The Bowl Abides
Santa Barbara Bowl Prepares for 2021 and Beyond
By Michelle Drown | Published August 13, 2020
The Santa Barbara Bowl closed 2019 with a string of epic performances: Hozier, Thom Yorke, and Lila Downs, in that order. After seeing the last patrons leave, and cleaning and buttoning up the venue for the off-season, the staff could finally take a break — until the music began again in the spring of 2020.
But life throws unexpected curveballs, and the pandemic came at the human population so fast that by mid-March, the world as we knew it had shut down. Just like that, the vibrant spring-summer-fall Bowl concert season that was to begin in April was put on hold. Bands that were already booked postponed their shows, and subsequent announcements planned for the coming months never happened.
It’s a familiar story now — COVID came; live performances went. For the past six months, many artists have turned to streaming technology to get their work out to the people. But watching a concert alone on a screen cannot compare to the multifaceted experience of seeing and hearing a band play live. There’s a synergism that occurs between audience and performer, electricity and emotion that flows back and forth from stage to floor. For many, live music is their lifeblood, and going without has caused a deep sense of loss.
For Santa Barbarans, no concerts at the Bowl feels like a one-two punch, as the 4,500-seat outdoor concert venue not only allows top-tier artists such as Keith Urban, Paul Simon, and alt-J (to name a few) to play in our city, the setting has a magic all its own — its natural beauty bewitches concertgoers and performers alike. It’s a seasonal timekeeper for the community, signaling spring’s arrival as the first notes waft into the air and spread throughout the Milpas-Anapamu neighborhood each April. Then, when fall finally turns the air colder and the days shorter, the last tour buses load up and pull away.
During this unprecedented year of closure while the Bowl seemingly sits dormant, activity nevertheless abounds within, as architectural and ecological improvements are made that will ensure that the venue can offer even better experiences for patrons and bands when they return in 2021.
More Time to Build
Well before COVID came, the folks at the Bowl had a to-do list of upgrades and renovations on the books that they’ve been slowly ticking off during the off-season. For example, a year ago, a hill on the far side of the venue collapsed, sending debris down into the seating area. New retaining walls were required for patron safety.
Reinforcing the hillside is no small endeavor, explained Tobe Plough, chair of the Bowl’s board of directors. Via live video, Plough showed me the massive earthmoving project underway. “We had a fairly large mudslide a year ago — actually twice — and had engineers and geologists and so on from Suffolk County out here,” Plough explained, bulldozers buzzing in the background. “It turns out we need to shore up that entire hillside, and so we’re building a retaining wall. Actually, there are two walls; you can see the upper one that’s already in place, and now they’re excavating for the lower one,” he said.
Taking advantage of the uninterrupted days to have work crews on site, the Bowl board decided to not only tend to safety enhancements but also make structural modifications. “In the midst of needing to repair that hill,” the Bowl’s Executive Director, Rick Boller, said that the board wondered, “What else can we do with the space?” In response, they rejiggered the architectural plans to include a new storage area under the reinforced hillside, thereby making the facility “more usable, tour friendly, and operational,” Boller explained. “The ability to take a hill project and make a storage area that makes our backstage cleaner and more efficient is an amazing thing. The public may never notice, but it’s pretty cool.” The forced closure has had a “sliver of a silver lining,” as Boller called it, in that this work can proceed much more quickly without having to stop and start between shows. As it is, the hillside/storage project won’t be finished until February.
While the hillside project is the most substantial physical work being done, the Bowl has been simultaneously working on its three-phase solar project “that’ll make a big [sustainability] difference,” said Boller. While not as disruptive in its creation, the solar-panel project is a huge boon to the venue, which strives to be as eco-compatible as possible. Currently, there are panels on the building on the Scranton overlook and on top of the spotlight platform, which were upgraded. “We’ll be also putting [panels] over on that hillside where those trees are,” Plough said, moving his camera to show the locations indicated. “You can’t really see where they will go, but [that final set of solar panels] will take care of pretty close to 100 percent of the power that we use here,” he said, adding, “We managed to get a grant for that, so that’s a very fortunate thing for us.”
