Music News & Reviews

Live Oak Music Festival celebrates 25 years

Live Oak Music Festival
Live Oak Music Festival Courtesy photo

This Friday, the Live Oak Music Festival celebrates a milestone.

Twenty-five years of peace, love and music. A quarter-century of dusty dance parties and jam sessions under the stars.

Close to 3,500 people flock to Live Oak Camp in northern Santa Barbara County every Father’s Day weekend for Live Oak, a three-day festival featuring concerts, camping and more. Proceeds benefit public radio station KCBX-FM, which serves between 43,000 and 48,000 listeners in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and southern Monterey counties.

According to Duane Inglish, one of Live Oak’s original organizers, Central Coast supporters are at the root of the festival’s success.

“(Live Oak) showed what a group of volunteers and community members could do,” Inglish said, inspiring others to create like-minded events of their own.

“There are more successful music festivals today in California then there were 25 years ago,” said Inglish, who spent 10 years as Live Oak entertainment coordinator and two years as director. “It’s just been a real pleasure to see that philosophy take off and bloom.”

According to Inglish, it all began with a meeting at Linnaea’s Café in San Luis Obispo, organized by Chris O’Connell and attended by his fellow KCBX DJs.

“He pitched this idea of putting on a music festival, and after way too many cups of coffee, we all thought it was a great idea,” Inglish recalled. “We all shared this common love of music and wanted to share that through the radio station. A festival just seemed like a natural step to us.”

They modeled Live Oak after the Strawberry Music Festival, held each spring and fall at Camp Mather, bordering Yosemite National Park.

About 600 people attended the first Live Oak at Biddle Park in Arroyo Grande, which featured seven bands over two days.

Eager to expand, organizers looked to the south — and settled on San Marcos Camp about five miles south of Cachuma Lake. (Santa Barbara County later renamed the 40-acre campground in Live Oak’s honor.)

“It’s such a wonderful and beautiful spot that we wouldn’t want (the festival) anywhere else,” said Frank Lanzone Jr., general manager of KCBX since 1980.

Over the years, Live Oak has become a permanent fixture on the Central Coast entertainment calendar — and a key source of funding for KCBX.

In 1992, Live Oak earned about $10,000.

Now the festival brings in a profit of about $100,000 every year, a fifth of KCBX’s operating budget, Lanzone said, adding that the event costs about $300,000 to produce.

Although most festival-goers live in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, Lanzone said Live Oak attracts fans from as far away as Los Angeles and the Central Valley.

About 2,500 people are on site any given day, he said, including more than 600 local volunteers.

“Many contribute supplies or offer professional expertise that would cost us a fortune if we had to pay the going rate,” Lanzone said, especially the 18 or so unpaid event coordinators who work year-round.

According to KCBX Program Director Marisa Waddell, the festival’s booking coordinator, one of Live Oak’s goals is exposing audiences to the kind of music they might hear on KCBX’s airwaves — including bluegrass, folk, jazz, country and classical music.

“You wouldn’t hear pop music or hard rock,” she explained.

Returning for the festival’s silver jubilee are several familiar faces, including dobro player Jerry Douglas, Americana singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, blues singer Ruthie Foster and folk vocalist Maura O’Connell. Also performing are blues duo Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, who played the first Live Oak in 1989, and bluegrass fiddler Phil Salazar, whose Acousticats were the festival’s house band for several years.

In addition, Waddell said, the festival is bringing in fresh new acts including alt-Latino band La Santa Cecelia, sacred steel gospel group The Slide Brothers and pan-cultural combo Rupa & The April Fishes.

“One of the most frequent comments we’ve heard is, ‘Well I’ve never heard of most of the people on your lineup, but I know I’ll find some new favorites,’” Waddell said. “When you sit down in front of that stage, you know you’re going to hear some quality entertainment.”

Besides music, Live Oak features an open-air artists’ village, arts-and-craft marketplace, food and beverage booths and children’s activities such as a talent show, storytelling and nature hikes.

“The cool thing about Live Oak is so many entire families grow up here,” Waddell said. “We have so many young people who grew up at Live Oak, and are now adults buying their own tickets and bringing their own kids.”

Festival vendor Chris Anderson remembers taking her daughter, Risa Brown of Atascadero, to Live Oak for the first time at 8 years old. Now Brown, who met her husband Martin at Live Oak, is a festival volunteer with a baby of her own.

For Anderson, who served as Live Oak’s co-director for a decade, Live Oak has always felt like home.

Every year, she recalled, “At some point during the festival, I would stand in the back behind the sound booth and I would look at what we’d created — this incredible, beautiful village — and tears would run down my cheeks.”

“We were like a family (then),” she said, “and we still are.”

If you go

Live Oak Music Festival takes place 2 p.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 8 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. Sunday at Live Oak Camp off Highway 154 near Cachuma Lake.

Admission is $40 to $125 for a full festival pass, or $20 to $55 for a single day. Single-day parking costs $10, while weekend parking is $20 to $70.

For more information, call 781-3030 or visit