TALE OF TWO FESTIVALS: Each June, a month that would otherwise be culturally slack, Santa Barbara turns into festival central, thanks to the now officially venerable Ojai Music Festival (62 years and counting) and, last week, the Live Oak Festival, which left its teen years in the dust and celebrated year 20 over the weekend. To clarify the situation, though, Santa Barbara is in the center of these festivals taking place on either side of the city proper. Both festivals are hosted in a valley to either side of us in our steeply vertical and gently rolling geographic area. Ojai’s festival is an internationally toasted affair which dares to bring fresh, contemporary musical produce to the outdoor splendor of Libbey Bowl. Live Oak, a fundraiser for San Luis Obispo’s resplendent public radio station KCBX (89.5 FM), has long been deemed one of the important extra-folk festivals on the West Coast and in the nation. Come September, the fledgling and enterprising Solvang Jazz Festival continues its brave adventure with edition number two.
One might ask: Where are the Santa Barbaran music festivals? That question’s partly answered by the fact that Santa Barbara has a surprisingly healthy scene of concert series-at the Lobero, Campbell Hall, the Arlington, and the Santa Barbara Bowl-and many more musical happenings at the club level. In fact, you could argue that Santa Barbara’s weekly cultural calendar is tantamount to a nonstop, if factionalized, festival. Even so, this culturally buzzing town could use a festival or two to provide focal points for enlightened listening and culturally geared chillaxing. The Santa Barbara Symphony has stepped up with its January festivals-dedicated, variously, to Silvestre Revueltas, tango/malambo, guitar and percussion-resourcefully linking its season with other local events. But we could sure use more such festival action.
It’s probably safe to say that there isn’t a lot of overlap between the Ojai and Live Oak crowds, as there remains a strange divide between classical and non-classical audiences. Ojai’s program this year was one of the best in years, thanks to the heroic appearance of the ingenious and charming music director David Robertson and so-called Minimalist master Steve Reich (and, lurking in the margins, the 100-year-old dean of American music Elliott Carter, who was at least given a chamber music concert off to the side of the main arena). Among the highlights were Reich’s new Daniel Variations, as well his mesmeric Drumming and the fest-closing Tehillim, and Robertson’s thrilling and brainy Saturday night soiree, from Philippe Manoury‘s stunning electronics/voice opus En echo to the West Coast premiere of Michael Jarrell’s Cassandre, featuring an utterly beguiling Barbara Sukowa. From earlier centuries, we also savored Dawn Upshaw‘s Schubert encore and the Baroque bliss of Pergolesi‘s Stabat Mater.
Live Oak was its usual happily varied stylistic salad bar of a show. Between Friday and Sunday nights, we heard a typically atypical admixture of musics from the folk diaspora. In this case, that included music from Nigeria, Appalachia, Brazil, and the honky tonks of Austin as represented by the delectably splinkety band The Derailers. During his Friday night set, the sardonically cool, double-layer retro Dan Hicks (of Hot Licks fame) paused for some of his trademarked loopy between-song patter. He referred to the sartorial smorgasbord of festival emcee Joe Craven: “No matter what he looks like, he’s a good guy. Joe Craven missed the hippie phase, but he’s making up for it now.” Hearing a trumpeter from Poncho Sanchez‘s band backstage, Hicks quipped, “I hear a trumpet warming up backstage. I don’t know what a trumpet is doing here in folkland.” Of course, he did know: Live Oak is a more or less equal opportunity window on the musical world.
Following Mike Marshall‘s wowing, choro-loving mandolinistic extravaganza on Sunday night, Texan Nanci Griffith brought the festival to a heartwarming, mind-warming close. A beloved queen of alt country (before “alt country” grew into itself), Griffith hasn’t made her presence known nearly enough around these parts. Y’all come back, ya hear? And not just in the June boom.