Although the Bowl’s eco-facelift was on the books before the pandemic hit, Boller asserted that the closure has fast-tracked the upgrades. “These were projects that we were going to be proceeding with already,” he said, “but we are finding the lemonade out of lemons, if you will — the ability to get more done in the time that we aren’t having shows.” The pre-pandemic plan had been to work between concerts, hiding away the bulldozers and other heavy equipment on performance days and then bringing it out again to work furiously until stopping for the next show. Not having to “move that stuff out, store it, and bring it back saves a lot of energy and money,” said Boller.
But What About the Music?
The ambiguity of the pandemic has forced everyone to be flexible and think on their feet. “The last three months have been interesting as it’s been progressing,” said Moss Jacobs, Goldenvoice vice president and longtime Bowl talent coordinator, “because in May, there were a lot of artists that were holding [their show dates for] this fall … but by the end of May, it quickly became a rush to getting your dates for ’21. Now nobody’s thinking about 2020,” he said. “We remain hopeful that in [spring] ’21 we can be doing shows.”
Despite intentions to open in the venue next spring, there is some hesitancy among performers about booking then. “I’m optimistic that we can do it,” said Jacobs, “but the touring artists are heavily focused on August, September, and October.” Eighty percent of the dates currently being held are for the fall. “[Bands] are being wisely cautious,” Jacobs continued. “They don’t want to gear up for a tour in June — that means getting into their trucks and gear and everything — and then have [COVID] blow that up again.”
So how do you re-up a 36-night performance machine when the gears have ground to a halt? “The process is the same as always,” explained Jacobs, “it’s just everything just shifted to ’21. I’m [taking it] day by day. This week is my busiest since the shutdown in terms of getting dates secured.” On a regional level, Jacobs said that it’s important for bands to book dates now for venues close to the biggest cities in the West, like Red Rocks outside Denver and the Greek Theatres in Los Angeles and Berkeley. “Everyone’s jockeying to get the right day of the week scheduled; bands are thinking like businessmen and making smart plans for their future. So even though it’s much, much farther out than I normally would be [booking shows], the process is the same.
“From my early look at 2021, it looks like it’s a good season,” Jacobs continued. “I can say that some of the bigger, more known bands that were supposed to play in 2020 that were already on sale have moved to ’21. They feel very committed — ‘Hey, we went on sale, our fans have bought the tickets, and we’re planning to be back, we want to be back,’ and they will be back.”
In the meantime, concertgoers have been inquiring about when they can expect to return. “People are hungry for the electricity of being [at a live show],” said Plough. “No live music has been really rough,” said Jacobs. “It shines a light on the fact that [although] the streaming shows are fun and you can see bands play, the social element of going to a concert is obviously missing. That social gathering aspect is so well done at the Bowl; it’s maybe one of the best in the world. That’s part of what’s missed.”
The dearth of live shows has been a significant loss for music lovers, many of whom plan their summers around going to Bowl shows. “One of my kids is a huge baseball fan and a baseball player,” said Jacobs by way of comparison. “That night the Dodgers were on, he was in the most brilliant mood, out of his mind in joy that he could watch professional sports. The transformation in his attitude and demeanor, I was like, ‘Oh my God, thank you MLB.’ I think that people feel the same way about the live music,” he continued, “and that people are missing the camaraderie of sharing that experience.”
Balancing the Books
While concerts provide a creative and exciting outlet for music fans and performers, what has the shutdown meant for the venue financially? “Ordinarily, the Bowl’s money comes from ticket charges,” said Plough, “and much of that income goes into the Bowl’s outreach programs.
“We spend quite a bit of money in the community for arts and music programs,” said Plough, “some of which we do here, but most of it we do offsite. It’s hitting us hard.”
