Sierra Ferrell

I’d never heard of Sierra Ferrell before Arts & Lectures added her to the program, and her one album I could find on Spotify didn’t excite me; so I worried that skipping the Oscars broadcast to attend her concert might be a mistake. Instead, both Siri and I were blown away. Her set was tight and her band was tighter. That they wore matching outfits and Sierra dressed outrageously was a tip-off that this was a performance. The songs, all of which were on either her first album or the one being released March 22, were every one a gem, polished by the tour that was ending in Santa Barbara. And they were all good. Sierra played the guitar, but her voice was her instrument, slightly nasal with a West Virginia twang. She didn’t speak much, but that wasn’t what the crowd was there for. And it was quite a crowd–young, enthusiastic, sold-out. A lot of people were turned on to Sierra Ferrell, even if I wasn’t. The next day I listened to her album again. The songs, familiar now, sounded better but still gave no hint of the way they came across live. I hope that some day we can say, we saw her when.

Cat Power Sings Dylan

In 1966 when he performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Bob Dylan was the greatest songwriter of his (and my) generation. He was not, however, the greatest singer. Or even a very good singer. Nor did he seem to want to be. (He singing had much improved by the time he released Blood on the Tracks in 1974, if not before.) Cat Power (Chan Marshall) is a very good singer–a strong, throaty voice, jazz inflected with a rock base. So when Cat Power recreates Dylan’s ’66 concert, song by song, as she did at the Lobero on March 6, it is a marriage for rock history heaven.
The first half of Dylan’s set was performed acoustically and Cat followed suit, accompanied by a single guitar player and occasional harmonica. It opened with “She Belongs to Me” (‘She’s got everything she needs/ She’s an artist, she don’t look back…Bow down to her on Sunday/Salute her when her birthday comes’). By the time CP started meandering through “Visions of Johanna” my eyes were closed and I dreamed along. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Desolation Row,” “Just Like A Woman” (‘But when we meet again, introduced as friends/Please don’t let on that you knew me when’) and finally the familiar refrain of Hey, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  The second half, Dylan went electric, and Cat Power brought out drums, keyboard and electric guitars for the rest of the night. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (‘I started out on Burgundy/But soon hit the harder stuff’) and “Ballad of a Thin Man” (‘And something is happening here/But ya’ don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?’) were powerful, but nothing compared to the evening’s finale: “Like A Rolling Stone” brought the dedicated crowd to its feet, dancing and singing along. The best song of the ’60s is just as good today.

Dar Williams

At last night’s concert Dar Williams sang but one song from her latest album. It was about going to Berkeley in the ’80s, “looking for the ’70s.” I think a lot of the audience, like me, was primed for the nostalgia she evoked. Peace, love, possibilities, a better world. Despite putting out seven albums this century, her playlist came almost exclusively from the ’90s, which was fine as it included perhaps my two all-time favorites: “The Christians and the Pagans” and “The Babysitter’s Here.” I was initially shocked by her troll-like appearance, a small figure on a big stage with only a keyboard accompanist, but she filled Marjorie Luke Theatre with her masterful guitar playing and clear, ethereal voice. She must have told her stories a zillion times, but her patter between numbers was disarming, as much a part of the Dar Williams experience as the songs. I couldn’t have asked for more.
But “more” I got, in the persons of the Amy Ray Band. If Dar is folk rock, Amy is country rock, reflecting her Georgia roots. I didn’t know any of her songs, but they were all melodic, mostly rocking and easy to follow. It took courage, or generosity, for Dar Williams, basically a solo act, to cede the opening gig to a seven-person band that played, as Dar did, for a full hour. They performed their encores together, which made Dar look even smaller, but left a final good-feeling community vibe in the evening air.
(Who produced this show?  There was no name on the program and almost no advertising. And during intermission between the acts, the Amy Ray bandmembers including Indigo Girl Amy, all had to come back on stage to dismantle the wiring and collect their sound system. The whole thing seemed more appropriate to a junior high auditorium, which this was, than a professional theater.)

