The Live Oak Music Festival, held this year from June 19-21, benefits KCBX Public Radio in San Luis Obispo, but it also does a whole lot more for the Central Coast community by providing an example of what a well-run family-oriented music festival can be. Americana may be the emphasis among such headliners as Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, the Subdudes, and Rodney Crowell, but the Live Oak tradition means that a cheerful eclecticism will prevail, especially during the day, when visitors can easily shuffle between African kora playing, bluegrass, Cajun music, and swing. It’s a relaxed and healthy atmosphere for kids, parents, and even teens to experience nature, hear great music, and make some new friends.
Friday night’s headliner is Dave Alvin, formerly of The Blasters and punk pioneers X. His latest group, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, consists of Alvin and five talented female musicians-Cindy Cashdollar, Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Sarah Brown, and Lisa Pankratz. Together they have released one eponymous album and are now embarking on their first tour. I spoke with Alvin last week, the same day that longtime X frontwoman Exene Cervenka announced to the press that she has multiple sclerosis. Whatever the source for Alvin’s state of mind in the interview that follows, he remains a great songwriter and a great interview.
Have you played the Live Oak Festival before? I last played the Live Oak Festival seven years ago. I know the area from when I was a kid. My brother and my dad and I would camp at Lake Cachuma with my Uncle Joe and my cousins. We fished out in the lake in small boats with Evinrude outboard motors. One time, my Uncle Joe tipped his boat and fell in. My brother and I kind of looked at one another, and I think he said something like, “Uncle Joe’s not much of a fisherman.” So I know that the Santa Ynez Valley is a beautiful part of the world from when I was a kid.
So what’s with the all-girl band? Is it much like the movie Some Like It Hot? I’m not in drag, if that’s what you mean. This band came out of an experiment that I tried at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, where I contacted a whole group of women, all of whom I had either played with or wanted to play with. I felt I had run through a few other configurations-either of all guys, or The Knitters-and this was a chance to change it and do something different.
Why the change? It was a hard year. My best friend died-Chris Gaffney, whom I had done a lot of music with-and I really looked to performances as a kind of place out of time. Playing a gig should be fun, even the bad ones. And, you know, I missed Chris a lot at first, so I really needed a change to what I was doing onstage to get over the loss of his presence. I thought about a lot of things-Eurodisco, techno, electronica-but finally, when the London Philharmonic didn’t return my calls, I went with this Guilty Women thing.
How did you find all these talented, guilty women? I have been fortunate throughout the years to have played with a lot of great musicians, so actually generating the first list of women to talk to about this band was not that hard. In the end, the decisions were based on who I thought would be reliable up there; women I felt comfortable putting in front of the cannons every night.
How many gigs have you played together? We have only done about four gigs at this point. We actually made the record just a couple of months after that initial performance at Hardly Strictly. I didn’t want to rehearse because I wanted to keep in the organic freshness-wow, I sound like a waiter in a health food restaurant. But listen to the jam on “Don’t Make Promises” and you’ll hear what I am talking about. Rehearsal would have made that approach impossible.
In what ways have you changed during the last year? I haven’t changed-I’m as dumb as I’ve always been. [Laughs.] But I have changed, because this year taught me something again that I have known for a while, which is that a musician’s lifestyle-the life, so-called-has a high mortality rate. I’m a lot sadder this year. One way or another, I’ve lost a lot of friends.
How does this show in the work you’ve done recently? The result is that many of the songs on the new record are about the here and now. I have enjoyed singing old ballads and writing historical narratives in the past, but you’ll notice that on this one I’m doing “Que Sera, Sera.” At first it may seem like a corny kind of song, but that’s really a great blues philosophy there. So we took it and made it into a Texas boogie-woogie blues on the album.
Live Oak Music Festival takes place at Live Oak Campground (4600 Highway 154) from Friday, June 19 to Sunday, June 21. For tickets and information about camping and RV permits, call 781-3030 or visit liveoakfest.org.