Central Coast Amphitheaters

World-class performances in small-town California
By Zachary Rosen

If Two Years Of Digital Events And Entertainment Through Zoom Has Proven Anything, It Is That There’s No Replacing Live Music.

From the roar of the audience to the reverberation of the stage, seeing a live concert is a visceral experience that cannot be captured through a screen. Music venues are opening back up and bands are going on tour again — which certainly is celebratory — but with people having varying levels of comfort and safety concerns in crowds, some are hesitant to rush back to an indoor venue. Fortunately, outdoor amphitheaters offer the perfect opportunity to see live music while having some fresh air around you.

The same stunning views and charming venues that bring visitors to the Central Coast is what draws in touring bands, as well. The Central Coast is a bridge between the markets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and this area has become a popular stopping point for musicians as they tour up and down California. While the area may not have the massive stadiums like Staples Center that can fit tens of thousands of people, it does have several renowned amphitheaters with under 5,000 seats. These outdoor amphitheaters bring all the entertainment of a massive stadium show but in an intimate setting.

Vina Robles Amphitheater

There are no bad seats at Vina Robles Amphitheater — and that is very much by design, according to general manager Paul Leatherman. Photo courtesy of Vina Robles

Located in the heart of Paso Robles wine country, the Vina Robles Amphitheater offers the perfect complement to a weekend of wine tasting. Surrounded by wineries and resorts like the stunning Allegretto Vineyard Resort, visitors can plan a whole trip in Paso Robles revolving around one of these distinct concerts at this music venue.

Founded in 2013, the Vina Robles Amphitheater is one of the newer venues in the area. Yet in the years since opening, they have become a popular spot for both touring bands and tourists. The amphitheater is owned by Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery, which wanted to create a permanent home for its popular Summer Concert Series. Today, it draws between 25 to 30 shows a season, with even more than that expected to be announced in 2022.

Although still small when compared to venues found in other major cities, Vina Robles Amphitheater is the largest in the Santa Ynez Valley with a 3,300-person capacity that includes a general admission lawn, fixed stadium seating, and a lower level area that can be adapted to each performance. When designing the amphitheater, they did not want to compromise the experience of the show. Every seat in the house is within 200 feet of the stage. Vina Robles general manager Paul Leatherman says, “We’ve bent over backwards to try to make this venue as easy, welcoming, and accommodating for the artists, as well as the patrons, as possible.”

Leatherman has more than 12 years of experience on the Warped Tour and other concert series, which helped him understand what bands need and are looking for in a theater. Each season brings a blend of entertainment styles including comedy sets, rock performances, and other musicians filling the lineup. With a diverse group of artists covering “everything from Tony Bennett to Slayer,” the range of their featured performers appeal to both visitors and season ticket holders.

The expansive Vina Robles Amphitheater. Photo courtesy of Vina Robles

With Vina Robles being owned by a vineyard, naturally the venue has a focus on quality food and drink. The main Plaza Bistro & Bar serves up Vina Robles wines alongside bites and craft beer from the nearby Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Leatherman says, “We try to keep our price points low on food and beverage so everybody can have a good time.” Of course, there are some more exotic dining options for those wanting to make a night of it. The Suendero Bar has a more relaxed, lounge feel while the Terrace Club brings fine dining to the premium seating area, which includes the Luxury Box Suites or Jardine Tables that can be rented out ahead of time for groups. Leatherman says the Vina Robles staff wants to ensure that everyone has the best experience possible: “That’s No. 1 for us: To make everybody, whether they pick to be here or were paid to be here, to leave with a smile.”

Vina Robles recently announced performances for Stephen Marley and Barenaked Ladies in June 2022 with more concerts soon to come, and is located at 3800 Mill Rd, Paso Robles. Visit vinaroblesamphitheatre.com for more information.

The Santa Barbara Bowl

Of the Central Coast amphitheaters, the Santa Barbara Bowl is one of the most iconic and acclaimed, drawing in legendary performers like Radiohead, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and The Who. “We’re fortunate to get them in a market of our size because a lot of these artists don’t play in buildings that are 5,000 seats. They will often play the (SB) Bowl and then go down to Los Angeles and play Staples or the Hollywood Bowl. And we end up getting the same show here in our small community,” says Rick Boller, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation. Set among 17 acres in downtown Santa Barbara, this outdoor amphitheater is nestled against the hillside with what is known as the majestic American Riviera as a backdrop. The recent Glass Animals show brought a spectacle of light and catchy tunes that lit up the surrounding hillside and neighborhoods.

Since its beginning, the Santa Barbara Bowl has been brightening up the local community. The historic amphitheater was originally built in 1936 for the annual Old Spanish Days pageant. The building changed function as touring rock bands swept the ‘60s and ‘70s, but by the ‘90s it had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 1994, the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation was formed as a nonprofit organization that took over the facility and began the development and implementation of a master plan for the “100-year Bowl,” working with architects to plan what the next century would look like for the facility. Their team wanted to get the building up-to-date while maintaining the original charm of the historic structures. Since completing the $40 million dollar project, they have been able to introduce a series of small capital goals to keep the Santa Barbara Bowl up with modern technologies — such as a solar array — and other improvements that may not have been available when the master plan was being put together.