Van Morrison

At 79, Van Morrison is a living legend and, as expected, he took advantage of that to give his fans at the Santa Barbara Bowl the show he wanted, not the songs they surely would have preferred. Never known for his warmth onstage, Morrison’s night was epitomized for us when we saw his car pull away while his band was still performing the final number. That his final number was his first hit, “Gloria,” only reminded us of all the music we didn’t get to hear. With 44 albums to his credit, he had a lot of unfamiliar material to choose from; but of the dozen records I’ve listened to, often extensively, I recognized only “Into the Mystic,” and even that I barely recognized as he twisted and turned it around.
I will say that he kept the show moving, with one uptempo number after another, none lasting too long, and his backup band and singers were impeccable. His 80-minute set was unusually short: every other act I’ve seen ran right up to the Bowl’s 10 p.m. curfew; Van drove away at 9:15. His voice was remarkably intact, but his barking style came across as unfortunately harsh in the arena setting. Also unusual was the lack of  live video which made me glad, given Van’s diminutive stature, that we were seated close to the stage. I guess we were lucky to be graced with his presence, but I would have rather shared some “Tupelo Honey,” “Domino,” “Bright Side of the Road,” or even “Three Chords and the Truth,” not to mention “Brown-Eyed Girl,” instead of “Cotton Fields” and the dozen other traditional and cover songs that filled the program.

Jackson Browne 2022

Jackson Browne made me just as happy last night as he did four years ago when he sang at the Bowl. More than half his set list was different, which speaks to the size and quality of his repertoire. I started thinking that he must be the best songwriter of our generation, after Dylan and Springsteen; but his songs are so much more relatable. The early ones are about love and longing, the more recent tend toward political issues; but the words are always clear and thoughtful. Then there is the sound. His songs have a rolling rhythm that is infectious, and amplified by the Bowl’s sound system, they filled the air around me. As familiar as were most of the songs, they sounded so much better in person.

He treats the Bowl as his home court, which makes the evening extra special. “I played all these great places on this tour…but they weren’t Santa Barbara.” The crowd–not a young person in the bunch–loved him back, creating a sense of community. This was real Santa Barbara: no one was dressed up, everyone was comfortable, we all sang along. He opened loud and proud with “Somebody’s Baby,” right at 7; played till 8:15; took a 15-minute break, as promised; then played to 9:55, including two encores, ending, as before (maybe always?) with “The Load-Out” and “Stay.” In between he plucked numbers from ten different albums. His first was released a half-century ago, but the songs have held up: “Rock Me On the Water,” “Jamaica Say You Will,” and “Doctor My Eyes,” perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser. My favorite album is Late for the Sky. I’ve written before about “For A Dancer.” “Fountain of Sorrows” melted me totally.

He chatted casually between numbers, offering explanations only for the four songs from his 2021 album, Downhill from Everywhere, the title song of which refers to the huge mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Although they were less familiar, these songs fit the groove, from the politically insistent “The Dreamer” to the soulful “A Little Soon to Tell.” He apparently altered his program in response to a fan’s shouted request for “The Shape Of A Heart,” further cementing his connection with the audience. Finally, it was nice to see an age-appropriate band backing Jackson. The lead guitarist was on the young side, but the slide guitar, drummer, keyboard and bass player looked like veterans of Browne’s career, maybe not David Lindley but the next best thing. And the two Black female backup singers have been with Browne for twenty years, he said, after he picked them out of a high school gospel chorus. There was nothing showy, a la Rod Stewart. This was laid-back Southern California at its best.


The up-and-comers Caamp played an excellent 45-minute set at the Bowl last night, with infectious rhythms producing one happy dancing-in-the-seats song after another, including “Peach Fuzz” and “Officer of Love,” the two numbers that had caught my attention on radio. Unfortunately, the show had another 45 minutes to run. The band vamped for ten or so minutes while lead singer Taylor Meier took a bathroom break. (He smoked a cigarette onstage, so he didn’t need to leave for that.) Then Taylor, who had also been playing lead guitar, switched to the drums, the rhythm guitarist sang an unnecessary Neil Young cover, and the magic sound disappeared. Also disappointing: not a word was shared with the enthusiastic Santa Barbara audience. And the set, lighting and costumes were minimal, to say the least. Maybe Caamp will grow, build out their catalogue and profit from experience. Or it’s possible that these up-and-comers have come, and that’s it.

