Folk, Funk, and Family Fun at Live Oak

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 14, 2018
The Rainbow Girls are one of many bands playing for the 30th annual Live Oak Music Festival at Lake Cachuma

More than one of the long-time staffers at the Live Oak Music Festival told me that their favorite part of the three-day musical mash-up that serves as public radio station KCBX’s second-biggest fundraiser of the year was the feeling of being part of a family. Considering that I was forwarded four different names of people to talk with who had all been working the fest since its inception in 1989, that sounded like more than hyperbole.

“What stands out to me each year usually happens around mid-morning on Saturday, as I’m walking from backstage into audience. I just look around and it hits me: Oh, my god, here we are again, and we did it again, and it’s beautiful,” said Marisa Waddell, now the festival and radio station’s program director who has been part of Live Oak only since year two (okay, I guess I’m the one using hyperbole). “It that’s moment of being immersed and what we can accomplish as a group, people who are incredibly dedicated and talented and committed.”

Truth is, that stuff matters to the audience too – music lovers who come from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and beyond every year, camping with their families and friends, jamming by the fire pit, sharing stories and the warm weather at Live Oak campground on the shores of Lake Cachuma. Sure, the musical lineup matters, but for a lot of people, they still come even they don’t recognize any of the names on the roster of performers, knowing they’ll hear everything from fiddle tunes to funk to folk and much more, as the festival is made to mirror the music played on the eclectically programmed KCBX. It’s about Peace. Love. Dirt. – as the expression was coined about a decade ago.

Still, even Waddell admitted to some personal favorites: Joe Ely, who did a sunset timed session a bunch of years back, and Mavis Staples, the soul and R&B survivor who has an impressive family lineage of her own dating back to her father, Pops Staples and the Staple Singers. “She was talking about marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., and meeting John Lewis, and sang songs from that era on the main stage,” Waddell recalled. “It made me cry just understanding the history, what she’s seen and done to help further civil rights.”

Staples, who turns 79 next month, is back for this weekend’s festival as part of Live Oak’s 30th anniversary, joining a whole bunch of other veteran acts such as singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell, Americana soul band The Dustbowl Revival, and jazz standards singer-guitarist Inga Swearingen. Also on the Friday-Sunday (June 15-17) bill are Santa Barbara-Ventura swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy; Arkansas-born singer-songwriter Joe Purdy, whose new movie American Folk had its world premiere at SBIFF 2017; Bollywood-via-American-blues artist Aki Kumar; and soul-funk-R&B singer Niki J Crawford, among about a dozen others.

New this year is a special pre-fest Thursday night show with Michael Franti & Spearhead, led by the musician and filmmaker who funky folk-based music and positive vibes will kick off the weekend in style, as they play the outdoor stage just three weeks after kicking off their Stay Humantour at BottleRock Napa. Meanwhile, one of the festival’s long-standing favorites is returning to the fold after several years away from the fray (see Q&A below). Tickets range from $45 to $215, and (mostly) include camping. Visit for the details and schedule, or call 781-3030.

Cache-ing up with the Drifters

Genre mash-ups aren’t as unusual as there were back in the early 1970s, when the Cache Valley Drifters (CVD) first got together in Santa Barbara to bring more than a touch of modern-pop sensibilities to bluegrass and country-folk music. The band began as a quartet, recorded three albums for Flying Fish Records from 1979-83 and then went on hiatus for almost a decade before re-forming in 1992. Shortly after that, CVD launched a residency at Cold Springs Tavern, regular regulars and visitors for three long sets every Wednesday for five years. 

For the last quarter-century, it’s been the same personnel: original mandolinist Bill Griffin, plus guitarist Mike Mullins and bassist Wally Barnick, who replaced Mike’s brother, Tom, when CVD got back together. Although the trio played increasingly sparingly after the turn of the century, they always kept another standard gig playing an early-morning set on Sunday mornings at Live Oak, where Griffin was the head of the volunteer security team for 20 years, though that came to a close in 2014. 

The mando man dished on the details over the phone last weekend:

Q. You’re back at Live Oak for the first time in a few years.

A. Yeah, when we stopped playing there three years ago, it was in our minds to retire altogether. But we got a call from Kate Wolf’s family to play her 75th birthday anniversary at the Fright & Salvage (in Berkeley) last year. (The Drifters collaborated with Wolf after serving as her back-up band on her 1977 album, Lines on the Paper.) We had such a good time, we decided to keep on playing. What we realized is that you can’t retire from friendship, and it’s always good when we get together. Some guys go bowling; we play music.

Speaking behalf of your other fans, I’m grateful. It’s always fun for us too.

We have a good time and I think that shows. What we do is special, at least for us, and it’s great that other people like it too.

But it’s more than just fun. You guys were on the forefront of making bluegrass safe outside of the South, what with arranging pop songs for the group. Your version of Cream’s “White Room” was a revelation.

We were one of the first to do music from our own generation, playing the stuff we grew up with in a bluegrass style. We’re from the West Coast, not Tennessee. We couldn’t help but bring those influences. “White Room” got a lot of attention when it came out in the mid-1990s. We had a friend who was doing a roadie gig on tour with Eric Clapton and he played our version for him. He sat there with headphones on it and just smiled. So that’s one of my favorite stories. I like (Paul Simon’s) “Boy in the Bubble” from the ones that I sang because, at least to me, it was a very successful adaptation of a song that sounds very different in the original version but still does a good job of capturing the essence.

Coming out of “retirement,” are you still writing and arranging new songs for the group?