The hard work has paid off. Since then, the Santa Barbara Bowl has hosted sold out shows for some of the world’s biggest performers. Boller adds, “We’ve seen artists that play and have a great time here at the Bowl, between the facility and the awesome community that comes out. They are enthusiastic about being here for shows. Then they leave and talk about it with their peers, agents, managers, and other artists. That word-of-mouth has been a really powerful thing for us.”

Creating a world-class venue was only the first step, and since the project completion they have been able to focus their efforts on a series of outreach programs. Boller adds, “It is one of the things that we intentionally created as we were renovating the facility and began to grow. So that when we were done with doing those major renovations, we could shift gears and begin giving back money to the community.” With grant cycles and community subsidized tickets, the Santa Barbara Bowl seeks to support the community that supports them.

The Santa Barbara Bowl has also taken an initiative to bring in the future generation of musicians and concert goers. Their Instrument Fund has helped donate and repair more than 2,000 instruments for schools and programs since 2015. One dollar of every ticket sold goes to support these various outreach programs. Their team also wants the community to feel like the Bowl is part of their home. The Santa Barbara Bowl maintains an in-person box office where “On Sale” tickets are sold. Local community members can still line up at the box office when a big show is about to go on sale and purchase a ticket before the show sells out online.

With musicians like the Goo Goo Dolls and Lorde already filling the 2022 season, both the community and visitors will have plenty of reasons to check out the Santa Barbara Bowl this year.

The Santa Barbara Bowl is located at 1122 N. Milpas, Santa Barbara. Visit sbbowl.com for more information on upcoming shows.

The Libbey Bowl

The ability to get up-close and personal is part of the Libbey Bowl’s charm. Photo courtesy of Libbey Bowl

Surrounded by Libbey Park and the quaint town of Ojai, the Libbey Bowl is one of the smaller outdoor amphitheaters along the Central Coast. There are just under 1,000 fixed seats, and a lawn area to accommodate a few hundred more. But don’t let the size fool you — this venue brings in some of the largest independent musicians in an intimate space that puts you practically face-to-face with the performers. It was originally built in 1957 to support the Ojai Music Festival — a classical music festival that has seen the likes of Pierre Boulez, Aaron Copland, and Igor Stravinsky over the last 75 years.

The Libbey Bowl went through its own funding campaign around 2010 to make some desperately needed renovations to the community-owned amphitheater. The community rallied to raise millions of dollars to bring it back to life. And, through the efforts and passion of independent concert producer Lance Sterling, this venue has now become a powerhouse of independent music.

“I feel the Libbey Bowl and I are a perfect match because of the fact that I’m kind of good with being the outsider,” says Sterling. Ojai is composed of almost entirely independently-owned businesses, with little corporate presence. Sterling enjoys that the audiences the Libbey Bowl attracts helps support the other businesses in this small town. Visitors can stay at the stunning Ojai Valley Inn or grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants lining the downtown area. This free-spirited atmosphere is what Sterling loves about Ojai, and he’s not the only one; many famous musicians call the surrounding areas home and can even be seen visiting the Libbey Bowl, watching other bands and performers that inspire them.

Libbey Bowl plays host to a variety of music genres, from classical to classic rock. Photo courtesy of Libbey Bowl

Growing up in Woodstock, NY, Sterling gained much of his business experience and life knowledge while working with House of Blues co-founder Isaac Tigrett, during the early days of development of the company in the ‘90s. Isaac would describe the pair as “corporate refugees” — not made for the monotony and rules of corporate life — and while the House of Blues eventually went the way of the corporation, Sterling has maintained that independent mindset throughout his career. “This is what I am passionate about. What I do, I don’t do it for the money anymore. I do it because this is my life,” he adds.

When he first saw the Libbey Bowl and the town of Ojai, he was immediately reminded of his childhood in Woodstock. “My favorite thing is when we do a Grateful Dead tribute or the Vampire Weekend Father’s Day Concert that we do, and I see all the people dancing around, like I used to watch in Woodstock and then Saratoga.” The hoopers, performers, and quirky characters that form the regular flock around the Libbey Bowl each performance, add that air of authenticity that Sterling feels can’t be faked. They are there because they believe in the music.

Photo courtesy of Libbey Bowl Shaded by oaks, the Libbey Bowl is located in the heart of downtown Ojai. Photo courtesy of Libbey Bowl

Sterling adds, “We are limited to doing 21 concerts a year and we fill that immediately. Now we have to be careful and just book the best stuff.” If a band is playing at the Libbey Bowl, then there is a good reason.

The 2022 season will soon be announced and promises to be an exciting lineup with so many bands eager to get on tour again. Of course, one event that can be expected is the Ojai Music Festival from June 9 to 12, 2022. It hosts a different musical director each year and encourages them to experiment and play with both the space and performances. With the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) directing the 2022 festivities, this year will be filled with the boutique and quality performances that Libbey Bowl has become known for.

Libbey Bowl is set in the heart of downtown Ojai and is accessible from both East Ojai Avenue and South Signal Street. Visit libbeybowl.org for more information on the 2022 season and ojaifestival.org to learn more about this year’s Ojai Music Festival.