Nearly 25 years ago, a group of friends--all DJs at KCBX, many of whom regularly attended the Strawberry Music Festival at Camp Mather in Yosemite—started pondering the idea of a similar festival on the Central Coast.
“We started to wonder, can we do something like that here for KCBX?” said Haila Hafley-Kluver, who also had a hand in the creation of a day for children in the Plaza and SLOfolks Folk Music Society. “I wanted to have more music. Jim Mueller and I were doing SLOfolks, and this was the next step. It was magic. We were all friends and we all loved music, and we were all involved with the radio station.”
Haila was also DJing The Minstrel Song Show, a bluegrass and folk program that has since been taken over by Sonnie Brown and airs Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. under the name Song Town.
Soon Haila, Jim, Duane Inglish, Chris O’Connell, Karen Floyd, Chris Anderson, Brandon Jones, and a handful of other KCBX folks started putting together a festival of their own, calling it Live Oak Folk Festival. Today this small cadre of original volunteers is called the “Locore,” for Live Oak core volunteers. They started small, booking Biddle Park near Arroyo Grande for one day: Saturday, Oct. 14, 1989. About 500 people showed up.
“It was this little ramshackle thing we tried to put together, and we worked our butts off,” Haila said. “Now it’s turned into this huge production.”
The little day-long festival that started a quarter century ago has morphed into a three-day event that gathers 3,000 nightly campers and another 2,000 day-pass holders to transform Camp Live Oak near Santa Barbara into a mini city of 5,000 people. The festival takes 800 volunteers to keep it running.
No one ever dreamed it would get this big or last this long.
“I’ve known Duane Inglish and his wife, Ingrid, since they owned the World Famous Dark Room—long before marriage and children,” Haila recalled. “In fact, that’s partially how all this started, because a group of music friends eventually did shows on KCBX and went to a lot of Strawberry Music Festivals.
“It used to be a full-on bluegrass festival in the beginning, so we decided to try one of our own. Also, KCBX used to do music in the park, and locals—especially Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan from Santa Barbara—always came to do these for free. In fact, I saw Tom and Kenny for the first time at the World Famous Dark Room when between sets everyone would leave and head around the corner to Sully’s bar (our McCarthy’s of the day) for shots of Bushmills.
“By the end of the night, we were all wild and crazy! I’ll never forget Ingrid pouring a pitcher of beer over a woman’s head because she would not be quiet while Tom and Kenny were playing,” Haila finished. “Our roots run deep!”
Haila’s still volunteering for Live Oak Music Festival, where she’s the official backstage greeter, attending to the musicians and their various needs, but she’s been through a lot of jobs.
“I was in it for the music originally but had also worked years in restaurants,” she said, “so my job quickly became backstage caterer. That led to backstage ambiance (decorations), which included Barb Bolton as she and another friend who originally helped in the kitchen at Live Oak both worked backstage for the Grateful Dead shows in California. Backstage ambiance has fully evolved because Barb took over for me 10 years ago. She has a great team of artistic folks who do this for fun each year. Now, that’s a story.”
It’s true; the backstage area is amazing. Every year, they pick a theme—last year it was “Alice in Wonderland”—and they go wild with it. While the backstage is closed to everyone but the artists and their guests, I’ve toured it on Thursday before the performers start arriving on Friday, and it’s whimsical and magical and comfortable.
“Nobody beats our backstage—the food, decorations—we go way overboard on making the musicians feel great,” Haila said.
Which brings up another question: Is that the reason they get such great talent year after year?
“Two things,” Haila confided. “One: Musicians talk to each other, and we really do treat them well. And two: They like the idea of supporting public radio.”
And it’s true; the backstage food is amazing.
“Originally, Brandon Jones and I did it all,” she said. “We had lots of volunteers to help, and got some well-known local chefs to do a lot of free time for us. This finally became too big so we needed a paid caterer, but all the backstage serving is done by volunteers. Two sisters, Venus and Galaxia, have taken over the backstage catering duties. Venus was one of my original teen volunteers, who now, 10-plus years later, has taken over the duties I once had backstage.”
That’s the thing about the Live Oak Music Festival; once people go, they can’t seem to stop.
“I know families that have been coming since the beginning, and Live Oak acts as their family reunion each year,” Haila said.
And the camping itself has never been more comfortable. Camp Live Oak used to be called Camp San Marcos, but after many years of permanent improvements—hot-water showers, potable water, stages, buildings, a fire pit, pathways, and more (all thanks to the Live Oak fest)—a grateful Santa Barbara County renamed the campground after the event that transformed it.
Now it’s a family playland with three stages, a kids’ area, great food vendors, lots of art and clothing and instruments for purchase, and so much more. Roving bands of young boys have squirt-gun wars, people ride their bikes all over camp, various groups of campers go overboard decorating their camps and making them comfortable, and many of the attendees are musicians themselves, so as you walk around the sprawling camp, it’s not hard to find a jam session to step into or merely sit back and watch.
