The Santa Barbara Bowl is a local treasure; there’s nothing else like it in town. It’s a veritable Greek Theatre, a miniature Hollywood Bowl, tucked behind a quiet residential street — an entire, cavernous musical universe that opens up where North Milpas and East Anapamu streets meet.
In the past, many formidable acts have maximized the nearly 4,600-seater to deliver some amazing, memorable concerts. Joni Mitchell recorded her 1980 double album Shadows and Light at the Bowl; Tears for Fears videotaped a 1990 concert there. When Wilco played the venue in August 2007 during its Sky Blue Sky tour, frontman Jeff Tweedy, on the cusp of turning 40, revealed to his rapt Santa Barbara audience — in a cozy nocturnal scene highlighted by purple lighting — that this was his last night in his thirties. Everyone from Depeche Mode to Pat Metheny to Wolfmother has delivered rousing sets at this outdoor amphitheater, which has been nestled in a stonewalled shell on a pine-tree-covered hillside since 1936.
Despite its regard in Santa Barbara, the Bowl is still in need of discovery by out-of-towners. When Adam Sandler swung through in May to unspool a stand-up lineup of his broad comedy bros, actor Rob Schneider confessed to The Santa Barbara Independent that (despite being a longtime Angeleno) he had never actually visited the Bowl.
That’s not unusual according to Moss Jacobs, longtime Bowl booker, and Rick Boller, Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation (SBBF) executive director, both of whom believe such myopia will soon fade fast thanks to the venue’s realignment with music presenters Goldenvoice, these days under the aegis of formidable parent company AEG Live.
Last January, The Independent reported how Jacobs, who worked for Nederlander Concerts for nearly 15 years until November 2015, was returning to Goldenvoice, with whom he was employed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The 2016 season is Goldenvoice’s first since being reinstated as the Bowl’s programming partner, and the most obvious change is volume and a genre-varied packed schedule. The Bowl stage has long been graced with everything from stand-up comedy to classical music performances, Boller explained: “The whole spectrum, which is important to us, especially in our small town.” And according to Jacobs and Boller, things are just heating up.
What’s Happening Now
On a Thursday in mid-June, The Independent spoke with Boller. That Monday, the Bowl was poised to break a major announcement: For the first time ever, Santa Barbara would be welcoming The Who. The iconic British rock outfit, headed by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, plays the Bowl October 6. Boller promised that this is just the beginning and to expect bigger and bigger acts to play there.
Obviously, the music industry has suffered game-changing upheavals since the rise of the Internet and digital music, and, as Jacobs explained, increasingly fewer concert-promotion companies — i.e., Live Nation and AEG Live — are dominating live touring. “Access to content is a big part of the reason why I went back to Goldenvoice,” said Jacobs, who has worked at the Bowl in some capacity since the mid-1980s. “The touring business has become more and more controlled by fewer entities.”
Meanwhile, Jacobs continued, other factors complicate booking major acts as the Céline Dions, Elton Johns, and Carlos Santanas of the industry settle into exclusive Las Vegas residencies and while California Indian casinos also land big fish. “It starts to take its toll on what we have access to,” he said.
Another factor is that the really big artists (especially those with elaborate stage shows) have traditionally preferred playing multiple nights in Los Angeles or the Bay Area rather than booking shows at the Bowl. “Historically, Santa Barbara has never been on the forefront [for major artists],” Jacobs said. “It’s just too small a market. It’s not a place that everyone’s planning to play. Why pack up their shit and come to Santa Barbara to play?”
The trick has been to convince acts of the Bowl’s value. That’s where Jacobs, who has long displayed “my love of Santa Barbara, my love of the Santa Barbara Bowl,” comes in. He swayed such popular groups as the Beastie Boys to play the Bowl in 1995. “Once the band plays there, they get it,” Jacobs said.
Thanks to Jacobs, the SBBF enjoyed a successful partnership with Goldenvoice from the mid-’90s into the 2000s. “That was the beginning of some big changes,” said Boller, who has served as executive director for seven years and has been involved with the SBBF for 24 years. He also credits Jacobs, “who has been involved since those early years,” and his already “strong relationship” with Goldenvoice has upped the Bowl’s currency with younger acts. “We started in 1995 with the Beastie Boys,” Boller said. “Goldenvoice had that sort of relationship with those artists, and Moss was there.”
Also helping lure larger acts to our seaside city is the long-running initiative to upgrade the aging amphitheater. “When I first got involved, it was this unique Santa Barbara experience, or gem, and it was falling apart in the early ’90s,” Boller said. “The Bowl had been in a lot of use and not a lot of upkeep. If this place [was] going to live on into the future, there [were] quite a few things that needed to be addressed.”
In 1994, the SBBF took over the Bowl from the county and launched a two-decade capital campaign to refurbish the venue. Overhauling infrastructure, such as water, power, sewage, and public restrooms, took place during its first major phase, which began in 2001. Improvements continued through 2014, with upgrades to the backstage and donor reception area, floor, pavilion, and roof, the latter work allowing for the hanging of production rigging, which has greatly upped the level of concerts possible. “For Depeche Mode to come in here and get to do the exact stage production that they would in L.A., that’s what it’s all about,” Boller said of the renovations.
Community outreach is also important to the SBBF, much of it for obvious reasons. Initially, there were problems with neighbors with acts playing nightly and hundreds parking on their streets. After all, “320 days a year, they live on the park,” Jacobs said. The Bowl has gone to lengths to appease surrounding residents, ending shows by 10 p.m. and employing teams to pick up trash along nearby blocks.
Boller noted that the SBBF connects with the community in other ways, too, such as through its education-outreach program. While raising funds for its capital campaign, a dollar from each paid ticket went to various arts organizations in town working with students, kindergarten through 12th grade.
Times They Are a-Changin’
Once viewed as a Podunk stop, Santa Barbara’s paradigm is changing as bigger artists warm up to the Bowl. “The Bowl has a magical combination of setting and incredible acoustics,” Jacobs said. “The place sounds good. And then you have the production capabilities now.”
The venue has already attracted such diverse acts as Chris Stapleton, G-Eazy, and Fitz and the Tantrums this year — and now: The Who. Perhaps Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and Guns N’ Roses aren’t far behind? “There are certain artists who demand when they’re in California that the Bowl has to be on their itinerary,” Jacobs said — especially more acoustic-oriented acts, Boller added, who appreciate the open-air intimacy the Bowl can deliver.
Now realigned with Goldenvoice, the Bowl will be in striking distance of many major acts. “There’s obviously more to come,” Jacobs said.