STETSONS & SOMBREROS: Purt’ near every year around this time, as we round the corner into August, we get a too-rare chance to experience two great American musical genres deserving wider recognition and exposure. We’re speaking, of course, about country-western music and mariachi music of a high order, coming this weekend to a Ventura County Fair and Santa Barbara Bowl near us. One genre comes out of Nashville, generally speaking, the other from Jalisco and now the world over, and both qualify as American music of deceptively simplicity and underappreciated depths.
Ventura’s ample, aromatic, and sensation-seizing County Fair, which just opened and runs for 10 days, and the Fiesta-synchronized Santa Barbara Mariachi Festival, at the Bowl for hours on Saturday, are in fact two cherish-able cultural traditions in our midst, not given enough credit. Whereas our area only occasionally catches wind of country acts, mainly at the Chumash Casino, the county fair circuit is thankfully host to many a traveling country act, including this year’s booking of hit-making vet Clay Walker (Saturday, August 6) and Trace Adkins (on Friday, August 12).
As for the Mariachi Festival, this is the go-to event for anyone already enchanted by mariachi at its finest, and those looking to be thusly hooked. While the Fiesta festivities rattle and rumble down in the city’s flatlands this weekend, the Mariachi Fest serves as a kind of self-contained fiesta of its own, with some deep cultural roots. An important part of the larger landscape of mariachi music, Santa Barbara’s festival taps into the upper end of the professional spectrum: this year’s roster features famed singer Pedro Fernandez as headliner, and the groups Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan and Mariachi Los Toros. The Mercados can wait.
GUITARS IN TRIPLICATE: Born in Los Angeles and with an increasingly busy presence as a touring, recording, and guitar music reinventing ensemble, the New West Guitar Group is no stranger in Santa Barbara, and their appearance at SOhO on Monday, August 8 will be their third in just over a year. They’re doing something right. Many things right, in fact, as heard on the SOhO stage in the past and on a brand new album, Round-Trip Ticket (Summit). Founded in the well-known riches of the USC guitar department, the all-guitar group currently boasts the cross-idiom skills of Perry Smith, Jeff Stein, and John Storis.
Tastefully blending acoustic and electric guitar parts, the trio comes up with a jazz-meets-folk-and-pop sound reminiscent of early Pat Metheny, and they manage to find a balancing point between lyricism and technically sturdy chops-flinging. The group’s natural team spirited m.o. is apparent from the album’s opening track, “Arrowhead,” with its rippling harmonized melody laid across an acoustic chordal base. While the album’s song list works as a cohesive whole, the musical trajectory is a varied one, from, say the easy-does-it waltz “Waiting for You” into the simmering sophistication and muted power train of the understated, 7/8 Brazilian pulsations of “Crooked Railroad,” which may be the album’s Best of Show.
“U-Haul Breakdown” is, rather than a moody blues about the woes of touring, a breakdown in the bluegrass-y sense, while “Wandering on a Trail” is a sweetly meandering balladic thing, befitting the title. On Monday, expect to hear a lot of notes from these three fine young pickers, but also, more importantly, an abiding sense of musicality.
UNEXPECTED EPIPHANY OF THE MONTH DEPT.: Folks got what they came for and paid for at Peter Frampton’s Bowl gig on Sunday, as he gamely dished up the menu of his mega-hit album Frampton Comes Alive! (not exclamation point!) in its entirety, 35 years after the album’s release. The show, through its first 100 minutes, gave us more of what he put forth at his Chumash Casino show in 2009, but who knew that the best was saved for last?
Turns out that Frampton, a much more brilliant rock musician and guitarist-of-note than his breezy general public persona lets on, is craftily using this “FCA! 35” business as a Trojan horse/excuse to demonstrate the worth of his present-day music and his ever greater flexibility as a guitarist. He dispensed with the cheeky jokes and got down to some serious musical business, tapping into his last two albums, and showing a kind of expressive power, right up through his bold cover versions of “Black Hole Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for an encore. He left the stage without fanfare or show biz frizz, a serious musician who had gotten his retro clown act out of the way. This guy is a force to reckon with, as a rock guitarist working roughly in the lofty region of Jeff Beck. He may have to do his talk box hat trick for the rest of his days, but people would be well advised to listen deeper than the classic rock crock.
MAW WATCH: This weekend is a big one for the Music Academy of the West festival, and some strangely eclectic musicheads (ahem) may find themselves torn on Saturday night, between the Mariachi Festival and the Nicolas McGegan-conducted baroque orchestra concert, at the First Presbyterian Church. Most notably, of course, this is the weekend The Opera comes to town, Friday night, August 5 and Sunday afternoon, August 7 at the Granada. Each year, the Music Academy’s full opera production is a hot ticket on any serious music fan’s cultural calendar for the year, let alone just the summer. While MAW vocal department head and all-around guru Marilyn Horne has brought us some more obscure operatic material in past years, she follows up last year’s repertoire staple Don Giovanni with Rossini’s ever-popular The Barber of Seville this season, and who’s complaining?