Tuesday, February 20 , 2018, 9:30 pm | Fair 43º


Paul Mann: Starry Nites Music Festival Lives Up to the Name

Mat Cothran of the indie-rock band Elvis Depressedly performs at the inaugural Starry Nites Festival. Click to view larger
Mat Cothran of the indie-rock band Elvis Depressedly performs at the inaugural Starry Nites Festival. (L. Paul Mann / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a photo gallery from Day One of the festival. Click here for a photo gallery from Day Two.]

The opening day of the inaugural Starry Nites Festival took place on a beautiful sunny day last Saturday. The festivities unfolded near the start of spring in the back mountains of Santa Barbara. The eclectic, multistage music celebration drew a respectable crowd of eager and upbeat music fans but fell short of reaching the 3,000-capacity set for the first year.

The spectacular setting was the aptly named Live Oak Camp at the top of San Marcos Pass. The campsites stretched along the Santa Ynez River, which was flowing freely for the first time in years after this winter's drought-ending rainy season. Campers nestled their tents and hammocks in a meadow of California oak trees, providing a shady canopy from the sun.

Just after noon, Santa Barbara band Afishinsea kicked off the festival on the modest stage. The moody jam band is well known in the area as an experimental powerhouse of indie music tunes. Next to the stage, a tent was set up with a full-service bar and a studio of sorts set up by Roland music. Several sets of instruments were left to musicians and music fans alike to form impromptu jams throughout the festival. A delicious barbecue stand completed the outside village.

Later in the afternoon, the main Starry Nites village opened complete with two main music stages, several gourmet food trucks and another well-stocked, full-service bar. A large green, grassy meadow, exuding the scent of fresh spring flowers, surrounded the outer areas around the stages. Closer to the action, picnic benches carefully placed under the shade of large California oak trees provided seating options for music fans. It was such a relaxing setting; one festival-goer could be seen laying on the grass reading a college textbook, while others fell asleep in the tall grass.

The music began on the Cachuma stage, the smaller of the two just after 2 in the afternoon, with only a few people standing in front of the stage in the hot afternoon sun. But by the time the powerful Los Angeles rock band The Feels took the stage, a small crowd had gathered to hear some great hard rock. In fact, most of the bands playing at the festival shared an affinity for wailing guitar-drenched jams. From the classic 50th anniversary show by one of the first psychedelic rock bands, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, to the young punk antics of the aptly named Thunderpussy, the show featured multiple generations of incredible musicians.

The lo-fi indie-rock band Elvis Depressedly made the trek from Asheville, N.C., a city similar to Santa Barbara in many ways, to play an engaging sunset performance. This prolific group has produced no fewer than eight records in the past seven years.

As the sun began to set, the American punkabilly duo the Kolars brought an ever-growing crowd around the stage to life. The married duo of Rob Kolar and tap-dancing, stand-up drummer Lauren Brown bring a persona to their upbeat music that was first fashioned in their band He's My Brother She’s My Sister.

For many, the next band to play was the biggest draw to the festival. As second-night headliner Alan Parsons looked on from behind the Cachuma stage, The Strawberry Alarm Clock swarmed the main Starry stage. Remarkably, five of the seven original members of this band formed in 1967 and still play the San Francisco-style psychedelic rock sound that they helped invent. They were joined by Howie Anderson on rhythm guitar and vocals.

Drummer Randy Seol joked that, “Howie was the newest member of the band," only playing with them since 1986. He also joked that the band's other drummer, Gene Gunnels, had to leave the group right before their first big hit, Incense and Peppermints, because his girlfriend gave him an ultimatum to get a real job or she would leave him.

The sound crew struggled getting so many instruments microphoned correctly. The set ended up being pushed back 45 minutes, but once the band did play, the sound was nearly spot on, and the group was allowed to play their entire 18-song set, delighting the audience, including Parsons. The chief architect of the band's music, keyboardist Mark Weitz, played with the band for the first time since a near-fatal car crash last August.

As night fell, all-girl Seattle punk rockers Thunderpussy had even bigger sound issues on the Cachuma stage. Already behind schedule because of the delayed Strawberry Alarm Clock set, the band had to stop after first losing the minimal lighting on the stage and then half of their microphones to a generator overload problem. Charismatic lead singer Molly Sides made the best of the situation by prancing about and chatting up the audience. Once lead guitarist Whitney Petty got her sound working, she broke into a wailing guitar riff, sending Sides into a convulsive dance craze — and the band never slowed down for the rest of their shortened set.

Portland's veteran indie rock band, The Dandy Warhols, turned in the next set of the night, the most intense and angelic of day one. Their moody guitar drenched jams seemed to catch the essence of the festival and played an extended set to the largest crowd of the night. She Wants Revenge from nearby San Fernando Valley brought their somber retro rock sound to the Cachuma stage next, but the minimalist production values of the smaller stage did not suit their style well, and it was an uneventful set.

By the time The Kills played their closing main stage set, well behind schedule, many festival-goers had left to negotiate the mountain pass back to the city, or retired to enjoy the serenity of the campground. But the band turned in an energy-infused set of intense music that has endeared the band to the likes of musicians like Jack White. While the end of their set just after midnight meant the end of the evening for most attending the festival, several dozen music fans made their way in the dark to the little acoustic stage in the woods. One of the unique aspects of the festival, the acoustic stage featured performances by the Kolars, enigmatic Los Angeles singer Pearl Charles and Dandy Warhols guitarist Brent Deboer.

The soulful performers played tunes until nearly 3 a.m., while music fans lounged in the meadow, smoking, drinking, dancing and star-gazing into the awesome crystal-clear mountain sky. It was truly a Starry night.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.

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