Mike is still writing, and Wally and I pretty much do what we always did: bring stuff we like to the trio. After all this time, it’s like riding a bike. It all falls together. We can take just about any song and do it our way. It doesn’t take a lot of practice.

What about your relationship with the festival? Are there fond memories or interesting stories?

Just like with the band, it was really about friendships. We spent so much time together over 20 years, and I can’t wait to be back there with the family. (As far as playing), we haven’t been on the main stage since the day that O.J. [Simpson] was being chased around the freeway in L.A. (June 17, 1994). But that was by design. We like playing in front of intimate audiences like we had up at Cold Springs Tavern. So, we used to do the Sunrise Licks stage, but we’re not all that excited about getting up to play at 8 am anymore. So, it’s Stage Too for us, but at 4 pm on Sunday, June 17.

Pen-ning Yourself in: a Week with Writers

The Santa Barbara Writers Conference (SBWC) hasn’t changed all that much in its four decades-plus history, aside from a shift in leadership caused only by the death of the co-founder, and changing its headquarters from the Miramar after the beachfront hotel “closed for renovations” back at the end of the century, plus perhaps making a tweak or two, including allowing some aspiring writers to attend for just a single day rather than the full five days-plus, an innovation that began just last year. 

The SBWC is now hunkered down at the just-across-from-the-seaside Santa Barbara Hyatt, where up to 200 writers and wanna-bes gather to connect with fellow storytellers, rub elbows with well-known authors, network with publishing professionals – but most importantly spend a bunch of hours writing, re-writing, reading, and editing.

“This is a very special conference because it’s for people who are interested in improving their craft,” explained Grace Rachow, a 25-year SBWC veteran who took over as director in 2016. “We’re an immersion program, almost 24 hours a day, from 9 am to the wee hours of the morning for a full week, if you want. Wherever they are with their writing, those who come to the conference improve as writers by being here.”

That’s why scores of scribes have been attending the conference faithfully for decades, including some big-name book authors – Catherine Ryan Hyde (Pay it Forward) and Fannie Flagg, the actress-turned-author (Fried Green Tomatoes) who credits the SBWC with helping her avoid the fate of “sitting on a rerun of The Dating Game somewhere.” Not to mention Sid Stebel, the writer and instructor who, at 94, has only missed one conference since attending the first in 1992.

You don’t have to commit to an extreme degree to be part of the SBWC, though. Lots of local residents just drop by the afternoon and evening speaker and panel events, which cost just $10 each and this year features authors Steven J. Ross, Eric Puchner, Simon Van Booy, Starshine Roshell, Janet Fitch, and Dara Horn, plus appearances by Pico Iyer, who will receive the Ross McDonald Award, and Flagg, who will anchor a tribute to the late Montecito mystery writer Sue Grafton. But taking the deeper dive – attending ongoing workshops in nearly two-dozen categories every morning and afternoon, plus the Pirate workshops that start after the evening events and continue “until everyone has finished getting feedback on their work, perhaps when the sun comes up,” Rachow said – is a sure-fire way to amp up your author-hood.

The week of wordsmithing begins Sunday, June 17, and runs through Saturday afternoon, June 23. Visit for registration, schedule, workshop, and other details, or call (805) 568-1516.

This Week at Music Academy of the West

Season 71 of MAW’s Summer Festival gets underway this week, the first forays of more than 200 events on campus and in downtown Santa Barbara, featuring the 140 instrumental and vocal Fellows in wide-ranging combinations and constructs, plus nearly 70 faculty and guest artists, almost all of whom will both teach and perform. We’ll have a full feature focusing on the festival’s orchestra, chamber music, opera, guest recitals, conference, live competition, and masterclass offerings as next week’s cover story, but for now buckle up and take a bite of what’s coming our way starting Monday afternoon. (For more, call 969-8787 or visit

Monday, June 18: As has been its wont in recent summers, the season opens with just a single masterclass – in this case, collaborative piano – before forging straight on with the first faculty recital of the festival. Veteran ivory instructor Jonathan Feldman shepherd the Fellows for early performances in front of the supportive audience, focusing on the pianists instead of the other instrumentalists as they pair up for sonatas and concerto excerpts (2 pm; $10). Then the Takács Quartet, the venerable foursome that has spent at least a week at Miraflores on and off for more than a decade, welcome faculty pianist Natasha Kislenko as special guest for a program of works by Mozart, Dvorák, and Dohnányi in the cozy confines of Hahn Hall (7:30 pm; sold out).

Tuesday, June 19: It’s a double dose of Two-for-Tuesday as the daytime features no fewer than four master classes, including trumpet (Charles Geyer in his only appearance), oboe (Eugene Izotov, who will alternate all summer with Cynthia DeAlmeida), percussion (Joseph Pereira, who opens and closes the series) and viola (Karen Dreyfus), before Jerome Lowenthal, the 86-year-old pianist who still chairs the department at the Juilliard School and is still remarkably engaging as a teacher and historian, celebrates his 49th season at the Music Academy with a solo recital covering 11 different selections (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10 & $35).

Wednesday, June 20: The march of the masterclasses goes on as the Academy offers its biggest blast to date, with six different sessions on the schedule. Cello, French horn, bassoon, and double bass (with Alan Stepansky, Julie Landsman, Dennis Michel, and Nico Abondolo, respectively) launch in the daytime, with Lowenthal’s first solo piano class also on the schedule (various venues; free to $10), while the voice program introduces its slate of singers who will demonstrate their immense talents via a combination of songs and arias at Hahn Hall at 7:30 pm.


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