Eclectic entertainment offerings at the Ojai Underground Exchange | Photo: Courtesy

For the past few years, I had heard about the homegrown haven and open secret that is the Ojai Underground Exchange, a unique hidden away haven. I became an instant fan when I finally made my way there in May, not as an observer but as a performer, playing guitar for my old musical comrade Julie Christensen (with sturdy bassist Steve Nelson in tow). Then again, the intimate scale of the room — about a 50-seat capacity — makes it feel that all comers, on both sides of the stages, are participants in a tiny but mighty cultural experiment.

Adding to the mystique of the space is the unexpected facelessness of its exterior, in sharp contrast to the vibe-y décor and all-in-one features of this performance space/recording studio/live streaming site/dance studio/what-you-make-of-it. An old white spinet piano hugs one wall, and another wall is graced by a large poster mural of a hotel, a replica of the iconic album cover for Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Since moving from its original site on the main drag of Ojai Avenue to an unassuming industrial building on Pearl Street, the “underground” factor nudged up into the stuff of humble mythos.

Opened in 2017, the space’s roots are suitably organic, built from the ground up by partners Cassidy Linder and Bernie Larsen. She is a professional dancer-teacher from Chicago and he hails from Los Angeles, as a well-connected musician and studio dog whose resume includes work with Melissa Etheridge, Jackson Browne and Rickie Lee Jones — and a stint as guitarist for the late David Lindley’s El Rayo-X. Together, they settled on a move to Ojai and the concept of a new, modestly-sized but expansive-minded venue in their adopted hometown.

As bland as the exterior is, a new magical reality awaits upon entering. When the Christensen clan played there in May, the in-house crowd felt like family, and Larsen’s dialed-in sound savvy and multi-camera video set-up made for a stylish streaming video.

One of the periodic, left-of-typical events landing in this room is a special audience-participatory DJ night under the rubric of “Ojai FI,” launched by Larsen in cahoots with Mikel Jorgensen — the keyboardist from Wilco, who landed in the sylvan, ex-urban land of Ojai some years back. The one-year anniversary of this special night of collective music spinning — on vinyl, mp3s, and other formats of choice — takes place on July 31.

Another show of note on the immediate horizon is the return of respected Americana man James Lee Stanley, pulling into the Underground for an album release party, on Saturday, August 5.

In May, as the big-voiced, big-hearted Christensen ended our set with her tasty blues phraseology of “Today I Sing the Blues,” the joint seemed to be humming in some blithe collective accord. I knew I’d be returning soon, with my audience member hat on. The OUE has earned its rightful place in the annals of 805 venues worth knowing and supporting. For more information see


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