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The music comes home: The Live Oak Music Festival finds a new SLO County location 

Change is hard, but listening to music with friends is easy. Camping, getting away from it all, and soaking in nature—those are pretty good, too!

For nearly three decades, a few thousand SLO County residents have spent every Father's Day weekend in Santa Barbara County at the Live Oak Music Festival, but this year things have changed. The festival is moving to the weekend after Father's Day—Friday, June 21, through Sunday, June 23—and to its new home at El Chorro Regional Park across Highway 1 from Cuesta College.

If they build it, will you come? Local NPR affiliate KCBX 90.1FM, which runs the festival as its major annual fundraising event, sure hopes so.

click to enlarge HEADLINERS (From left) Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Brett Dennen, and Antibalas headline the 2019 Live Oak Music Festival from June 21 to 23, at El Chorro Regional Park. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF DAVE ALVIN AND JIMMIE DALE GILMORE; BRETT DENNEN; ANTIBALAS; AND THE LIVE OAK MUSIC FESTIVAL; PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Photos Courtesy Of Dave Alvin And Jimmie Dale Gilmore; Brett Dennen; Antibalas; And The Live Oak Music Festival; Photo Illustration By Alex Zuniga
  • HEADLINERS (From left) Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Brett Dennen, and Antibalas headline the 2019 Live Oak Music Festival from June 21 to 23, at El Chorro Regional Park.

Why move?

"It's been a 29-year crapshoot down there [in Santa Barbara County]," KCBX General Manager Frank Lanzone explained. "On the top of our [lease] agreement with [Santa Barbara] County, there's a huge statement that says if any fire entity needs this site to stage for fires, we could be preempted, and it's stated in such as way that they could evict us."

"Yes, that's in their agreement," Santa Barbara County Parks Superintendent Jeffery Lindgren confirmed. "It's in all the agreements of anyone using Live Oak Camp."

The Live Oak Music Festival did have a few close calls with fires. A few years ago, smoke was visible from the campground during the festival, and some attendees were concerned that evacuation might be necessary. On another occasion, firefighters were staged at Camp Live Oak right up until the day before festival volunteers were scheduled to arrive and start building the stage and other infrastructure, which takes at least four days. After a call from Live Oak's security personnel, the firefighters packed up so as not to jeopardize the fundraising event.

Lindgren said he doesn't know of any occasion where an event was actually evicted due to fire, but it's certainly a possibility.

"It's not always used when there's a fire, but it is used on occasion," Lindgren said. "I know they used it last year during the Thomas Fire."

The drought has also decimated the Live Oak campground. Many of the oak trees have died and been cut down; others are struggling to survive. The high fire danger also made camping problematic. For instance, in the past few years, campers have been warned against tying anything to the remaining trees—no parachutes or shade sails—because the branches are brittle. And it can be very hot off San Marcos Pass, even in mid-June.

"Unfortunately, oaks take 100 years to grow and 100 years to die," Lindgren said. "We started a replanting program, but it will be a long time before they're mature. We've lost a lot of oaks, and we're hoping the saplings survive."

Is Santa Barbara County sad to see the festival go?

"It's always felt like the Live Oak Music Festival was one of those ways that Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties came together in brotherhood," Lindgren said, but he added that Live Oak Camp will go on without the music festival.

"Live Oak Camp is basically booked every single weekend and lot of week days, from March through November. It's still extremely popular and well used," Lindgren said.

In fact, one festival—Outside In Equinox—that was held in 2018 wanted to come back to Live Oak Camp this year but signed up too late, and the camp was already booked, according to Lindgren.

"All the use does put a lot of pressure and impact on the camp, especially the big festivals," Lindgren admitted, "but the majority of users are family reunions, quinceañeras, or other big groups that want to camp together."

Returning home

Live Oak Fest has been in Santa Barbara County for so long that people forget that it started at Biddle Park (near Lopez Lake) in SLO County in 1989. The one-day event had about half a dozen acts anchored by headliner Maria Muldaur. About 500 people showed up, and by all accounts, it was a rousing success. So why did it move to Santa Barbara County the following year?

"[SLO County] basically put up too many roadblocks for us to be able to continue and be successful, pretty much anywhere in SLO County within the parks department," Lanzone said. "They were happy with it. We had a meeting afterwards, and they said, 'We'll write up what we think needs to happen and we'll send it to you.' They sent us this list of things, and I said, 'Well, this is them telling us we can't come back.' Then we just started looking elsewhere."

SLO County has definitely changed its tune.

