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he 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.


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 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

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.

Peace. Love. Dirt.

KIDS RULE! The Live Oak Music Festival is a children’s paradise, with 40 acres of campsite to explore and tons of kids’ activities.

Meet the little music festival that could BY GLEN STARKEY • PHOTOS BY GARY ROBERTSHAW

THE DANCE OF LIFE Entertainment starts early in the morning and goes through till night, with an eclectic selection of performers.

STAY COOL Some Oakies stay cool with help from the friendly water man, who keeps the main stage amphitheater damp to keep the dust down.

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.”

SO. DARN. CUTE. One of the highlights of the festival is the kids’ talent show.

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 THE LITTLE ACORN WHO known, are well cared for by the Live Oak comBECAME THE MIGHTY OAK Molly munity. They’re perfectly safe riding bikes around Reeves of the Red Skunk Jipzee Swing the campground, but there’s no shortage of stuff for Band was a Live Oak kid who grew up them to do. to play the main stage last year. 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 Jump on the Live into such a huge family event. The first Oak bandwagon year I took over for someone who was Never been to Live Oak? Never fear! It’s making macaroni necklaces, but now we easy to slip into the spirit of this homegrown do tie dye, silk painting—we can’t stop music festival, which takes place Friday, silk painting because people collect them June 17 through Sunday, June 19. This every year—we do pottery, hat making. year’s line-up features acts such as legendary R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples, Juno There are 20 things going on at one time, Award-winning folk act The Wailin’ Jennys, some free, some for a nominal cost.” funky jazz icon Will Bernard, Tex-Mex super This year rocket scientist Aurora group The Texas Tornados, boogie-woogie Lipper will be there to do a cosmology hall-of-famer Carl Sonny Leyland, reggae workshop complete with Saturday evelegends Toots and the Maytals, and a ton ning telescope stargazing. There’ll be an more! It’s great for families (but no dogs electricity and robot lab, crafts, climbing allowed—damn!) or anybody who loves walls, music for kids, and storytelling, music, camping, and community. Visit liveoakand juggling unicycle master Mark for a complete entertainment line-up and to buy full festival passes or day passes. er will astound with his gravity-defying The Live Oak Music Festival is a benefit for feats and high-energy performance as KCBX Public Radio. he rides his 6-foot-tall “giraffe” unicycle while juggling flaming torches! Holy guacamole, Batman! Shevon runs a crew of 50 to 60 volunteers and sees about 500 kids a day. “It’s about community, about people,” she reflected. “There’s a kindness, an element of people who come, who love live music, who really support KCBX. It’s the kind of place that just stops everything else in your life, and you just relax. “Well, I don’t relax!” Shevon laughed. “I have too much to do!” BE A PART OF THE COMMUNITY Upwards of 5,000 One of the highlights of the weekend is the people attend Live Oak Music children’s talent show, and what’s truly amazing Festival, creating a little city in a for longtime Oakies is watching kids learn to play dusty campground off Hwy. 154. music at Live Oak, see them improve over the years, until—like Molly Reeves of the Red Skunk Jipzee Jazz Band last year—return to the play the main stage. That’s just so. Live. Oak.

Epilogue R&B HERO Charles Walker and the Dynamites fire up the crowd at last year’s Live Oak.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES It wouldn’t be Live Oak without master entertainer and showman Joe Craven, who’s got an entire tent devoted to his costumes.

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

New Times - Live Oak Music Festival  

New Times cover story for May 19, 2011