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Meet the little music festival that couldMeet the little music festival that could

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LINE UP! :  Every morning, concertgoers line up to place their chairs at the main stage, reserving their spot for the day’s music line-up. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • LINE UP! : Every morning, concertgoers line up to place their chairs at the main stage, reserving their spot for the day’s music line-up.
BE A PART OF THE COMMUNITY :  Upwards of 5,000 people attend Live Oak Music Festival, creating a little city in a dusty campground off Hwy. 154. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • BE A PART OF THE COMMUNITY : Upwards of 5,000 people attend Live Oak Music Festival, creating a little city in a dusty campground off Hwy. 154.

The light filters through oaks leaves, dancing along the dusty path to Live Oak’s main stage. There’s just a whisper of a breeze as campers queue up for the early morning Acorn Roll, beach chairs in tow.

This is how the mornings start at the Live Oak Music Festival, with people lining up to place their chairs in rows, only to depart and return later when the music starts at 10 a.m. The early birds get front-row seats, and you can tell the sleepyheads by their distance from the stage. Of course, in the spirit of community, you can sit in any chair you want … until the owner comes to claim his or her spot. This is the Live Oak way.

In about a month, Live Oak Camp—a short, 90-minute drive south, just off San Marcos Pass—will transform from a sleepy, oak-shrouded campground into a mini city replete with a “downtown core,” multiple venues, eating establishments, shops, and layer after layer of “suburbs”—little communities radiating out in circles where like-minded music lovers find fellowship and fun.

Some groups have been camping together for decades, their camps well known. Others are clusters of newbies, experiencing Live Oak for the first time. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your 15th, the feeling of inclusion, of being part of something bigger than yourself, permeates the air. You can literally breathe in the good vibes.

Kids run around unfettered, squealing with delight. Musicians wander from camp to camp for impromptu jams. Everyone else shuffles along with dusty feet and wide grins, catching acts at the various stages, grabbing a bite to eat at the myriad vendors, shopping, talking, hiking, or lounging. It’s a stress-free love fest that seems to spontaneously rise out of the dirt, but it’s not magic: It’s 800 volunteers transforming this dusty 40-acre campsite into a town, population 5,000.

Genesis

Without KCBX, there would be no Live Oak Music Festival. Our local public radio station has always been a nexus for music lovers. Most of the DJs are volunteers, so it was natural that out of a shared love of music would come a music festival run by volunteers.

The first festival was a one-day affair held at Biddle Park back in 1989.

“We had a half dozen acts, with Maria Muldaur headlining,” recalled Duane Inglish, one of the original corps of volunteers who started the festival. “We had about 500 people show up that first year, and it was so by the seat of our pants. None of us had any experience in putting on an event of that scale.”

Duane, who owned the Dark Room at the time, deejayed the KCBX bluegrass show. Cal Poly professor Jim Mueller did the Old-Time show, Haila Hafley-Kluver did the folk show, and Chris O’Connell—whom Duane credits with coming up with the idea—did the jazz show.

“The thought was we could all bring our respective musical experience to the table—bring in quality out-of-town acts but not forget [the talent in] our own backyard,” Duane said. “It took a good four years before we landed on our feet, and it is what it is today thanks to the initial commitment of 15 to 20 people who—without getting too sappy—chased a dream.”

THE DANCE OF LIFE :  Entertainment starts early in the morning and goes through till night, with an eclectic selection of performers. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • THE DANCE OF LIFE : Entertainment starts early in the morning and goes through till night, with an eclectic selection of performers.
KIDS RULE! :  The Live Oak Music Festival is a children’s paradise, with 40 acres of campsite to explore and tons of kids’ activities. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • KIDS RULE! : The Live Oak Music Festival is a children’s paradise, with 40 acres of campsite to explore and tons of kids’ activities.

The festival was meant to be a SLO County thing, but it wasn’t long after its genesis that it was forced to relocate to Santa Barbara.

“We ran into some resistance [in SLO County],” Duane admitted. “I think the county was worried about it turning into Woodstock or something, but Santa Barbara County was very encouraging. We kind of got the idea we were doing the right thing when they renamed Camp San Marcos after us.”

Year after year the festival has grown, thanks to KCBX and a cadre of volunteers, who, according to Duane, work incredibly hard and are fond of saying, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do this!”

It’s a Herculean undertaking, one that Duane finally passed on to others: “I miss the camaraderie and the thrill of creating a musical village in the hills, but I have just as much fun being a shiftless accordion player lost in the campground.”

Unicycles, rockets, and robots!

As much fun as Live Oak is for adults, it’s downright magical for kids. It sounds cliché, but it does take a village, and the Little Acorns, as they’re known, are well cared for by the Live Oak community. They’re perfectly safe riding bikes around the campground, but there’s no shortage of stuff for them to do.

Shevon Sullivan, who owns Anam Cre’ Pottery Studio in The Creamery, runs the children’s programs.

“This is my 23rd year, and I’ve been coordinating the kids’ activities in all that time,” she said. “I’m on my third generation! It’s hard to believe, but my second generation are having children and bringing them. It’s just grown into such a huge family event. The first year I took over for someone who was making macaroni necklaces, but now we do tie dye, silk painting—we can’t stop silk painting because people collect them every year—we do pottery, hat making. There are 20 things going on at one time, some free, some for a nominal cost.”