The money made from shows generally takes care of the facility overhead, Boller added. “It pays for the operating expenses, utilities, insurance, and of course staff salaries and things like that. This is the first time in our history that we have ever been in the position where we don’t have income, so we are looking at a fundraising approach,” he said. “There’s a campaign to try to close the gap on that operational shortfall. We’re having to raise funds for the operational expenses rather than capital or outreach activities. We’re looking to raise just over $600,000 to cover that shortfall. Of that, we’ve raised about $117,000 so far.” The monies raised will not only help cover operational expenses, “it will allow us to be prepared when we start back up again, keep outreach programs that support youth performing arts intact, as well as our facility improvements that we’re currently doing,” said Boller.
A crucial component of the Bowl operation is its relationship with concert promoters Goldenvoice. “As you can imagine, zero dollars coming into a big operation worldwide, so as of July first, at least 50 percent of my coworkers were furloughed,” said Jacobs, who has worked with the Bowl for decades, first with Nederlander Concerts and now with Goldenvoice. “It’s a big company, and the big agencies we deal with, it’s the same thing — they’re going through periodic and increasing numbers of furloughs and layoffs. The longer that goes on, more and more people in the music biz will be without a paycheck.”
Performers have been some of COVID’s hardest-hit folks. “In May or June, I could tell who of the bands that we deal with — whether big or small — who were good planners and who weren’t,” said Jacobs. “All the people who, in my opinion, were smart about how they did their business and kept their money, they were quickly able and willing to understand that they’re moving to ’21. The other bands, you could tell that they were worried. In fact, some of the drive-in concerts that are going around the country seem to be, if I can say this nicely, featuring the bands who may be more in need of the money right now.”
The Bowl considered pivoting to livestream concerts but decided that they aren’t a viable solution for the venue. “We analyzed it in May and June, and although it sounds interesting, the model doesn’t work financially,” said Jacobs. “It’s too hard. You can’t get enough people, the costs are high given what you’re doing, and you’re in someone else’s facility…. I actually made a call and tracked down the owners of the drive-in by the airport, just to kind of start that process going, but I didn’t like the conditions,” he said, as it would’ve forced people to congregate too closely. Plus, other alternatives could never reproduce the sound quality the Bowl provides The quiet that hangs over the Bowl’s Anapamu/Milpas neighborhood remains palpable. “A friend of mine who lives not that close to the Bowl called me in late May,” Jacobs recalled. “He said ‘I kind of miss the sound. Even though I didn’t go to every concert, it was part of my summer. Why don’t you bring in a big sound system [to play music] to let the neighborhood, the town, know we’re still here.’ One weekend we could do hip-hop, and the next weekend it’s more classic rock,” imagined Jacobs. “Just get people back to a feeling of normalcy with the acoustics of the neighborhood. You’d have that feeling like there’s a party going on, and you’d still get that kind of mood boost.”
Memorable Nights at the Santa Barbara Bowl
Ask anyone who’s been to the Bowl even once and you are bound to hear stories about amazing, unforgettable performances and experiences. There’s magic in the combination of top musical talent with the romantic setting under the stars and within sight of the ocean. Initially built as a WPA project in 1936, the Bowl has been under renovation almost continually since 1994 and stands today as a prime expression of the state of the art in outdoor amphitheater construction and acoustics. Important live recordings have been made at the Bowl since at least 1979, when both Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell chose to film and record there. Even without the benefit of live recordings, memories made at the Bowl remain indelible for those who cherish them. Here are a few we collected for this article.
Thom Yorke’s performance last fall … was a dystopian yet danceable odyssey, with notable highlights including the stunning “Dawn Chorus” and Thom closing the show with the Radiohead song “Like Spinning Plates.” I miss live music and the great moments that come from it, but I’m confident that the Bowl will continue to bring great artists to our community.
