Near as I can tell, rock ’n’ roll didn’t enter the Santa Barbara Bowl until well into the notorious part of the 1960s. My friends and I were there, not quite old enough to drive (an older brother dropped us off) in early summer, 1968, to see Vanilla Fudge. I liked them then; they played Motown songs (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”) with long psychedelic lead-ins and melodramatic chords, which not much later would be considered to be heavy metal. The lawn area was still grass then, and it was festival seating, so we clustered under a foggy sky in the conductor’s shell. Fudge was overpowering, “intense,” as we used to say. (Nowadays we’d call them “awesome.”) The show was sparsely attended compared to shows at Earl Warren (where we had seen Steppenwolf a few weeks earlier), but we hippie kids automatically approved of woodsy outdoor places, so we hoped against hope this thing might last.
And soon enough, it did. It helped that the ’70s zeitgeist veered into mellow-jazzy genres for which the Bowl proved apt. Peter, Paul and Mary came one year later: date night heaven. Soft rock was ascendant; your Jackson Brownes and Loggins & Messinas proliferated there, though thunderousness reasserted its presence occasionally (Bruce Springsteen, 1974, proving rock will never die).
So many almost-forgotten bands (Elvin Bishop, Tim Weisberg) played, among other acts that virtually defined the eras in which they existed. I saw Bob Marley in 1976 with a lawn full of friends and potent smoke: group-blitzed and certain that those syncopated Wailers were one with us, riding peaks of euphoria. Marley’s mix of hedonism and revolution was ours, too, we thought. In 1982, the venue locked into punk and New Wave modalities: Elvis Costello, The B-52s, and (Stop Making Sense-era) Talking Heads, culminating with The English Beat, Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger, and Saxa opening for The Clash (the only band that mattered). Joe Strummer crowed and stalked a stage overhung with camouflage netting; girls in miniskirts with hard black leather jackets, short-haired boys in monogrammed 4H jackets, all skanking like Brixtoners. Maybe it was the end of hippiedom, but it was a liberating end.
Fast-forward, then, reeling in the years: Santana, Reggae Sunsplash, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and even Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The day concerts were almost gone (minus the Mariachi Fests), but the nights of transcendent musical beauty continue unimpeded more than 400 performers later: The Kinks, Radiohead, and R.E.M., for instance. Then The Psychedelic Furs, Foo Fighters, and Wilco, proving that as the eras changed, the Bowl itself became more elegant.
But we all still talk about huffing and puffing up the canyon to the stage, and each time, I privately remember Vanilla Fudge on that the foggy first night, because I still want that same thing I caught under the now-gone conductor’s shell four decades ago: to be overpowered with an ocean view, awesome sounds, and intensity.
‘The first Bob Marley concert in 1976, and then Joni Mitchell’s concert that was filmed in the late ’70s with Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker, and The Persuasions. These were concert experiences never to be repeated.’ — Stephen Cloud, founding member, Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation.
It is definitely one of the spots people talk about. You talk to bands that have played here, and it’s the memorable one for everybody.’ — Jack Johnson
‘Part of what has been accomplished at the Bowl is to accentuate its magic intangibles. It’s the not-so-obvious parts of the experience that make it so special.’ — Jeff Bridges
‘It’s just become home. You know, I wish I could define it or describe it better than that, clearer than that. There’s a lot of great venues all over the world. … it’s just this is my favorite venue, it’s my absolute.’ — Ben Harper
‘It’s totally crazy and unexpected, and all the same one of the most flattering things that I’ll ever be able to do.’ — Katy Perry on her 2010 headlining gig
‘As I think back, I can name one band, and the song they played, that burned a permanent spot in my memory. It was during the Phil Lesh and Friends Summer Sessions Tour in 1999, and the band was Gov’t Mule doing a cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”’ — Larry Mills former house photographer, Santa Barbara Bowl
‘I’ll always remember going up to the Bowl for the first time when I was a kid in the ’70s. My family brought a picnic meal and a big red plaid flannel blanket so we could sit on the grass and watch the musical Oklahoma! I was hooked on theater from then straight up until I started touring with my band.’ — Glen Phillips Toad the Wet Sprocket
‘Hearing just-left-of-center bands like Weather Report and Little Feat there rearranged my mental molecules, as did Joni Mitchell’s all-star concert (with Jaco Pastorious and Pat Metheny, etc.).’ — Josef Woodard Staff Writer, The Santa Barbara Independent
‘It always felt more like I was doing a concert at someone’s home and not so much at a big venue.’ —Kenny Loggins
‘On July 9, 2004, I saw the Gram Parsons tribute concert “Return to Sin City.” I had just started working at The Independent, and I’m pretty sure this was the first Bowl show that I ever attended. The music was great, and, looking back, the list of musicians assembled reads like a who’s-who of both legends and about-to-be-big artists—Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, and John Doe, a young Jim James, Norah Jones, and Jay Farrar. Plus all those great Gram Parsons songs.’ — Charles Donelan, Fine Arts Editor, The Santa Barbara Independent
‘In early summer 2001, Radiohead played two exclusive Southern California shows at the bowl supporting Kid A, an album of such dexterous innovation that it was hard to believe they could actually play it live. They did astoundingly well; and to say it was a great rock concert, combining passionate, intricate music with colored lights shining in bewildering beauty, is like saying that Van Gogh painted some fine stars on a canvas once. I took my son, who was in high school. We talked about it for a week.’ — D.J. Palladino, Staff Writer, The Santa Barbara Independent