I’ve heard stories of performing musicians anonymously walking through camp to jam. Later campers see them on stage and marvel, “Wow, that guy was jamming with me in my camp an hour ago.”
And though the festival began as strictly folk, it’s grown into an all-inclusive mix of genres.
“We bring a whole bunch of eclectic musicians together,” Haila agreed. “People might come for one or two groups they really want to see, and we expose them to all this other music.”
And speaking of eclectic, another regular fixture at Live Oak is its emcee, Joe Craven, who played at the very first festival in 1989 with an act called Way Out West. In 1999, he became the regular emcee, making this his 14th year. This dude is crazy!
He spoke to New Times via phone just a day before he was due to depart for Morocco and then on to Portugal, before returning to do festivals in the eastern United States.
What does he attest to the festival’s success and longevity?
“I think it’s very successful at setting the table,” he said. “A festival sets a table, and who comes to the table becomes what the event is. That’s the thing about Live Oak: the community! It really does make the event what it is, and I think it’s very successful in that regard. And this is the silver jubilee, the 25th, and I’ve been emcee for half of the festival’s life!”
In addition to playing the first festival, Joe also played a “handful of times” with David Grisman, and “having done it for as long as I have—to see how it’s evolved, to see how the thing we all love about it stays the same but to also see how the community has made it their own—it’s a wonderful thing.”
Joe’s played huge festivals all over the world, and even though Live Oak isn’t the biggest, it’s one he returns to year after year.
“I love festivals that are under 7,000,” he said. “There’s more intimacy and connectedness, which you start to lose when you get really big, so that’s something I really appreciated about Live Oak. I also love the fact that the festival celebrates as a fundraiser for a really wonderful radio station, which acts—in addition to being an NPR affiliate—as a true community radio station. And it’s a family festival, a multi-generational event that celebrates the people that make up the communities of the Central Coast region, and I love how the festival celebrates and acknowledges all those demographics.”
After all these years, are there any experiences that stand out?
“Oh, so many great things have happened over the years, it’s difficult to talk about things that stand out,” Joe said. “I guess on the long shopping list of things that have stood out to me is the kids’ variety show. This is an event that’s a really unique hallmark of Live Oak that differentiates it from other festivals in that it celebrates kids, the creative spirit of kids, and gives the opportunity to get on stage and perform. And the workshops provide a great forum for people to see the artists up close and personal and pick their brains to see what makes them tick and do what they do. And the Hotlicks dance that happens Friday and Saturday nights—just the idea of the dance as a social connection is a really great thing.”
Joe also mentions watching contra dancer Evie Ladin create the largest contra line dance he’s ever seen: “It was a Virginia reel, and so hilarious and brilliant that she was able to pull this off, and really fun for everybody, like watching a giant, undulating caterpillar weaving in and out, everyone hooting and hollering. What a great Live Oak moment.”
And then there are the campers who get into the Mardi Gras spirit, as they no doubt will when the Stooges Brass Band plays on Saturday night: “The Mardi Gras groups celebrate the culture of New Orleans, dressing up lavishly, in some years with even folks on stilts, like a whole second line party, and then they’d march down the center aisle of the main stage. You can just feel the energy of the crowd ramp up.
“It’s that thing of theater,” continued Joe, who’s no stranger to multi-costume changes and outlandish dress himself. “I love how people trick out and dress up their campsites and create these sub-communities of family and friends and bring that sense of celebration to their set-ups. The kids’ area is also great, with all the activities, music for teens, all the energy of honoring all ages and groups and proving that Live Oak is for everybody, which is not an easy thing to do. It’s just a great and a unique thing, and nobody does it like Live Oak. It makes people want to come back.”
Joe got quiet for a moment, as if he were gathering his thoughts, and then he said, “I believe that art saves lives, and an event like this promotes artful living. I believe each year Live Oak saves at least one person’s life and possible additional lives, and it changes people’s outlook on themselves. You can have one person who’s just to the right of Attila the Hun be dancing next to a tree-hugging liberal, and in that moment, they’re at one with each other. This is a can of worms, my friend, this beautiful, luscious can of worms, that’s why I keep coming back—all these things I’ve been talking about, they’re not an investment, they’re an ‘ourvestment.’ Let me put it this way: I would still be doing it if I wasn’t making a cent, because living a creative life gives me a life of greater possibility. It’s what I truly love to do. It’s a social lubricant of people and creates its own evolving cultural identity, and that’s a glue that can bind people together like no other. It’s something I need. I know what it gives me.” ∆
Contact Staff Writer Glen Starkey at email@example.com.