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We don’t need no water, let the….

May 7, 2009

There has been a fair amount of confusion regarding my whereabouts recently.  And with good reason.  There has been an equal amount of confusion on my end as well.  But here is the long and short of it:

I was living in Reno.

For the past two weeks or so, there has been a serious campaign on the part of my wife and I to relocate to Santa Barbara. 

A couple days ago, just as things were starting to fall into place for us, a strange thing happened.

Santa Barbara caught on fire. 

A good chunk of the city has been evacuated, and at least a dozen big homes have burned down.  A State of Emergency has been declared, the sky has been unusually orange with bits of ash floating everywhere, you can hear the helicopters constantly flying overhead, and wherever you go, it smells like a campground.

The past 48+ hours have seen the steady erosion of the inroads we’ve made towards stability.

So we’re re-thinking, re-grouping, re-evaluating, and once again, re-locating…

to re-

-no.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

This would really suck if I had developed some attachment to this place, but honestly (and I know I’m going to take some flak for this), I think most of the populace here could stand to have its pulse quickened.  There is a general vibe here that has been rubbing me the wrong way, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is, exactly, that irks me.

I’m going to “think out loud” for a second, here…   in my experience, cities with great cultural communities are NOT always the big metroplexes.  It’s a misconception that a city’s size determines how vibrant the arts/music/cultural scene is.  I think it has much more to do with the general emotional tone of the people, and I think it depends on that tone being relatively turbulent.  The more people that are preoccupied emotionally, the more that sets the stage for the artistic minds to feel the need to release tension, and the more evident that need is, the more likely it is that various venues will appear to provide outlets for that tension.

Think about it: “clean”, “safe”, “upbeat” communites are almost NEVER the places you will find the live music, the poetry slams, the theatre troupes, the coffeehouse open mics, the community pubs that a city has to offer… the clean places are where you find megaplex cinemas, yoga studios, and trinket shops. 

Well Santa Barbara doesn’t have a “wrong” side of town.  It’s ALL yoga and trinkets.  The people exhibit so little tension or turbulence, even in the face of a city-threatening fire, than one wonders just what percentage of the people are medicated, and what the hell they’re ON.  The place is so “upscale” it’s… uncomfortable. 

I submit my cases-in-point:  I gauge a city’s music scene by its open mics, and here, there’s not much to gauge.  Last time I was here I checked out Dargan’s Irish Pub; it had a great stage with lights and a decent sound system…  but there was nobody driving the bus.  The host was a meek guy who looked like a bank teller who would really have rather melted into the floor than look anyone in the eye, and he was grossly ineffective: when I signed up on the list, he informed me that “we really don’t go in an order; we just sort of, y’know, do it how it comes.”  When I asked why it wouldn’t just “come” in the order that people signed up, he repeated, “we really don’t go in an order.  Don’t worry; everyone plays.”  This guy never got on stage to address the people in the room; never made an attempt to get anyone’s attention; never let people know that it was an event of any kind…  he sort of shuffled around the room in a shady way and tapped people on the shoulder when it was their “turn” to play.  This created a strange apathy in the crowd, and people huddled together in bunches, basically ignoring everyone who got on stage to play.  In turn, everyone who got on stage pretty much ignored the crowd, and played long, repetitive, tedious renditions of cover songs.  It was awful.  After being ignored for an hour and watching people who came in after me get up on stage, I left.  This is how NOT to build a music scene.

Just this past week I played the open mic at the Live Culture Lounge.  This is a fairly new venue in Santa Barbara; it’s an interesting place; it’s shaped like an upside-down letter “L”. The front is split between a frozen yogurt bar and an espresso bar, and the long part is a wine and tapas bar.  At the back wall the restrooms are built out into the area, and the roof of the restrooms has been made into a stage, so performers stand high above the audience.  This could potentially be really great, both visually and sound-wise, but at present, it’s abyssmal.  All the stage lights are behind the performer, so all anyone can see of the figure atop the restrooms is a shadowy silhouette, and the acoustics of the place are such that the sound bounces around the space above the audience and sounds muddy and boomy to everyone below.  The venue has a dedicated music manager (Chad-wicked cool guy, actually), who is making the best of what he’s got to work with, and who gets on stage to introduce each act and encourage attention and applause, but…      he’s not the host.   At least, not in title.  The night is “run” by a girl who sits in the audience, largely ignoring the acts and chatting at the top of her lungs at a table with her friends, enjoying wine and tapas.  Anyone who walks into the open mic usually gravitates immediately towards Chad, who anyone can see is actually working to make things happen.  He has to point out the girl in the audience who people must sign in with.  The girl’s designation as “host” apparently stems from the fact that she sits next to a clipboard.  When she occasionally notices that it’s time for the next performer (on many occasions this happened because it finally occurred to her that the music had stopped and there was no-one on stage), she looks hurriedly around the room for the next name on the list (which looked tough for her, as she forgot my name immediately all three times I told it to her), rushes up to them, and says “um, it’s like, time for your turn”.  The vibe here is far better than at Dargan’s, but they’ll need to put up some sound-absorbers and lights and get Chad to full-on host the thing before it realizes its potential.

Sadly, that is about all SB has to offer.  I attempted to check out two other open mics I’d read about that supposedly happen on Tuesday nights, but both of them, I was told when I called, have been cancelled indefinitely.

There is, actually, a very well known listening room here.  It’s called “SoHo”, and they bring in a lot of big names and rising stars.  I had looked forward to playing their open mic and enjoying the scene there, but…   they don’t have one.  It seems Santa Barbara’s flagship music venue, with music seven nights a week, doesn’t see fit to ever host an open mic; not even once a month. 

So it’s not really with a heavy heart that I hastily retreat from this place.  I’ll spare you that cliche about the grass being greener, as it’s not entirely appropriate now that a lot of that grass has been replaced with blackened patches of earth, but there’s that other cliche about where the road that’s paved with good intentions leads, and from the view outside this cafe window, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that there is very little chance of it freezing over any time soon.

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