"We're very happy to have the Live Oak Music Festival coming to El Chorro Regional Park," SLO County Director of Parks and Recreation Nick Franco said. "I can't speak to what happened 30 years ago, since I wasn't around for those discussions or that history. So I don't know what made it difficult then.

click to enlarge THE SHOW MUST GO ON Even though the Live Oak Music Festival is changing locations, attendees can expect the same great music and laid-back vibe that these dancers from a couple of years ago enjoyed. - FILE PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
  • File Photo By Glen Starkey
  • THE SHOW MUST GO ON Even though the Live Oak Music Festival is changing locations, attendees can expect the same great music and laid-back vibe that these dancers from a couple of years ago enjoyed.

"There are inherent challenges with any large event, many of which often involve conflicting use, impacts to traffic and neighbors, noise, etc.," Franco continued. "That's one of the reasons El Chorro Regional Park is well suited to have this event. Those issues are more easily addressed at this location than they could be at many other locations."

Lanzone believes the county's desire to make El Chorro Regional Park pay for itself has a lot to do with the welcome home. Half of the 18-hole Dairy Creek Golf Course was closed down due to a lack of irrigation water.

"I think they're trying to make that site profitable. Right now it doesn't pay its own way, and so the Board of Supervisors kind of gave them marching orders to do things, be innovative, and they're trying to do that," Lanzone said. "They have some long-range plans for electric go-karts, and there's going to be a zip line some day, and they're going to build some small cabins."

Franco agrees.

"Yes, we're certainly hoping that the location works well for everyone and that this becomes an annual event at the park. It certainly fits well with the El Chorro Regional Park programming plan developed through many public workshops and finalized in June 2017," Franco said. "Events like this also fit within the cost-recovery plan we brought to the Board of Supervisors to better structure our operations around the services we deliver. While the park is not yet at full cost recovery, these are the types of activities that will ultimately get us there."

Over the past 29 years in Santa Barbara, the festival became a huge success, growing from one day to three, with upwards of 2,000 campers and another 2,000 daily attendees coming every year. Its family-friendly atmosphere, sense of community, and laid-back vibe—not to mention a lot of epic performers—have made it a tradition for a lot of people. Now that the Live Oak Camp tradition is ending, the El Chorro Regional Park tradition is hopefully beginning.

"The biggest concern is that people won't come," Lanzone said.

So far, though, everything looks like it's falling into place. Both past attendees and newcomers are excited about the new location.

According to festival Marketing Director Kelly McCleary, "Historically, Santa Barbara has been about 25 percent of our attendees, and SLO has been nearly 50 percent. This year, it appears we're running just about the same, maybe a little more SLO and fewer Santa Barbarians, but not dramatic changes. Camping ticket sales are comparable to last year at this time for full festival, and day-ticket sales are well ahead. Reserved RV sites are already sold out. Based on ticket sales to date, the festival will likely sell out for full festival camping. We should have plenty of room for day-trippers."

Moving the festival closer to the home of the majority of the attendees and moving it after Father's Day and graduation weekend may also be driving up day-ticket sales.

"We were worried about changing the weekend," Lanzone said, "but what we've heard is people saying, 'I can finally come because my father didn't want to go.' We've also heard people say, 'I'm going to come because I can go home at night.' We've even had volunteers say, 'I'm going to go home every night,' so it's going to be different, a different feel."

What Lanzone is most worried about losing is the history that many have with the Santa Barbara location.

"The nostalgia of it," Lanzone said. "My family—four generations of us have been going to this thing. My dad was there, my grandkids come down, so it's a tradition that we're losing of that site and the history of people going there.

"A mother told me her 16-year-old daughter said, 'I'm not going to Live Oak at that [new] site. If they change the name I'll go, but Live Oak is down there.' I told the mother, I said, 'Tell her that they changed the name of the camp after us. We didn't make our name based on them.'"

That's true. When Live Oak Fest moved south, the campground was called San Marcos Camp. After the success of the festival, "They asked permission to use [our name]," Lanzone said.

click to enlarge LAY OF THE LAND Unlike frequently dry and hot Live Oak Camp in Santa Barbara County, El Chorro Regional Park should be greener and cooler for the Live Oak Music Festival, June 21 through 23. - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE LIVE OAK MUSIC FESTIVAL
  • Image Courtesy Of The Live Oak Music Festival
  • LAY OF THE LAND Unlike frequently dry and hot Live Oak Camp in Santa Barbara County, El Chorro Regional Park should be greener and cooler for the Live Oak Music Festival, June 21 through 23.

The new venue

The Live Oak motto has been "peace, love, and dirt" because while the fest is filled with peace and love, Live Oak Camp was dry and dusty. Water trucks traversed the campground's roads, spraying to keep the dust down. Other volunteers spent their time hosing down the vendor and audience areas for the same reason. People joked about "Live Oak feet" because if you were in flip-flops, your feet turned into a dirty brown mess.

