This event was scheduled June 23-25, 2023.

I’m not an Oakie per se and probably will never be one but I totally understand the allure: camping, camaraderie and a sweet cacophony of every musical genre out there filling the Central Coast summer air.

I’m also not a big festival guy, preferring established, intimate music venues and styles. But calling Live Oak a music festival is like describing SLO as a college town. Trust me, there’s a lot more to it.

They also call it the “Live Oak Way,” something I hadn’t experienced since its original location near Cachuma Lake many years ago, and never at its new home since 2019 in El Chorro Regional Park across from Cuesta College. The basic premise is to leave the world, or at least your campsite/stomping ground/fellow festivalgoers better than you found it/them during this harmonious, eclectic three-day concert.

And from what I could tell roaming the expansive grounds for two full days, running into countless friends and old acquaintances: that’s exactly what everyone has been doing every summer at Live Oak, a fundraiser for KCBX-FM, since its humble beginning back in 1989.

Certainly it’s about the diverse live music, which kicked off Friday afternoon with Kicks band leader Reese Galido fronting her new Hot 45 project on the main KCBX stage. The large, grassy field across from the Botanical Garden had been transformed into an open-air amphitheater with several rows of low-back chairs amid plenty of sun-drenched open space for dancing, grooving, drinking, socializing—whatever smiling Oakies felt like doing.

There were lots of all the above by the time Bay Area-based The Brothers Comatose hit same stage in the late afternoon sunshine on Friday. They clearly relished the opportunity to perform for a happy, enthusiastic crowd, even referring to SLO as their second home and rewarding everyone with a cool one-hour set that included Morning Time and Valerie.

The Live Oak line-up usually trends toward folk, bluegrass, roots, country, and Americana, so for a rocker dude like me, indie alt-rockers Cracker were my go-to act. And disappoint they did not.

Keeping their banter to a minimum, the four-piece band from Richmond, Virginia by way of Santa Cruz, led by scholarly songwriter/vocalist David Lowery and his lead guitarist cohort Johnny Hickman, delivered a strong, 75-minute set of handclapping, sing-along songs for the late-arriving audience.

The best thing about a performance from a group that you like but don’t really follow closely is hearing songs you didn’t know you knew and liked. And with Lowery and Hickman, it’s always a two-for-one show with some crazy, catchy tracks from their Camper Van Beethoven days.

Neko Case then brought the house down with her unique indie pop stylings, and Friday night was a wrap. Well, not quite. Those comatose brothers, aided by several beers delivered by my volunteer friend Dave, kept the party going until midnight on secluded Stage Too, a bit of a trek up the canyon road but well worth it.

It’s just another cool feature of that Live Oak Way: a band who performed several hours earlier returns to play an even longer set for the eager, opening night owls. And Diggin Dirt did a similar double bill the following night. Herein lies the festival’s secret sauce: these bands love being on stage as much as Oakies love the music they offer.

Saturday got off to an early start but I made it just in time for Proxima Parada: SLOcals who kicked off main stage entertainment with their Cali vibe, thrilled at returning home amidst recent national tour regimens. Turn around after their set and it was next man up: the Creston Line who livened up the nearby beer garden with their self-described “Twang Pollution.” You’re listening, trying to look cool, checking out the crowd, chatting up friends and strangers. It can be a grind.

After a few more local acts, fresh adult beverages, sustenance, and hydration, perusing the mercantile and other attractions, it was time for Saturday night’s headliner of roots/rock/reggae fame, The Wailers. It’s a bit confusing because I’ve seen the Original Wailers and now there’s a Legendary Wailers band but this incarnation features Aston Barrett Jr. and fellow Jamaican musicians. Still, nobody cared who was who once their classic hits like Is This Love, Stir It Up, and Three Little Birds thundered from the KCBX stage. You’re outside so you want the sound sharp, crisp, and loud and boy was it.

So there you have it. I could go on but you probably got my drift by now. However, I will leave you with this final parting thought since I can’t help myself.

My friends, well mostly my girlfriend Annie, give me a hard time about not being in the moment, constantly checking my smartphone and always moving quickly on to the next thing.

But here’s the great thing about Live Oak: you CAN bounce from one thing to the next and still be completely engaged, because each moment, whether it’s the big-name headliners, a late-night beer garden gig, or cruising the cramped but festive campgrounds to visit new and old friends alike, become joyous, memorable experiences.

And it didn’t hurt that my cell reception was terrible all weekend. Maybe that was the best part of the Live Oak Way.

:: Colin Jones