Rod Stewart

The show opened with six sequined blondes in a line, hair pulled back, each holding a white guitar. Rod Stewart then ambled onstage and began belting out Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” As I studied the stage with my opera glasses, I soon noticed that the gorgeous blondes were not actually playing their guitars–those were just props! The music was all coming from the three guitar players and two drummers behind, all in matching cherry red jackets and white sneakers. That’s when I knew we weren’t in for a normal Santa Barbara Bowl rock concert, but more a Las Vegas show. By evening’s end, after at least two complete costume changes and a release of hair, I recognized that Rod’s blondes weren’t just for show: one was an angelic harpist, one a virtuoso violinist and another a fiddle player (“What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?,” Rod asked, then answered, “Who the f— cares!”), one sang like Tina Turner, and while the other two just danced and sang backup, one was absolutely stunning.

With such a large corpus to choose from, I was happy that Rod sang songs that had all been my favorites, with the sole and expected exception of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.” He reached back in the catalogue, starting with “You Wear It Well” (I’ve been meaning to phone ya, from Minnesota…), moving on to “Gladbags and Handrags” and a slow-starting full-on production of “Maggie May.” I was thrilled to hear him sing “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” and I similarly wallowed in “Tonight’s the Night,” “You’re in My Heart,” “Rhythm of My Heart,” “Have I Told You Lately,” and the longest cut, “Forever Young.” In a concession to his age (one year older than me), he and the blondes sat on chairs for a not-really “acoustic” set near the end, but his voice was strong and he danced and kicked, sometimes footballs, just enough to keep things visually interesting. The show rocked on for an hour and forty minutes; there were no stops but a number of intervals where his girls or the instrumentalists, including a Black saxophonist a la Clarence Clemons, took center stage and gave Rod a break. One sincerely felt he wanted to play longer and was cut short by the Santa Barbara 10 pm curfew, which he kept alluding to as the hour drew near. It was all polished but endearing, expected but surprising.

Cheap Trick was the opening act, two-fifths original. They played so loud, or the sound mix was so bad, that you couldn’t hear a melody, let along any lyrics. We sat through it, nervous about what the sound augured for the main act. When Rod Stewart came out, we could hear every word.

She & Him; Brett Dennen

Took flyers on back-to-back live shows by singers I’d heard, but not seen: She & Him at the Arlington, Brett Dennen at the Lobero. “She” is Zooey Deschanel, and from  “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”  her voice was shrill and over-mic’ed, unpleasant to listen to from the seventh row. As there was nothing going on besides her voice, it became a long night very early. M. Ward, the “Him” of the team, played a jazzy guitar accompaniment but remained in the shadow. Not as much as the background singers and musicians, who were 20 feet behind Zooey and poorly. She ran though a collection of Christmas standards listlessly, perhaps recognizing that Christmas was still a long 23 days away. After a short on-stage interlude that passed for conversation, She & Him shifted to their “catalogue,” which was bouncier and seemingly of greater interest to the performers. The voice was still hard to take, which was a problem, as Zooey’s voice, and persona as a chanteuse, is all that was on sale. Perhaps to avoid unfavorable comparison, the opening act, comedian Pete Lee, didn’t sing at all.

The opening act at the Lobero managed to top Zooey for loud and shrill, and since she didn’t believe in melody either we waited out her set on the plaza. Brett Dennen, finally, came on with some personality, and the vocal Lobero audience kept a fun conversation going. He played by himself, which muted some of his songs, but his lyrics were clear, his tunes catchy and his rhythms engagingly syncopated. I like the three or four songs they play on the radio, and they sounded good live. Everything he sang was at least “good,” although there was little that made me want to go home and start streaming. Mostly, I enjoyed his engaged storytelling; and the fact that he lives in Ventura and had a lot of friends in the crowd made it a pleasantly relaxed evening.

