Live Oak 2007 Preview

The Live Oak Music Festival is held every year on Father’s Day weekend, but this year it might just be a month too late.

That’s because the final main stage act on Sunday evening – always one of the festival’s prime headlining spots – is all about women. The “La Guitara” project isn’t dedicated to moms per se, but organizer Patty Larkin has come out with both an album and a touring outfit dedicated to female guitarists.

The CD, which was released about 18 months ago, compiles 14 tracks from women who are known for their ability with the ax, from classical recital specialist Sharon Isbin, to the late seminal Louisiana blues artist Memphis Minnie, to Kaki King, who combines fret-slapping and bass-tapping techniques in an unclassifiable genre, to Larkin herself, a veteran New England-based singer-songwriter who earns at least as many plaudits for her versatile guitar technique and she does for her compositions.

“Going back about a decade, people were always asking me why are there so few women guitarists,” Larkin recalled over the telephone from her home studio on Cape Cod. “That made me want to seek out the people I knew were out there. When I did some research, it was really interesting to see the bigger picture, just how many women are playing guitar in so many formats, not just singer-songwriters.”

It might seem disingenuous that 10 years after Sarah McLachlan first called attention to the plight of women in popular music that there would be a need for “La Guitara,” but Larkin said the project is less about rectifying an injustice than celebrating accomplishment, particularly in genres normally handled by the male of the species.

“I fell through the cracks of Lilith Fair,” Larkin said. “But I had the same issues. I couldn’t open for Bonnie Raitt because they didn’t want two women on the bill. That prejudice is pretty much gone. But people’s conception of someone who can really wail on a guitar is still that it has to be a guy. Back when I grew up, there were minimal role models for girls. My heroes were any women holding a guitar. But I think that is finally changing as young women become more involved. The thing is, the women have been out there; we just didn’t always notice them.”

Indeed, both the album and the one-off concert at Live Oak feature Ellen McIlwaine, the 61-year-old slide guitar specialist whose career dates back to Greenwich Village in the 1960s, where she traded licks and influences with Jimi Hendrix, and later jammed on a CD with Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Because she mostly plays acoustic guitar, McIlwaine is generally tossed in the folk category, which likely wouldn’t happen to a man.

Muriel Anderson, something of a one-woman wrecking-crew of genre hopping who, after frequent appearances in Santa Barbara (including SOhO, house concerts, and Jensen Guitar’s new Main Stage just in the last two years), is no stranger to locals, is also on the CD and concert bill. The last player is Erin McKeown, who calls herself a “funky folk artist” with a penchant for swing and jump tunes. The in-the-round concert format calls for the four woman to be on stage for the entire set playing solo and in various combinations.

Larkin isn’t concerned that the act of creating the project to call attention to the issue in and of itself marginalizes women.

“Things like this really do speak to you,” she said. “You relate to what you see. It’s how life works. So when there’s a woman really going to town with a guitar in Letterman’s band, it makes you think, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out and bringing it together.

“It’s been such a boy’s club for so long. It’s important for girls not to be intimidated. There’s nothing I like seeing more than young boys and men coming up after a show and asking about my equipment, or how Sharon holds her hands. That’s a great switch.”

(The Live Oak Music Festival takes place Friday through Sunday at Live Oak Camp, on Hwy. 154, 1.8 miles north of Paradise Road. Full festival passes cost $115 for adults, $75 teens, $35 for ages 4-12. Day passes are $35 per day adults and teens, $15 children. Get complete info and a full entertainment schedule online at www.liveoakfest.org or call 805-781-3030)