On October 5, 1976, Bruce Springsteen performed at the Bowl. My partner, Bobby, and I had the concessions contract with the county, and we also provided for all the artists’ “riders.” Bruce’s rider was the largest that we did out of more than 30 shows that we managed…. The sold-out crowd was elated. About 15 minutes into the concert, the fire marshal came into our office and informed us that they were going to shut the concert down due to an excessive noise level. I told them that if they shut this concert down, they would have over 5,000 fans rioting. They did back down, but the next day, the city of Santa Barbara banned all-night concerts.
Bob Marley and the Wailers rocked the entire Bowl and the landscape!
I met my husband at the Santa Barbara Bowl in October of 2013 at the Avett Brothers concert. Originally, it was going to be just me and a friend from high school that I hadn’t seen in 10 years. She asked if she could bring a friend who liked the Bros. too and I said sure! I had no way to know that that decision would change my life forever. The Santa Barbara Bowl has always been my all-time favorite venue, but it also holds a special place in my heart.
Back in 2014, I took my little sister to her first concert at the S.B. Bowl to see Lorde. It was such a fun night, but before the concert started, we had trouble finding our seats. We asked some kind strangers for help, and they ended up being in the row behind us! We ended up talking all night and quickly became friends. I love that the Santa Barbara Bowl brings people together from near and far … I still follow Simone and Abel on Instagram after all these years!
Hands down … third row at the Scorpions concert on October 6, 2015. I can still recall the rumbling in my chest caused by the passionate drummer James Kottak. I’ve never been a witness to such intense passion at a concert before. When he played, he embodied 100 percent pure joy. And if you couldn’t feel his love for the music, you could see it tattooed boldly across his entire back: “ROCK & ROLL FOREVER.” The. Best. Ever.
Early in our marriage, before we had kids, my husband and I discovered that Crosby, Stills & Nash were playing at the S.B. Bowl. The concert was scheduled to start in an hour, so we rode our bikes to the venue to see if there were tickets left. After we locked our bikes to a nearby pole, a guy walked up to us and asked if we were in need of tickets. I was worried he would gouge us with the price or hand over fake tickets, but my husband studied the tickets and decided to go for it. It wasn’t until we were led to our seats by an usher that we found out they were in the FRONT ROW! Best concert ever.
During an Allman Brothers Band concert decades ago, a large buck came crashing down the bank to the left of the stage. It was a large enough moon and large enough buck that many saw it, and a huge cheer went up!
We loved last summer’s concert with Lila Downs and her all-female mariachi band, and the diverse audience representative of Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Bowl was the perfect setting on a cool evening as the sun was setting. Some familiar songs from Lila Downs’s old albums and some new numbers brought the full house audience singing along, rocking, and rolling. No one wanted that summer evening to end.
I remember watching Enrique Iglesias at the Santa Barbara Bowl with my two sisters when I was 21 years old. I will never forget how much fun we had dancing by the stage and being mesmerized by his looks and amazing voice. My 19-year-old sister grabbed him so aggressively she accidentally knocked him off the stage
Maureen ‘Mo’ McFadden
I was part of the U.S. Tour for the Moody Blues back in 1981. Wow! I’d been on a few tours and saw a lot of venues … I mean a lot. Most were concrete interiors, or old wood structures used for hockey. Our Bowl is one of the most beautiful spaces in my book. Nestled in rich greenery and trees surrounding, the big redwood standing sentinel to the stage, the stonework, the view of the Pacific, backstage, the oh-so-cool staff, and having our meals on the side of the stage overlooking the beer garden made my one day in S.B. unforgettable.
I saw my first concert there in the late ’70s, Marshall Tucker Band, I believe. I took my kids to their first concert a few years back, Zac Brown Band. I saw local boys Dishwalla open for Tears for Fears which was just awesome. Depeche Mode several years ago and Martin Gore singing “Home” was spiritual. Rod Stewart, Gwen Stefani, Duran Duran, New Order … so many great shows at such a great venue.