This year rocket scientist Aurora Lipper will be there to do a cosmology workshop complete with Saturday evening telescope stargazing. There’ll be an electricity and robot lab, crafts, climbing walls, music for kids, and storytelling, and juggling unicycle master Mark Wilder will astound with his gravity-defying feats and high-energy performance as he rides his 6-foot-tall “giraffe” unicycle while juggling flaming torches! Holy guacamole, Batman!

R&B HERO :  Charles Walker and the Dynamites fire up the crowd at last year’s Live Oak. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • R&B HERO : Charles Walker and the Dynamites fire up the crowd at last year’s Live Oak.
- JUMP ON THE LIVE OAK BANDWAGON: - Never been to Live Oak? Never fear! It’s easy to slip into the spirit of this homegrown music festival, which takes place Friday, June 17 through Sunday, June 19. This year’s line-up features acts such as legendary R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples, Juno Award-winning folk act The Wailin’ Jennys, funky jazz icon Will Bernard, Tex-Mex super group The Texas Tornados, boogie-woogie hall-of-famer Carl Sonny Leyland, reggae legends Toots and the Maytals, and a ton more! It’s great for families (but no dogs allowed—damn!) or anybody who loves music, camping, and community. Visit liveoakfest.org for a complete entertainment line-up and to buy full festival passes or day passes. The Live Oak Music Festival is a benefit for KCBX Public Radio. -
  • JUMP ON THE LIVE OAK BANDWAGON: Never been to Live Oak? Never fear! It’s easy to slip into the spirit of this homegrown music festival, which takes place Friday, June 17 through Sunday, June 19. This year’s line-up features acts such as legendary R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples, Juno Award-winning folk act The Wailin’ Jennys, funky jazz icon Will Bernard, Tex-Mex super group The Texas Tornados, boogie-woogie hall-of-famer Carl Sonny Leyland, reggae legends Toots and the Maytals, and a ton more! It’s great for families (but no dogs allowed—damn!) or anybody who loves music, camping, and community. Visit liveoakfest.org for a complete entertainment line-up and to buy full festival passes or day passes. The Live Oak Music Festival is a benefit for KCBX Public Radio.

Shevon runs a crew of 50 to 60 volunteers and sees about 500 kids a day.

The light filters through oaks leaves, dancing along the dusty path to Live Oak’s main stage. There’s just a whisper of a breeze as campers queue up for the early morning Acorn Roll, beach chairs in tow.

This is how the mornings start at the Live Oak Music Festival, with people lining up to place their chairs in rows, only to depart and return later when the music starts at 10 a.m. The early birds get front-row seats, and you can tell the sleepyheads by their distance from the stage. Of course, in the spirit of community, you can sit in any chair you want … until the owner comes to claim his or her spot. This is the Live Oak way.

In about a month, Live Oak Camp—a short, 90-minute drive south, just off San Marcos Pass—will transform from a sleepy, oak-shrouded campground into a mini city replete with a “downtown core,” multiple venues, eating establishments, shops, and layer after layer of “suburbs”—little communities radiating out in circles where like-minded music lovers find fellowship and fun.

Some groups have been camping together for decades, their camps well known. Others are clusters of newbies, experiencing Live Oak for the first time. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your 15th, the feeling of inclusion, of being part of something bigger than yourself, permeates the air. You can literally breathe in the good vibes.

Kids run around unfettered, squealing with delight. Musicians wander from camp to camp for impromptu jams. Everyone else shuffles along with dusty feet and wide grins, catching acts at the various stages, grabbing a bite to eat at the myriad vendors, shopping, talking, hiking, or lounging. It’s a stress-free love fest that seems to spontaneously rise out of the dirt, but it’s not magic: It’s 800 volunteers transforming this dusty 40-acre campsite into a town, population 5,000.

THE LITTLE ACORN WHO BECAME THE MIGHTY OAK:   Molly Reeves of the Red Skunk Jipzee Swing Band was a Live Oak kid who grew up to play the main stage last year. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • THE LITTLE ACORN WHO BECAME THE MIGHTY OAK: Molly Reeves of the Red Skunk Jipzee Swing Band was a Live Oak kid who grew up to play the main stage last year.
SO. DARN. CUTE. :  One of the highlights of the festival is the kids’ talent show. - PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • PHOTO BY GARY ROBERTSHAW
  • SO. DARN. CUTE. : One of the highlights of the festival is the kids’ talent show.

Epilogue

I camp with a group of Mardi Gras revelers and regular Live Oak volunteers who call their community Camp Ba’ar Nekkid, in part because of their penchant for clandestine co-ed shower sessions and in part because Allen Root likes to walk around camp late at night in the all together. (Some things you can’t un-see!) Our camp has couches, a chandelier hanging from a tree, an impressive outdoor kitchen, a wine-tasting event, and 30 of the most awesome people you’d ever want to spend a music-filled weekend with.

That’s why waking up Monday morning after the festival has ended is always bittersweet. The light still filters through the oak leaves, but nobody’s shuffling off to the Acorn Roll, there’s no early morning Hot Licks performance, just 40 acres of tired but happy campers who’ve once again been dusted by Live Oak magic, and as we pack, we’re already thinking about how much fun it will be again next year.

Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Contact him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

 

 

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