My humble vote for pop concert of the year in Santa Barbara goes to the great and insistently hard-to-pigeonhole band outta’ Oklahoma, Flaming Lips. The band, led by charismatic Wayne Coyne in a bloody, witch-ly costume and throne-like perch, brought its grisly funny, rocking and trippy presence to the Santa Barbara Bowl the night after Halloween, ending with its mortality-minded pop anthem “Do You Realize.”
And my vote for the most senses-tickling five minutes in the 2013 pop year goes to the Lips’ opening song, which perversely reversed expectations by being a grand finale-style bombast with their customary epic red balloon release into the audience — but on the first song. Leave it to these Okies to turn rock ‘n’ roll convention on its ear.
Earlier in the Bowl season, we got another dose of the good, art-rocky stuff with the return of Atoms for Peace, led by Thom Yorke and featuring the slinky, brainy Brit in kinetic, dance-happy form in a skirt/kilt alongside skirted bandmate, Flea.
Memories were made of this, and much more, in another densely packed 2013 harvest of shows in the pop, rock, and — though too sparingly — jazz veins. It has been said before, and rings with a truth all the more present in recent years, Santa Barbara is a city with a concert roster and star-draw beyond what should be expected from a town its size. We, here in Santa Barbara, wield our beauty and status as a go-to and must-see spot well, including extending the lure to touring acts that enjoy a break from the urban action while on the West Coast.
As heard via the Lips and the Atoms, the cultural high points often came from off- to-the-side-of normality. Last week, Wilco’s sublime and sometimes troubled singer-songwriter-scene-maker, Jeff Tweedy, included The Granada on a rare solo tour. His prickly, fragile relationship with a not-necessarily-sensitive audience added an element of volatility in the house, reminding us why he has sought the support of a band all these years. He certainly has all the materials, sterling songbook and talents, raw and otherwise, to go solo and go neo-folk, if not the patience.
That was a big week in the spread of the local pop year, in fact, with Mr. Tweedy capping off a series of strong shows, including the retro-tinged young band Dawes (with secret weapon/treasure Blake Mills) at the newly renovated Lobero Theatre. The Lobero had launched its new life several days earlier with the annual Seymour Duncan-hosted benefit for “Notes for Notes,” featuring hirsute riff-slinger-ringmaster Slash and crowd-pleaser, sacred steel-master Robert Randolph. Also in that week’s musical mix was the blues-rock-chops guitar hero, Joe Bonamassa, filling the Arlington, as did the Portland-ic kitchmeisters Pink Martini a week earlier.
As for other happily recurring sources of pop music inspiration in town, the New Noise Conference and Festival rounded the corner to its fifth annual edition. It’s not yet SXSW in SoCal, but it holds great promise, and offers a musical and music business-y bonanza each autumn. This year, the booking of sisterly rock sensation Haim was more than propitious: we caught them here, headlining the outdoor “Block Party” on a steep, upward axis of their meteoric rise. Next stop, a month later, SNL.
For me, the two 2013 Bowl shows that got away (i.e. that I wasn’t able to catch) were the much-appreciated Robert Plant and a first-time visit from Icelandic mood titans, Sigur RÛs. Oldsters Sting, Steely Dan and Heart stopped by the Bowl, as did the folk-tapping Avett Brothers, and the Lumineers, along with a visit from the elusive, indie-heroic band, the Postal Service (featuring Santa Barbara-raised Jimmy Tamborello) and Belle & Sebastian. From the post-’80s parade, New Order and Depeche Mode did their electro-thump dance thing, and Sheryl Crow got her new twang thang going in a double bill with actual country star, Gary Allan.
It was, all in all, a solid and diverse season of sounds at the Bowl. Some of us might have hoped for at least the one token jazz act in the mix (although heavily jazz-fueled, Steely Dan half-qualifies).
Jazz is still the humble, half-ignored bridesmaid in a cultural scene so otherwise richly outfitted with pop and classical programming. The 2013 year in live jazz, of the world-class, touring sort, was especially lean, what with the Lobero going dark and in renovation mode for half the year, and with UCSB Arts & Lectures continuing its frustratingly parsimonious recent policy of one jazz show per season.
