Because habits, especially good ones, die hard many Santa Barbara fans of the Live Oak Music Festival are presently experiencing inner June gloom. Although a production/fund-raiser for San Luis Obispo’s public radio beacon KCBX (89.5 FM), for three decades, the willfully eclectic and loveably earthy event made its home at Santa Barbara County’s Live Oak Camp, an easy 20-minute drive from downtown. Festival goers from SLO and S.B. counties — and well beyond — would happily converge for a day or the weekend. And lo, it was good.
Until now. Various factors, including the Live Oak Camp’s official role as a firefighting staging area, subject to event cancellation depending on emergencies, have sent the beloved festival packing for its new SLO county home of the El Chorro Park. It’s our turn to commute.
Apart from the new location, though, the 31st annual festival continues on its merry path, as one of California’s finest and least easily pigeonholed weekend-long music fests. A quick glance at this weekend’s headliners confirms the commitment and also the friendly diversity of the programming outlook — also reflective of KCBX’s radio profile itself.
A festival veteran, Brett Dennen (heard at the Lobero recently) grabs the closing Sunday night principle spotlight, while Saturday’s key slot goes to the Afrobeat group Antibalas, amidst a musical menu ranging from world music to folk, country, Americana, reggae, and other savory hybrids.
Friday, June 21, headliner status goes to another favorite Live Oak blast from the past (and present and future), Americana king and sometimes Blasters brother Dave Alvin. Alvin’s band, the Guilty Ones, will also host a special guest, Zen Texan cowboy Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who teamed up for the record Downey to Lubbock with Alvin last year.
I spoke to Alvin from a tour stop in Nevada, a place he admitted he’d enjoy more if he were the gambling sort. “Well,” he corrected himself, “when you’re a professional musician writing weird little songs in archaic styles, that’s gambling enough,” he laughed.
Obviously, Alvin has had enough pay days and critical and fan-based cred to keep his career in good stead over the years. “I get by,” he said. “I will say it’s a struggle. If I really wanted to make money, I wonder about the kind of music I’ve done. But I’m a very lucky guy….Back in the days of the Blasters, we had songs that were popular, but we never had a flat-out hit, where you’d hear it on a late-night infomercial for ‘greatest hits of the ’80s.’ No Blasters songs are on those, which may be a blessing,” he laughed.
But he has secured a solid place as an artist in the so-called Americana scene. “Whatever you want to call what I do,” he said, “I don’t think it’s that out of the mainstream. It’s not like we were playing atonal free jazz. Probably nowadays, there are more people playing this kind of roots music than maybe has ever played it.”
Although Alvin has amassed a vast songbook of original tunes, with the Blasters and wending through his own twisty solo career, he confessed that songwriting is “not easy. When you have a backlog of songs, it gets more difficult the older you get, because you don’t want to write the same songs over and over again….Also, I do feel like my older songs are like older girlfriends. When you bring the new girlfriend around, the older girlfriend is going, ‘What’s going on here?’ There’s a little bit of pressure as a songwriter not to redo what you did before.
Alvin continued: “I’m trying to write my age — a variation on ‘act your age.’ It would be difficult to write the kinds of songs you write at 22 when you’re in your late 40s or something. It’s just different now, and you might get arrested in some states. I just try to write my songs so that they’re age-related. It’s about ‘What am I going through now?’”
4•1•1 | Live Oak Music Festival runs Friday, June 21-Sunday, June 23, at El Chorro Regional Park in San Luis Obisbo. See www.liveoakfest.org.