while Stefani’s dance and visual factors often trump the actual music.
From the tough-but-catchy pop-rock corner came the Goo Goo Dolls, Lifehouse, and tasty newcomer Colbie Caillat. One unintentionally telling moment in Week One came when a pile of large balloons were released during the Goo Goo set. As the jumbo dark beach balls were bounced around the front seating area, socio-behavioral patterns emerged. Elitists tried to keep the balls within the price-y front section. Egalitarians tried to hit the balls back up to other seating areas. And subversives aimed them onstage – where one almost knocked over a microphone stand, some were gamely bounced back by the musicians, and few were giddily popped.
Musically speaking, the “new” Bowl has also boasted another recent and hopefully ongoing innovation: classical music. On day two of the Bowl season, sandwiched between Norah and Goo Goo Dolls, John Williams conducted the ace young forces of the Academy Festival Orchestra, celebrating the Music Academy of the West’s 60th birthday. The experience of hearing orchestral music in this place was exhilarating, especially in the case of Williams’ substantial and tonally challenging Violin Concerto. (For the record, the sublimity turned to popcorn in the second half, as Williams trotted out his popular movie bits.)
Classical music’s persona non grata status at the Bowl has long been a sore point for the sizable fan base here who believes that the Bowl should address demographics of listeners beyond the pop culture swim. Bring it on!
STAGE SPEAK OF THE WEEK: Norah Jones, responding to a slurring heckler’s repeated shout-outs of, “You’re so hot!” First time: “You’re helping me with my self-esteem.” Second time (in a gruff Long Island accent): “Awright, enuff already.”