On Monday night, I witnessed try artistry at the Lobero Theater. Joan Armatrading played a concert with her band and long-time collaborators, and it was truly inspired (and inspiring). I have been a fan for years, so my expectations were high. I expected to see a combination of virtuoso guitar playing, soulful, soaring vocals, instrumental mastery from the band, and a lot of her old hits. On every point my expectations were surpassed. At 59 years-old, her voice is stronger, and her guitar playing more fluid and technical than I have ever seen it. What I enjoy most about her guitar playing is that she can shred with the best, but there is no ego in her playing; only pure expression. Her latest record, This Charming Life, contains some of her best work yet, with plenty of range, from slow ballads to rockers. This was truly one of the best shows I have ever attended.
You may be wondering why you are reading a concert review in the business section of the paper this Saturday. On the surface, this may seem completely unrelated to anything remotely business-oriented, but in fact, it has everything to do with our local economy. In Santa Barbara County, we employ more of our labor force in the Tourism industry than in any other industry (not including government)—21,600 out of a total of 184,700, or about 11.7% of the total wage and salary jobs in the county. According to Mark Schniepp, PhD of the California Economic Forecast, the Tourism industry also accounts for 5.8% of total personal incomes in the county.
The Lobero Theater is California’s oldest continuously operating theater. Originally built in 1873 and then rebuilt in 1924, it was very successful throughout the 1920’s as a preview performances venue for Hollywood. In the 1940’s, the Lobero showcased the talents of the top stars of the period, such as Dame Judith Anderson, Clark Gable, Basil Rathbone, Ingrid Bergman, Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Martha Graham, Betty Grable and Tyrone Power. More recent stars that have graced the Lobero stage include: Lynn Redgrave, Jerome Lowenthal, Bobby McFerrin, Marilyn Horne, John Cleese, Jeff, Beau, and Lloyd Bridges, Kathy Bates, Tracy Chapman, John Raitt, James Whitmore, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Hal Holbrook, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carol Burnett, Dave Brubeck, Michael Feinstein, Debbie Reynolds, and Patrick Stewart.
The Lobero presents a diverse array of performing arts, from Opera Orchestra, and Dance, to the Flemenco Arts Festival and amazing concerts like Joan Armatrading. It hosts arts and cultural events on approximately 250 days per year. For a venue with only 680 seats, it may seem strange that the theater can attract so many high-profile acts. In fact, we have three rather small venues, including the Lobero (the Arlington—a little over 2,000 seats, and the Santa Barbara Bowl—4,565 seats, are the other two), all of which have relatively small seating capacities, and all of which attract top acts.
Why, you may ask, do so many big names come to Santa Barbara to play these smaller venues? They certainly don’t make as much money as they would in a stadium, such as the Staples Center, which seats about 20,000 depending on the event.
Like many things in life, the answer is a bit complicated—it involves several key factors that make great artists want to visit. First, Santa Barbara is strategically located between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Many acts play on the weekends in these other cities, so it is easy, economical, and profitable for them to make a quick stop in Santa Barbara to play an additional show. Otherwise they would be sitting around during the week; waiting for the weekend to play their next gig.
Second, Santa Barbara is a beautiful city! Who wouldn’t want to stop here on their way from LA to San Francisco? Artists can spend some time exploring all the things that make this one of the most spectacular places on the planet—the beaches, world-class shopping and restaurants, historic architecture, and so much more.
Third, our venues are amazing places to perform. Many artists prefer playing smaller venues because they enjoy the more intimate experience with the audience. All three of our main venues are beautifully maintained, offer excellent acoustics, and are completely unique.
Fourth, our crowds may be smaller, but we give the artists tremendous, positive feedback. At the Joan Armatrading concert, she does a song called Best Dress On during which she has the audience repeat the chorus. She told us that she was keeping score of the best audiences, in terms of how many times and how loudly they each responded during this particular song. Needless to say, the Lobero was rocking (if you were there, you know exactly what I mean). She had said that Long Beach was in the lead before she performed this song. Afterwards, she said Long Beach might have something to worry about.
I’m sure there are other reasons, but the point I am making is that we benefit as a community and an economy because these fantastic artists are willing to stop here to perform. Think about any other city the size of Santa Barbara, anywhere else in the country that has smaller venues. Major artists rarely if ever play these cities. Santa Barbara is completely unique in this regard.
There are so many unique aspects to our city and our economy that sometimes I feel we take it for granted. If you don’t travel much, it is easy to accept our reality as the norm. Every once in a while, I have to really stop and think about how different it is here, and what makes it different.
The uniqueness of our situation with regard to our venues attracting great artists should not be taken for granted, however. Many people in town work extremely hard to ensure that the conditions that serve to attract these artists are maintained, including those who staff our venues and those who serve on their boards. As with so many organizations in Santa Barbara, our venues depend on community support for a significant amount of their financial needs. Their situation is a bit like public television in the sense that many enjoy the benefits of these venues without providing direct support, other than buying a ticket to an event. If we all stop and think for a moment about how special it is to be able to see great performers in such intimate settings right here in town, for a very reasonable cost, hopefully we will all better understand the importance of supporting our venues.
I, for one, certainly want to continue to enjoy superb entertainment at these venues, and hope the community as a whole recognizes the value they bring, not just for entertaining us, but for our local economy as well. The people these venues attract from surrounding areas stay in our hotels, spend money in our shops and restaurants, and provide income to the city in the form of sales tax revenues and bed tax revenues that support our local government programs and employment. Their importance to the community, for these reasons and so many more, cannot be overstated. So, the next time you are visiting one of our outstanding venues, enjoying your favorite form of entertainment, take a moment to appreciate how wonderful life in Santa Barbara truly is, and that these venues are an integral part of the Santa Barbara experience.