Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 5:16 am | Fair 37º


Paul Mann: Starry Nites Festival Ends on High Note

Alan Parsons and Alastair Greene engage in a good old-fashioned guitar shootout, each taking turns as the lead, at the Starry Nites Festival on March 19. Click to view larger
Alan Parsons and Alastair Greene engage in a good old-fashioned guitar shootout, each taking turns as the lead, at the Starry Nites Festival on March 19. (L. Paul Mann / Noozhawk photo)

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The second day of the Starry Nites Festival began under cloudy skies on March 19. The event took place at Live Oak Camp, which sits high above Santa Barbara in the immaculate wilderness between the San Raphael and Santa Ynez mountains.

The area has a rich history, once used as a campsite for 19th-century cowboys. The cloudy morning made for good morning sleeping weather, blotting out the harsh sunlight and keeping temperatures moderated with an insulating blanket of moist air.

Shortly after the music began in the afternoon, the sun broke through, providing another beautiful day for the festival. By midafternoon, a small crowd congregated around the Cachuma stage to hear Stonefield, a band that trekked all the way from rural Australia to take part in the festival.

The group is composed of the four Findlay sisters — Amy, Sarah, Holly and Hannah. They are backed up by drummer Andrew Braidner. The band came to play, and they performed some classic glam rock tunes that would have endeared them to most any Hollywood audience. The crowd chose to take in the tunes from comfortable positions on the picnic benches or in the large, grassy meadow.

Asteroid No.4 next brought a neo-psychedelic rock sound to the main Starry stage. The Philadelphia-based band would have fit right in with other 1960s bands in San Francisco. Their music has been described as a cross between Pink Floyd and The Verve, but their performance offered up their distinctive taste on the psychedelic rock genre.

Another band of psychedelic rockers played the next set. The cellar doors also would fit right in playing San Francisco, especially since it is their hometown. The two back-to-back sets offered some great jam band tunes that seemed to bring the lush campgrounds to light in the late afternoon sun.

At the same time, Jesika von Rabbit was closing out the Santa Barbara stage. Rabbit is best known as the leader of the Joshua Tree desert rockers Gram Rabbit. Her side project features her singing and playing keyboards with her Gram Rabbit bass player, Todd Rutherford. Their odd style is a desert lounge music mix of multiple genres. They ended their set with a political statement, playing “Friends in Low Places” while they were joined by a bikini-clad President Trump-masked dancer.

As the sun set behind them, the Vancouver, B.C.-based jam band Black Mountain arrived to turn in the most energetic set of the day. The free-form rockers play jam music that sounds like a cross between Black Sabbath and My Morning Jacket. The dreamy vocals of Amber Webber added yet another layer of psychedelic San Francisco sound to the mix. But it is the talented founder of the band, Stephen Gordon McBean, who leads this group of masterful musicians into heavy jam band territory. An accomplished vocalist and fiery lead guitar player, his on-stage charisma makes him a prime candidate to be a veteran rock star.

The perfect band for the twilight hour followed next with a set by the otherworldy San Francisco quintet the Lumerians. The band appeared in sequenced robes with large hoods covering their faces. Red LED lights served as eyes protruding from their masks. The group began with a synthesizer-laden set of classic space rock. The two lead synth players then switched up to bass and guitar, respectively, offering up a more rock-based sound. Despite the Devo-esque sci-fi look of the band, the music they generated was filled with top-notch jam band rhythms.

As evening fell, the elusive and melancholy singer Cat Power turned in the most unusual set of the festival. The solo singer played a somber set of acoustic guitar and piano tunes to one of the largest and most adulate crowds of the festival. While most every other band at Starry Nites relied on heavy guitar sounds for their psychedelic jam band performances, Cat Power brought a style more akin to a young Bob Dylan, concentrating on introspective lyrics.

Her well-documented, erratic live performances led the audience not to question frequent song changes in fits and starts. While the singer frequently apologized for her erratic style on stage, fans in the audience reacted with cries of “We love you" time and again. The performance was a compelling and spontaneous one, which seemed to fit right in with the good vibrations of the unusual festival.

The last band to play the Cachuma stage came all the way from Scotland for the festival. The veteran indie rock group Teenage Fanclub brought some straightforward rock sounds to the festival with exquisite harmonies, not unlike the golden-throated Canadian band Barenaked Ladies.

By the time headliners Alan Parsons and his Live Project took the main stage, many festivalgoers had left for the foggy ride back to Santa Barbara on this work night. But the crowd of hard-core music fans who stayed was treated to a full-on rock set, the most musical of the festival. The nine-piece rock orchestra produced some classic prog rock sounds that may seem dated to a younger, more EDM-influenced audience, but no one in attendance denied the sheer talent of these veteran musicians.

The band featured an alternating cast of lead singers, each taking their turns with distinctive vocal skills. The truly legendary spent much of the show in the background, playing keyboards and guitar and singing backup vocals. But toward the end, the English rocker who helped invent the prog rock sound of the 1970s took center stage as lead singer and guitarist. The longtime Santa Barbara resident has one of the most impressive resumes in rock music history, having worked as a young engineer on the last two Beatles albums. He went on to be in the rock music forefront of progressive music with his band the Alan Parsons Project.

The band played a near two-hour set of carefully textured music featuring Parsons' most popular tunes. Longtime collaborator Santa Barbara guitarist Alastair Greene led the band in some searing guitar-drenched jams. At one point, Parsons and Greene had a good old-fashioned guitar shootout, each taking turns at the lead. As a cold wind rustled the trees, the music seemed to fit the scenario perfectly.

Meanwhile, the company responsible for some of the transformative visuals at the massive Coachella festival, Obscura, painted the California oaks myriad colors. They also projected live art videos on the nearby mountainside, creating visual eye candy.

For most festivalgoers, the evening ended with the Parsons set, but several dozen hearty music lovers bundled up and headed up the dark path to the acoustic stage. With the sounds of the Santa Ynez River rushing by and a crystal-clear view of a star-laden night, the acoustic stage came alive just after midnight.

Two of the members of the psychedelic rock band My Dallas Teens played a fitting set of American acoustic music. The two embraced the role of troubadours and told the stories of the classic American musicians whose songs they played. With some of the music dating back to the 1920s, it was truly an excellent set. Singer Miranda Lee Richards later played some soothing solo vocals that melted into the natural beauty of the mountainside. A group of music fans passed a bottle of Cognac around, while wafts of set smelling smoke mixed with the crisp night air.

It was a very special ending to a very unique festival.

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

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