Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Rick Diamond

As the little village of a band known as Santana wrapped up its flowing 2.5 hour set last week at the Santa Barbra Bowl, a cloud of satisfaction and vague melancholia hovered over the place we call concert central for half of each year. Santana’s show was last stop on the late spring to early fall season allotted to the Bowl. Santana has made his appreciation of this space known for years, noting that the spirit of Bob Marley-who recorded an album here-is alive in the al fresco house. And the admirable feeling is mutual.

Having trekked up the hill to the Bowl 22 times since the season started in May, this columnist can attest to having been there, heard that. The verdict is almost resoundingly positive. Quibbles can still be made about programming, which remains strong in multiple areas of pop and weak-to-non-existent in classical, jazz, or world music, genres that seem to be non grata in our Bowl. Michael Buble‘s May concert was this season’s token jazz offering, but unlike previous seasons blessed with Diana Krall or Tony Bennett in that role, Buble’s attitude is almost cynically anti-jazz: he hires fine jazz players, but only lets them cut loose for novelty moments.

Then again, it’s hard to level any complaint against a Bowl season that included a visit from Radiohead, the world’s current reigning Only Band that Matters (sez this listener, among millions). To recognize that this great band chose our relatively tiny venue based on the good vibes of their 2001 two-night stand here-plus the fact that they are reportedly inclined towards more such Bowl stops in the future-adds to the warm glow of civic pride. Micro-review of the Radiohead concert: two-hour orgasm.

Plenty of high points dotted the season’s map, particularly June’s fascinating not-so-odd couple Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, with T-Bone Burnett producing, refereeing and guitar-ing onstage. The band’s American-grained reworking of “Black Dog” was a lingering epiphany of the ’08 Bowl season. More recently, Jack White’s “other” group, The Raconteurs, put on a dazzling show, with feet in rock manners of yore and of now, and God-kissed and multi-talented soul queen Alicia Keys (is she really not even 30 yet?) drew perhaps the season’s most diverse audience.

Old school pop legends also wended up and down the hill, including a long-awaited return by Bob Dylan, and memorable shows from Willie Nelson, James Taylor, John Mellencamp (with headline-spot-deserving Lucinda Williams opening) and the suddenly road-hungry John Fogerty. Down a generation or so, Bowl favorite Ben Harper was on the roster, as were groups as diverse as Death Cab for Cutie, 311 (with Snoop Dogg!), comeback kings Stone Temple Pilots, and the sorta-local CSN. Sheryl Crow, come to think of it, was, sadly, the rare headlining female artist on the marquee.

Combining acts of defiance and gestures of admiration for the Bowl’s ambience, a few acts drifted over the venue’s strict 10 p.m. curfew, including The Cure and Steve Miller, who seemed startled when given the ixnay order. Miller returned to the stage just after the stroke of 10, and harrumphed, “Now we’re going to break the law”-this from a crafty pop star who has never seemed keen on breaking the law, musically speaking.

As is often noted, Santa Barbara’s relationship to the Bowl is anything but a neutral one. Propped up with scrutiny and pride and concern for its well-being and well-roundedness, we keep tabs on the place, which continues on its upward path of improvements even as news of the venue’s magical qualities spreads throughout the world. The concerts of 2008 are now a matter of history, and a rocking fine season it was.

WEILL, WEIMAR, AND MORE: Time and style lean proudly backward in the case of the Berlin-based group Max Raabe & Palast Orchester, making its Santa Barbara debut at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Friday. Celebrating the Weimar Republic musical culture and American music of the ’30s, Raabe and company dress and play the part, aiming to keep a great between-the-Wars musical period alive.


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