Country Comes To Town

Sugarland, Merle Haggard to Play Santa Barbara

GOING COUNTRY, IN THE COUNTY: Santa Barbara’s music calendar sometimes falls into genre-centric waves, by design, serendipity and/or collective taste factors. Recently, the focus has been on the twang thang. Yes, country is in the air, including a Santa Barbara Bowl appearance, this Sunday, by the loveable country sensation Sugarland. The smash band that Georgian partners Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush built, heard at the Chumash Casino awhile back, is riding high with country fans old and new. Last month, the Arlington was packed with mostly young-ish folks for another young country sensation, Grammy-scooping beard-donner Zac Brown, whose brawling yet polished show, mixing genuine C&W, country-rock and even jamband-ishness, wowed the crowd.

Meanwhile, artists from different corners–and generations–of country have been passing through these parts, including versatile mid-career Americana hero Jim Lauderdale, at the Maverick Saloon last week (via “Tales from the Tavern”), following close on the heels of last June’s rollicking fine Live Oak Festival set. Friday at the Chumash Casino, Merle Haggard—one of those everybody’s favorite country veterans, like Willie Nelson–pays a return visit to the area, after hitting the Arlington last fall.

Clearly, something is afoot and abuzz here, vis a vis the country-meets-Americana scene, and that’s a hip, happy thing.

SPRINGING INTO THE NEW: Each spring, the normally underexposed world of contemporary “serious music” bursts forth with uncommon splendor thanks to UCSB’s “Primavera Festival.” For a few days–this year, from next Monday to Friday–we get the sense of a vibrant modernity in real time and public space.

Anchoring the festival are concerts, Wednesday and Thursday, by those acronym-fueled entities ECM (Ensemble for Contemporary Music) and CREATE (Center for Research in Electronic Technology). It was ECM, and director Jeremy Haladyna, which supplied the festival’s seedbed, growing out of the old “UCSB New Music Festival,” launched by former Corwin Chair, composer William Kraft. A touch of full circular programming logic lands in this year’s festival, with the music and presence of the Eastman-based composer Robert Morris, a teacher of CREATE director Joanne Kuchera Morin and once a prime candidate for the Corwin Chair.

But never mind the curricular connections. Enjoy the mental challenge of new sounds and ideas.

TO-DOINGS, HINDUSTANI-CARNATIC STYLE: Local fans of Indian classical music know to keep track of “The India Show,” Saturday afternoons on KCSB-FM (91.9 FM) and concerts presented by the wonderful University organization, Raagmala. Friday at Givetz Hall, Raagmala hosts a special Hindustani-Carnatic concert, featuring sitarist Ustad Shahid Parvez and flutist Shashank Subramanyam, plus Subhayjoti Guha on tabla and Shriram Brahmanandam on mridangam.

FRINGE BOOKISHNESS: Musician biographies can succumb to a multitude of sins, just as the strange business of writing about music can wobble into irrelevance and the oxymoronic. But certain books rise above the din, including Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating Neil Young bio, Shakey. Michelle Mercer, whose Wayne Shorter biography was an important, poetic addition to jazz bio literature, has managed a special feat with her latest book, Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period (Free Press).

In the space of 200 pages, Mercer spins interpretive magic and imparts historical and cultural clarity on an inherently complex subject. She tells Mitchell’s story, from a humble life in Saskatchewan to the life of legend, and her current, late period idyll in British Columbia—where the author colluded and conversed with the artist. Mercer understands and illustrates that Mitchell is more than just a champion in the singer-songwriter quarters: she is one of the great 20th century musical visionaries. Mitchell’s blend of poetry and musical exploration, especially on her ‘70s masterpieces Blue and Hejira, require special, outside-the-box handling in the telling, and with this book, Mercer goes impressively broad, deep and left of typical.

One distressing revelation in the book is Mitchell’s dissing of John Coltrane as “overrated.” Say what? Is God overrated? Open note to Joni: please give ‘Trane another chance. Start with Fearless Leader and move forward to Interstellar Space.


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