Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Maybe the sun will shine today

August 28, 2007

Or, maybe not. Santa Barbara is a beautiful, if sleepy, town – a couple hours up the California coast from Los Angeles, which I admittedly do not frequent but found myself visiting on Sunday for the first local appearance of Wilco on their tour to support their new album Sky Blue Sky. Although the group has an LA performance scheduled for Wednesday at the Greek Amphitheater in Griffith Park, I purchased tickets for the Santa Barbara show because I had planned to be out of town this weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a trip I have unfortunately had to cancel due to a variety of personal and work conflicts.

So it was up north to the Santa Barbara Bowl in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean for a performance from arguably the most important rock band since REM that was a little disappointing on a number of levels. Jeff Tweedy and company delivered a strong set overall. The material consisted of an unsurprising mix of songs from the new record and drew heavily from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. This is a good thing considering how much more challenging these recordings are overall, but somehow, the whole didn’t quite gel as well in a live set as their outings in 2004 and 2006. Many of the songs remain the same, but the looser more relaxed style of Sky Blue Sky seems to have carried over into the live set. The band often seemed to be just hanging out and playing, which, while not unpleasant, isn’t as provoking and experimental as some of their prior local appearances. Of course, maybe it was just this particular evening which fell one night after front man Tweedy’s birthday, but I suspect not.

The other culprit in this lackluster affair may have been the venue itself. The supporters of the Santa Barbara Bowl have just finished constructing a brand new stage pavilion on the site including major refurbishment of the grounds. The pale yellow stones of the new edifice are attractive if somewhat sterile in a Getty museum kind of way, but the real problem here was the acoustics. The show was so over-amplified that much of the electronic subtleties were lost throughout in a cacophony of grating distortion. The sound was harsh and flat like listening to music blasted at you while standing against a brick wall. Certainly, it may take months for the acoustics of a space like this to settle and be sorted out in terms of amplification, so, down the road when the space has its “grand opening” next year, things may be much improved. However, on Sunday it was rough going. Still, they're likely worth checking out on Wednesday in that even now they're one of the better things going.

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