The Summer That Just Was

A Season in Review

Last Friday night (pardon the Katy Perry paraphrase), a strange retro-funking harmonic convergence swept over the 1200 block of State Street. In the ample quarters of the Granada, we caught the jazz-rock-funk fusion stylings of artists whose names represent the late ‘70s and ‘80s “soul jazz” sound – keyboardist George Duke, bassist Marcus Miller, and alto saxman David Sanborn, aka the current confabbing band, DMS. “When I heard we were playing in Santa Barbara, I though the crowd would be politely drinking white wine,” Miller quipped, deep into a memory lane-walking show, stocked with hits by each co-leader on the stand. But no. This house (no, not nearly a full one, but nevertheless highly appreciative) was getting down, reeling in old school party jazz with some serious asides, as in Miller’s best-known tune, done with Miles Davis, “Tutu.” A more party-centric nook of the night closed the show, with Miller’s “Da Butt.”

From there and then (‘70/’80s revisited), you could sashay right across the street to SOhO for a late set by the must-to-hear, aged “overnight’ sensation Charles Bradley, who was sweating with a higher purpose, summoning up his special brand of soul-funk in the ‘60s/’70s vein of his hero James Brown. Generally, and proudly, the crack band’s historical compass was pinging in the direction of the “King of Soul,” in synch with the tastes and talents of the astonishingly good Bradley. He is a 62-year-old with a world of drifting and assorted struggles in his past, and with his debut album, No Time for Dreaming (Daptone), suddenly opening new doors for him. The album is a dazzler, but do catch the man live, if you can: his ferocious and controlled voice, which slips organically into scream mode and is a thing of masterfully nuanced coolness, springs to life in a special way in a live venue. He posed the musical question from his new album’s searing, autobiographical song “Why is it so hard to make it in America?) before heading into the crowd for a round of hugs from his new legion of fans.

LOOKING BACK: Summer 2011 now officially being history, for all work/school intents and purposes, it seems a ripe time to glance back at the musical summer that was, and for once Santa Barbara can boast of having had much on its to-do list.

Of the Bowl shows I was in town for, the range of tastiest goodies included a stunning return—after 40 years—by one of rock’s greatest underdog acts, Buffalo Springfield. Gillian Welch, whose new album The Harrow and the Harvest is one of the year’s great ones, impressed with her short set, but the crowd was distracted and distracting: give this great American singer her rightful headlining show—at the Lobero, f‘rinstance? From the other end of the then-and-now spectrum, we also saw the stunning, top o’ the pops conquest by Santa Barbara’s own Katy Perry, a pop cultural genius of sorts, who continues to rack up chart-smashes while somehow staving off the naysayers and backlashers while pleasing the guilty-pleasures crowd. (For the record, I am now also in love with her opener, the catchy and faintly subversive Danish singer Oh Land, who deserves to rise in the pop ranks, but may be a wee bit too smart and witty for the mall set).

From other contrasting corners of the cultural world, Alison Krauss and Union Station lured us into that band’s special Americana realm, and Wiz Kalifa rapped up his accessible, soft-edged storm, while Bowl regulars—the wonderful Santa Barbara Mariachi Festival, Incubus, 311 – fulfilled their respective missions there.

Perhaps the surprise hit of the Bowl summer was Peter Frampton, still one of rock’s more commanding and tasty guitarists, who really came alive (sorry) after he got through his Frampton Comes Alive! redux shtick and showed his newer creative vim and vigor. This guy, like homegirl Perry, deserves to taken more seriously.

SOhO, a room with a mission to survey the diverse landscape of live musical options, was home to many a strong musical night this summer, with the Mountain Goats, the John Fahey-esque vet Michael Chapman, Gardens & Villa, the Old 97s, and, best of all, soulman Charles Bradley last Friday, followed by the spicy Euro-Caibbean hybrid “salsamuffin” sensation Sergent Garcia late last Sunday/Monday. Latin American rock continued its slow integration into the club scene, when Chile’s Los Bunkers fired up Velvet Jones.

Over at the Lobero the “Sings like Hell” series was lit up by the impressive likes of Bruce Robison and partner, in family and sometimes music, Kelly Willis, and Calexico, and the Chumash Casino hosted a stop by the surprisingly musical and still-relevant goods of The Monkees (sans Michael Nesmith). Muddy Waters hosted sundry sounds, including El Paso situation-maker Jim Ward and the wampum noise-making art metal band Liturgy, the summer’s finest night of rafter-shaking and pure sonic brain-rattling.

For the classical fans among us (and there are many), Music Academy of the West was typically chockablock with enticements and rewards, from Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen to the full-forced orchestra for Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Granada and the more compact “chamber” orchestra for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony at First Presbyterian Church under the baton of Nicholas McGegan. This summer’s MAW opera, The Barber of Seville, was a wondrous, if determinedly traditional production (LA Times critic Mark Swed was markedly un-amused, in his review: this scribe joins the plenteous ranks of the quite amused, and impressed).

Jazz took its usual holiday over the summer, although fine New Yorkers Tyler Blanton and Nate Birkey passed through both SOhO and Jim Connolly’s cool, compact Piano Kitchen venue, and Colter Frazier’s monthly march into newness, the Santa Barbara New Music Series at Muddy Waters, soldiers on. Thursday, September 8, that series hosts CalArts-connected concocters Michael Mull Trio and Saturn’s Rival.

On the straighter-ahead jazz front, Dena DeRose, a notable pianist-singer deserving wider recognition, put on a great show in SOhO in early August. It was her first local show since playing the rightly fabled, short-lived but high-idealed Jazz Hall in the mid-’90s. On that note, Jazz Hall domo Ridah Omri is taking a slow boat into fuller operations with his encouraging-sounding house concert series. That’s one for the “stay tuned” files.

TO-DOINGS: Here in the greater Santa Barbara area, we have been privy to musicians within six degrees or less from Robert Fripp, Yes, King Crimson and other Brits with tentacles in the splendor of the Central Coast. On Tuesday night at 7, a taste of the California Guitar Trio—formed many years ago as Fripp protégés—will flow into the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. in Buellton, when nimble CGT guitarist Bert Lams and Chapman Stick player Tom Griesgraber do up a thinking person’s duo show.

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