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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : Woodstock '91 : This weekend's Live Oak Music Festival will offer styles to suit many tastes. Headliner is mandolinist David Grisman.

August 29, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The third annual Live Oak Music Festival this weekend is downright hard to resist. The setting couldn't be better--the San Marcos Camp in the Santa Ynez Mountains, a big stone's throw away from Lake Cachuma. A thick schedule of music will buzz onstage while booths offering food and drinks line the area. And music lovers can be happy campers by night.

Why, it's a little Woodstock for the Birkenstock set.

Formerly the Live Oak Folk Festival and presented by KCBX--the public radio station from San Luis Obispo--the change in name this year to the Live Oak Music Festival reflects a broader roster. This year, there are almost 25 acts covering many styles.

Folkies will get their money's worth of bluegrass, folk tunes, Celtic strains and rural blues (i.e. those Santa Barbara blues heroes Ball and Sultan). But eclectics will also get their fill, with zydeco, Poncho Sanchez's Latin jazz, calypso, Latin American nuevo cancion , gospel and Paraguayan music.

Aptly enough, the host for the weekend is the Acousticats, our resident hotshot acousticians. Ventura's fiddler of choice, Phil Salazar, and fellow fiddler Charlene Gastineau lead a pack of gifted musicians, including Cyrus Clarke, Mike Mullins and bassist Rick Borella. Since forming just more than a year ago, the Acousticats have made impressive headway, working up a storm all over these parts, and slated for recording on the Flying Fish label.

Under the ecumenical category of New Acoustic is the all-star trio of Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and Russ Barenberg and the festival's headliner, mandolinist David Grisman.

Grisman is at least partly responsible for the folk-music consciousness that would make a festival like the Live Oak possible and/or necessary. Beginning with his popular "Dawg" music hybrids in the '70s, he introduced the counterculture to that lovely, lowly instrument--the mandolin.

Although he studied traditional music, Grisman's new music opened many ears to the sparkling new chemistry that could result from the mixture of bluegrass, swing and pop. And he led this little revolution from behind a tiny, tinny eight-stringed instrument not often heard outside of bluegrass hoedowns and Italian weddings.

With Grisman's help, the mandolin has been pressed into service more often and has been greeted with wider audience acceptance. The Modern Mandolin Quartet, which released a fine album of classical transcriptions on Windham Hill last year, furthered the instrument's cause.

"The mandolin for me is a voice," Grisman said in a phone conversation from his Bay Area home. "The mandolin has been underdeveloped, but I think it's possible to play any kind of music on any instrument, if you understand the music and the instrument."

Grisman will come to town with his quintet, featuring Rick Montgomery on guitar, Joe Craven on fiddle and percussion, Jim Kerwin on bass and Matt Eakle on flute.

But the latest peak in Grisman's roller-coaster career is the recent release on his independent Acoustic Disc label (Box 4143, San Rafael, CA 94913) of a duet project entitled simply "Jerry Garcia/David Grisman." No doubt, the very presence of Garcia, the Grateful Dead's lead guitarist, has ensured the success of the album.

It is the second project on Grisman's fledgling label, after last year's "Dawg '90." Two more Grisman albums will be released in October, including a traditional bluegrass project featuring Garcia's vocals on a few tunes.

Grisman and Garcia have been acquaintances and on-and-off musical collaborators since the early '60s, when Garcia was still a folk devotee. They last worked together on the "Old and In the Way" album in 1973.

"I actually got the Grateful Dead their first piece of national press in 1964, before they were even the Grateful Dead," Grisman said.

Garcia and company were called the Warlocks then, and Grisman was singing their praises in the folk music journal Sing Out.

"At the time," he said, "I liked the idea of blending folk music with rock 'n' roll. Then I worked on one of their albums and sat in with them a few times in the early '70s. Basically, around that time I just drifted away."

The lure of rock 'n' roll didn't last long for Grisman. "I was in a rock band in the late '60s called Earth Opera, out of Boston. Basically, electricity is too much for me and I don't like crowds."

Now that the Dead has crept into megastardom, Garcia is a household name, whose kindly bear-like image has splashed across many magazine covers. But Grisman knew him when he wasn't so well-known.

"He's by far the most famous person I know," Grisman exuded, "and he deals with it the best. He comes over to my house by himself and doesn't bring his whole world that follows him around. He's like the same old guy I've always known. You go to these gigs and, wow, you've got to get out the door five minutes after the gig to avoid a riot. It's baffling to him why this is happening. He's got his head on real good. He's a real gem of a human being."

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