That said, though, we were treated to at least a couple of top-drawer concerts. There was the “Jazz at the Lobero,” double-bill piano trio summit meeting of Brad Mehldau’s trio and the blissfully nonconformist, The Bad Plus (which also returned to play their version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Ojai Music Festival in June), and, for A&L’s token offering, a return of Wynton Marsalis’ sleek and swing-blessed Jazz at Lincoln Center at The Granada last spring. I was out of town for the A&L jazz outing for the current season, SFJAZZ Collective at Campbell Hall, but this is a proud jewel of internationally notable, West Coast-based jazz endeavors, ever worth catching.
SOhO had its flow of jazz, of the local and Los Angeleno sort, but also memorable encounters with artists beyond the region. We heard the limber likes of veteran singer Sheila Jordan in the Santa Barbara Jazz Society’s monthly series at SOhO, the young Armenian pianist dynamo, Tigran Hamasyan, and striking, artful and accessible Trinidadian in NYC trumpeter, Etienne Charles, in the summer. On a sad note, the Jazz Society’s formidable and affable President Kathryn Stockbridge passed away from cancer, and shortly before her coup de gr?ce booking of Ms. Jordan came to fruition at SOhO, making that show especially poignant.
When it comes to acts on the still-alive-and-thriving “indie rock” circuit, pausing to refresh (themselves and us) in Santa Barbara, the presenting entity known as Club Mercy continues to be a potent source of nourishment. A partial list of memorable Mercy-ful shows this year begins early in the year with Father John Misty (Fleet foxes’ J. Tillman in his new, non-shoegazer shtick), those loveable, Heartless Bastards, Devendra Banhart, Sally Ford and the Sound Outside, the renascent and unquenchable Meat Puppets and more recently, muscular and lean alternative inspiration from Portland’s Quasi and L.A.’s Autolux.
Apart from Mr. Tweedy’s recent adventure in solo mode, artists who made the solo format sing this year included Andrew Bird, looping up an artful storm at Campbell Hall, and Ben Harper filling The Granada with savory blues-pop-stoner-slide-guitar music (with small portions of help from blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite and Mr. Harper’s own singing mother). Within a degree or two of Mr. Harper’s world, Santa Barbara’s own Jack Johnson came home again to the Arlington for a genuinely warm and cool show.
We are fortunate in this area to have two, long-standing singer-songwriter/Americana series ñ in inviting places ñ going strong. The older is “Sings like Hell,” which spent half the year in the Lobero (including a great Lake Street Dive show in the spring), and the second at the Marjorie Luke Theater. Hell’s highlight this year, no doubt, was the incredible Jason Isbell show at the Luke. “Tales from the Tavern,” based in the scenic Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, celebrated its tenth year with such memorable shows as the Carlene Carter/Tony Furtado night out, and cozy and grizzled wiseguy swinger, Dan Hicks.
Other 2013 shows that tickled my fancy, ears and other body and soul parts: Jefferson Starship and wild man Ted Nugent at the Chumash Casino; Albert Lee and Kim, “Goleta Slim” Wilson in the Santa Barbara Blues Society’s vibrant new life at the Carrillo Recreation Center; musical man-out-of-time, Tom Brosseau at the wonderful Plaza Theater in Carpinteria; and impressive New Zealand émigré, singer-songwriter, Jackie Bristow in Santa Ynez (twice). From the Hispanic angle, Las Cafeteras, East L.A.’s hip, “son Jarocho-inspired” band put on a great show at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center shortly after the more traditional Los Vega Son Jaracho charged the atmosphere at the Luke with its rootsy fires, in the “°Viva el Arte de Santa B·rbara!” series.
On one May night, I jumped from an amazing set by Tony Bennett at the Montecito Country Club (a benefit for Arts & Lectures) to famed British blues vet John Mayall at SOhO — a cultural double-take just like you’d find uptown or in a more cosmopolitan setting, but with this town’s advantages, just down the road and up the hill.
Needless to say, Santa Barbara’s pop ñ and related musics — crop was once again a relative embarrassment of riches, and the trend seems to be continuing.