SANTA BARBARA — The inaugural Starry Nites Festival, a two day event at the Live Oak Campground in the hills of the coastal, tourist town of Santa Barbara, offered a good time for music fans of all ages and musicians of all stripes, the weekend of of March 18-19. The Kills and Dandy Warhols were day one’s main attractions, and on day two Cat Power single-handedly brought out fans from as far away as Los Angeles, but the weekend would have even more to come.
The psychedelic bent of the lineup fittingly offered Alan Parsons Live Project as the main headliner for the second night. Parsons, who has the distinction of working on two Beatles albums and engineering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon, resides in Santa Barbara. In the ‘80s, his band had a hit with “Eye In The Sky.” Parsons was spotted backstage watching several of the bands live on the first day.
RIFF was there Saturday, which began as a slow and hot day. Things picked up by mid-afternoon as we got to sit under the shade of giant oak trees and take in a series of not-quite-mainstream bands that were no less exciting. The whiff of barbecue hung in the air.
The festival had its share of teething problems, but was astute enough to include pricing for kids. Those under 10 got in for free, and 10- to 13-year-olds attended for half-price. Coupled with the sprawling grounds and grassy fields, which many saw as an opportunity to snatch quick naps, the mood was laid back and inclusive.
Kids of all ages played in the grass or in the Roland-sponsored jam tent. That space also offered respite from the mid-day heat and dust, and festival-goers were provided instruments to make their own music. A nearby outdoor stage provided a showcase for newer artists, and what we saw of Band Aparte and Down and Outlaws, we liked.
Starry Nites Festival proved how vital independent music festivals are in nurturing music lovers and supporting musicians of all stripes who have yet to find their audiences. We discovered some gems in bands like Elvis Depressedly, Kolars and the rebirth of She Wants Revenge, as well as newer cuts off The Dandy Warhols’ recent LP, Distortland.
Many fans, instead of fighting ride-sharing apps to get a lift back to town when the music ended, camped out under the stars, falling asleep to the sounds of the great outdoors: a babbling brook and frogs. Here is a rundown of our top highlights.
Easily worth the price of a day ticket, The Kills delivered all the favorites from their chart-breaking sixth album, Ash & Ice, including “Doing it to Death,” “Heart of a Dog” and “Siberian Nights.” Other highlights included hits from their back catalog like “URA Fever” and “Baby Says,” which were beautifully tender and delivered with an uncompromising rock stance. Alison Mosshart paced around her mic, at times like a hunter, at times like prey. The new album was undertaken after guitarist Jamie Hince boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway alone, to see if he could find his creative spark. Onstage, while Mosshart paced and dipped her head back and forth, her blonde locks flying, Hince broke out in smiles.
The Dandy Warhols
There was no doubt that many fans attended Starry Nites just for The Dandy Warhols, and some only for the monster ‘90s radio hit “Bohemian Like You.” It is a worthy testament to a band that after 20 years, can still deliver dirges with psychedelic noise rock and hold listeners spellbound. The Dandys released six other albums since 2000’s Nineteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, their most commercially successful album. An exercise in control, tempo and all-out cool, they kicked off their set with “Be-In.”
“We got to just slow this shit down,” Courtney Taylor-Taylor said, perhaps a reference to Thunderpussy’s furious set.
Bathed in dim, blue light, The Dandy Warhols took everyone on their slow groove. They gifted fans with “Bohemian Like You” and “We Used To Be Friends,” but it was the newer material from Distortland like “You Are Killing Me,” “Thick Girls Knock Me Out (Richard Starkey)” and “STYGGO,” that was the real prize.
After the scorching afternoon heat subsided, North Carolina band Elvis Depressedly took to the stage with its dreamy lo-fi indie pop. After several loud rock and heavy droning bands, it made for a pleasant change. The vocalist-guitarist Mat Cothran and multi-instrumentalist Delaney Mills were joined by a bassist, and they kicked off with the hazy “Angel Come Clean.” Another favorite was “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” off their sixth album, New Alhambra. Without the reverb drench of the studio version, Cothran sung in earnest: “There’s no such thing/ As rock n’ roll/ Bless my reptilian soul/ Jesus died on the cross/ So I could quit my job.” It was bare and sweet, calling to mind Cass McCombs on “Dream Come True Girl.” Someone should vote this band for “best songs to cheer you up on sad, rainy days as you nurse a broken heart from death of a pet or an ex.”
She Wants Revenge
They had been around for more than a decade without a mainstream claim to fame when “Tear You Apart” was used as the opening credit track for American Horror Story: Hotel. Suddenly She Wants Revenge was on the airwaves again with legions of new young fans. The band has even started recording again. Dedicated fans should relish how good She Wants Revenge still is in a live setting. Detractors still balk at how much they seem to copy Interpol. Frontman Adam Bravin’s vocals are eerily similar to Paul Banks,’ and their menacing synth-led tracks and Joy Division-vibes tend to underscore the point. Yet there are no sleek suits in sight. Their musicianship was on point, and the commitment to their cause was admirable.
Kolars have a female drummer who uses her entire body as a percussive instrument, even her feet, when she tap-dances atop a drum-set. The drummer, Lauren Brown, was completely mesmerizing. Her husband, Robert Kolar, accompanied her on the guitar and sung an assortment of glam-desert disco songs. Formerly part of He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister, the pair took advantage of their previous band’s hiatus to form their own group. The latest single, “One More Thrill,” had a crunchy Killers-like guitar riff, coupled with rockabilly sensibility.
The Seattle all-female quartet was plagued with technical difficulties barely two songs into their set. Despite losing lights, then all remaining power, frontwoman Molly Sides, with much mirth, encouraged the audience to pause and have a drink with her. After several attempts at fixing chords and twiddling with knobs, while stagehands worked furiously backstage to try and solve the issues, guitarist Whitney Petty said: “We’ve finally broken the stage.” They were, at last, given a new amp and were able to carry on. Sides’ big vocals call to mind Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, while each band member was not only proficient but played instruments with a psych-rock flair. Thunderpussy has been recording with industry giant Sylvia Massey, who produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys.
Strawberry Alarm Clock
Bless Strawberry Alarm Clock for showing us that just because you are entitled to a senior bus pass doesn’t mean you can’t rock like the younger artists. Celebrating 50 years, some of its members had not played together since 1967. After a 25-minute delay, the band finally began without missing a beat or xylophone hit. Almost every square inch of the stage was filled with instruments for the six-piece band. Vocalist Martin Katin sang the band’s hit, “Incense and Peppermints,” while playing the drums, as the rest of the band provided the surf rock harmonies. The tune conjured immediate images of the Summer of Love. They ended with a new song, written by the “new kid,” Howie Andersen, who has been in the band for more than 25 years. It was a tune almost indistinguishable from their ‘60s staples, when they toured with the likes of Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Starship.