One of the biggest parties in Santa Barbara history took place for more than twelve hours on Sunday, February 25. The marathon concert and fair took place at Ursula and Patrick Nesbitt’s pristine Bella Vista Ranch and Polo Club in Summerland, a town just to the south of Montecito, California. The event was organized to thank first responders for their efforts to save local communities from the disastrous Thomas fire and accompanying mudslides. Over 1500 tickets were distributed local first responders and their families. The event featured a day of incredible live music, carnival rides, and an incredible spread of free gourmet and drinks. Exhibits showcasing local response agencies showed off the latest equipment from helicopters to new fire engines. More than a thousand residents paid for the event by purchasing tickets for the main event from $250 to thousands of dollars for special VIP tickets. The event raised over two million dollars, with all the money going to the Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance.
Much of the crowd brought their families, primarily to enjoy the sumptuous food, and endless pours of local wine and local micro-brewed beer. Their children were treated to free ice cream and lots of kid-friendly activities like a meet and greet with Disney television stars, Molly Jackson, Emily Skinner and Luke Mullen. But the real attraction to the event was the unique musical line up, anchored by famous area pop stars and celebrities alike. The festival was divided into two parts. The main event took place from noon until 6 pm. The after show, which was scheduled until 10 pm ended up stretching until nearly midnight.
The main event got under right at noon, with copious amounts of free food and drinks greeting guests as soon as they arrived. The event began with some emotional speeches and patriotic tunes. The first singer on stage was 14-year old Lauren Cantin, who sang “God Bless America.” The Santa Barbara Middle School ninth-grader sang alongside her Santa Barbara Youth Ensemble choir at Sunday’s gathering. It was later revealed that she was the young girl that was pulled from the mud in her Montecito home. Her father was killed in the mudslide, and her brother is one of two still missing. She was later joined onstage by the two firefighters who rescued her, Ben Hauser and Andy Rupp. Another emotional moment followed when the very pregnant Ashley Iverson, the widow of San Diego County firefighter Cory Iverson, who was killed Dec. 14 while fighting the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, came onstage and announced her intention to create a foundation to help first responders communicate their trauma. The mood then turned more festive when resident Dennis Miller came onstage to MC the event. A pattern was established with famous area residents either appearing onstage or via video to lend their support and thank responders, followed by a musical act. American Idol singer Katharine McPhee sang next in a brief performance of Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
The biggest surprise of the day came early when pop star Katy Perry arrived onstage to get the music going. The Santa Barbara native was emotional talking about her brief time living in Montecito. Then she lightened the atmosphere by quipping, “Okay so I am really from Goleta.” The reference was an attempt at local humor, as Goleta, just to the north of Santa Barbara, where Perry grew up is a very blue-collar town. Montecito is one of the wealthiest communities in the country and is perceived as such, but many of the speakers and performers of the day pointed out that a significant portion of residents are blue collar working folks. Perry launched into a four-song mini set backed by two acoustic guitars players. The pop sensation first apologized that she was getting over a cold and hadn’t been able to sing for a week. But that didn’t keep her from belting out the four tunes with surprising accuracy. In this stripped-down emotional performance, without all the grandiose pop trappings, a passionate Perry seemed to perform in an almost blues-like style that showcased her vocal abilities. The 33-year-old singer appears to have become a more mature vocalist with a more dynamic vocal range than in her younger years. After the performance, Perry met with a group of spellbound young girls from the audience and posed for photos and signed autographs. Here sincere and heartfelt thank you to the firefighter set the emotional tone for the day.
Carpinteria, the next town south of Summerland was also walloped by the Thomas fire and mudslides. The city is also home to famous musicians including Dishwalla who played the next set. The group appeared as a scaled down trio doing an acoustic set including, guitarist Rodney Cravens, lead singer Justin Fox, and drummer George Pendergast. The band opened with their biggest hit, Counting Blue Cars. The crowd who had just settled back into their seats after the Katy Perry set, instantly leaped to their feet and clapped and sang along to the four-song set.
Resident and iconic actor Jane Seymour came onstage to thank the first responders and introduced the next group, the Sisterhood. The band featured a country rock duo comprised of Ruby Stewart (Rod Stewart’s daughter) and Alyssa Bonagura, backed by Alan Parsons band, acting as the house band for the day. The charismatic duo led the veteran rock band in a country-tinged five-song set full of exquisite vocals. The group was joined by a choir of young local singers.
Another Montecito resident, Ellen DeGeneres was the next host surprising the crowd with her heartfelt thanks for their work saving the community. She introduced Santa Barbara singer, guitarist and songwriter Glen Phillips, who is best known nationally as the founder of the band Toad The Wet Sprocket. Phillips is well known locally, participating in all sorts of charity events over the years. It is not unusual to find the low-key musician practicing in local alleys or street corners. The prolific songwriter has released four solo studio albums and some live recordings. Phillips played a short set with his current collaborators, Sean and Sara Watkins, from the Nickel Creek band. The trio played five songs to an appreciative crowd full of familiar faces to the much-revered Phillips. Toad The Wet Sprocket, reunited to make their first album in 16 years and toured last summer. They have one date scheduled this year at the Libby Bowl in Ojai California on July 20th.
Actor and resident Don Johnson took over the MC activities to announce the next set by the electrifying guitarist Steve Vai. Vai was the former lead guitarist for Frank Zappa’s band and played with him at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara on December 8th, 1980, the night John Lennon died. Backed by Alan Parson’s group, Vai lived up to the monks of the 10th greatest guitarist of all time, which was bestowed on him by Guitar World magazine. The short set featured a guitar duel with the newest member of the Alan Parsons group, guitarist Jeff Kollman. Kollman held his own against Vai in a jaw-dropping and ear-shattering guitar jam.
Another resident, former tennis star Jimmy Connors cam onstage to introduce the next act, Richard Marx. Marx, the singer-songwriter, and actor, played a short set including some of his biggest hits that helped him sell 30 million records. The next act to take the stage blended the folky atmosphere of the earlier acoustic acts with some classic rock. The Wilson Phillips group consisting of Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson, and Chynna Phillips, the daughters, respectively, of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys and John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, brought their own rock band to the Kick As Bash. The group, whose debut album sold over 10 million copies back in 1990, played a six-song show. The set included, Hold On, Release Me, You’re in Love, Impulsive, and The Dream is Still Alive. The band was joined onstage for their final by the children’s choir that had performed earlier, in an inspiring cover of California Dreaming. The song had the whole audience singing along.