"That's the first thing we started talking about—peace, love, and not so much dirt," Lanzone said. "That, and we've had people say, 'We don't come anymore because it's too hot.' We've heard people say, 'I'm coming again. I can live through this.'"

El Chorro Regional Park is slightly smaller than Camp Live Oak—about 83 percent of the camping area—but it has more RV hookups and is a lot less dusty. Most of the El Chorro trees are not as mature as Live Oaks Camp's, so the canopy isn't as thick, but the weather should be a lot cooler.

Overflow camping will be directed to one of the unused Dairy Creek Golf Course fairways. Long-term and day parking will be on another unused fairway.

All about the music

Live Oak Fest may have started as a folk and bluegrass festival, but over the years it's developed into an amazingly diverse selection of genres and performers. A few years ago, its KCBX organizers teamed up with Todd and Korie Newman of Good Medicine Presents, a local production company that mounts shows all over SLO and Northern Santa Barbara counties. Last year and this upcoming year, the lineup has been stellar.

"[The booking] is going awesome," Lanzone said. "We book one festival a year, and they're booking 24/7, and so they have contacts, and people owe them favors, and they're in it all the time. It's going really well."

"I don't think it boils down to favors as much as familiarity and the volume of activity in the industry," Todd Newman countered. "We're just in contact 365 days a year. In some cases, we've been in dialogue or had a relationship for over a decade with some performers and agents.

"It's also a draw for performers when they understand the powerful effect Live Oak has on the community, the connection Live Oak and KCBX have with the residents of SLO County, and the way the festival treats bands and performers is well known," Newman said.

Oftentimes, the festival draws big names because of the legendary excellent backstage catering services by Bon Temps Creole Café and the amazing dressing rooms that volunteers set up for performers.

"[Todd and Korie] also put together a performers' camping area, so they've gotten more performers camping, and people just get blown away when some big performer wanders into a campsite with an instrument and says, 'Hey, what's up?'" Lanzone added.

click to enlarge FIND YOUR SPOT El Chorro Regional Park should be well suited to the Live Oak Music Festival, with plenty of camping opportunities and lots of room for daily attendees. - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE LIVE OAK MUSIC FESTIVAL
  • Image Courtesy Of The Live Oak Music Festival
  • FIND YOUR SPOT El Chorro Regional Park should be well suited to the Live Oak Music Festival, with plenty of camping opportunities and lots of room for daily attendees.

It's pretty amazing to see well-known performers mingle with campers. Last year, for instance, Michael Franti led a yoga class, and he spent a lot of time greeting kids and fans who gathered around him as he walked through the festival.

"The performer camping area has been a really enjoyable aspect of it all," Newman agreed. "The first year we attended, we didn't book the festival and were checking it out, but we had strong relationships with two of the performers—T Sisters and the California Honeydrops—who were playing the festival, and so we invited them to camp with us. We had such a great time, and it was Korie's idea to do it more fully the next year. It's a chance for the musicians to meet each other and to slow down and take in all that Live Oak has to offer.

"Overall, when you think about the future of the festival and trying to make it accessible for more people, it makes sense to move it closer to home and KCBX and most of the attendees," Newman added. "On the other hand, some people have been going for 29 years to Lake Cachuma, and there's nostalgia and heritage there, so I understand that change is necessary but it's not always easy."

The old familiar

Per tradition, the amazing multi-instrumentalist, music archeologist, raconteur, and snazzy dresser Joe Craven will return as emcee. There's still the Main Stage, Hot Licks, Stage Too, Beer Garden, Kids Talent Show, and Kids Area, but there's also the Botanical Garden, a great playground, hiking trails, and more.

"Campers are asked to be respectful of the wildlife and plant life in the campgrounds. Any decor or set up that damages our leafy friends or poses a fire hazard will be asked to be removed," Marketing Director McCleary said. "Campers' cars may not exit and enter the lower camping areas after noon on Friday. Open fires are only allowed in the campground's permanent rings and barbecues. Campers can have propane fire pits and barbecues. I can't think of any other major policy/rule changes besides the different types of camping areas."

The music and fun are just two short months away.

"We want more people to know about El Chorro Regional Park and the facilities we have there including the Botanical Garden, the dog park, playground, hiking trails, ball fields, and campgrounds," parks department Director Franco added.

"We hope that adding the new features will draw more people to the park, and we hope that events like the Live Oak Music Festival will give people a reason to come to the park over and over again." Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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