The Wallflowers

Jakob Dylan was frustrated that the Lobero crowd was responding appreciatively but politely to his group, the Wallflowers. “We’re a rock’n’roll band!,” he pleaded. Finally, before launching into “One Headlight,” his biggest, if not only, hit, he pointedly commented, “It must be awfully tiring just sitting in those seats,” and on cue the crowd rose as one and started gyrating along with the music, and we stayed on our feet for one more song and two encores. Was it masks that kept the excitement level down, the mature age of the audience, the stately character of the theater, or the good-but-not-great quality of the music? When the Wallflowers’ appearance in Santa Barbara was first advertised, I bought a ticket and started listening to their new album, ” Exit Wounds,” which I thought surprisingly good. “Surprising,” because it had been 25 years since their breakthrough album, “Bringing Down the Horse,” and I hadn’t heard or thought much about them since then. One-third of their concert featured songs from “Exit Wounds,” including my favorites, of the album and of the night: “Roots and Wings,” “The Dive Bar in My Heart,” “I’ll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up),” “I Hear the Ocean (When I Wanna Hear Trains),” although the harmony of Shelby Lynne that lights up the record was missing from the performance. It was good rock’n’roll, but it didn’t bring back enough memories or cause enough chills. And Dylan himself seemed stuck in an off-base persona–not really Bob, but not really something different. I guess in the end, the audience was a reflection of his enthusiasm.
The opening act was a band called Ragged Glory, which, I learned from the program, reconvenes once a year to recreate Neil Young’s songs from 1969-79–”Hello Cowgirl in the Sand,” etc. I loved their songs, although they never matched the originals; but what I loved most was the fact that here in 2021, musicians were paying homage to music, my music, from a half-century ago. Two days later I was back at the Lobero for music from 55 years ago, and it was quite a contrast. Jan and Dean’s Beach Party featured 81-year-old Dean Torrence (Jan having died) and four replacement/studio musicians who, we were told, regularly play with the Beach Boys’ various touring groups. This was strictly an “oldies” show, with canned patter, rote performances and more repetition than conviction. The songs–more Beach Boys than Jan and Dean, as was appropriate, with a couple of strays–were of course memorable; but the quality of play and lack of inspiration or imagination left a lot to be desired. They made me appreciate Ragged Glory, who tried to make it their own, not just copy what someone else had done.

J.D. Souther

J.D. Souther’s songs are all pretty sad, and you almost felt sorry for his life, too, after hearing him in solo concert at the Lobero last night. He frequently name-checked artists more successful than he, while mentioning that he was a music teacher, could read music, could play a song in any key. When someone allegedly asked Glenn Frey why J.D. wasn’t more famous, Glenn said, “John David keeps giving away his best songs.” Whenever he played a song made famous by the Eagles, he would preface or postscript it by saying it was on “the best-selling album of all time.” He also bragged about “Faithless Love” – a song I’d never heard – as one that was covered by many artists but sung best by Linda Ronstadt, who was living with him when he wrote it.

Someone suggested maybe he was drunk. I didn’t think of that, and never having seen J.D. drunk or sober wouldn’t know. He did repeat one story and couldn’t remember whether he had played a song already. He started the set by playing four songs straight, without pause or comment, which would have been a good way to get into the swing of the show if he was impaired. And he didn’t take the stage until 8:15, which is unusual for the Lobero. Still, in all, I quite enjoyed the evening. I could hear his lyrics and the songs, with one exception, were mellow, even when not overtly sad. The lone rocker was from his Eagles catalogue: “(There’s Gonna Be a) Heartache Tonight” – not an especially good song. His other contributions were also relatively minor additions to the canon of Eagles’ greatest hits, although I do love “The Sad Cafe.” When I checked the writing credits for J.D.’s songs, I noted that not once was he given sole credit. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were also credited as co-writers, as was Bob Seger once and Joe Walsh. Perhaps they added arrangements or perhaps, like his career, J.D.’s contribution stayed in the background while others soared.        2/27/20