It’s festival season and no single year has seen the launch of more cultural events in Ventura County than 2009. The latest one set for blast-off on July 3 and 4, amid the crowds of Independence Day weekend and an atmosphere of misinformation and disorganization, is the California Music Fest.

A multi-venue music festival in downtown Ventura is not a new idea. Many people — capable people — have, over the years tossed around the idea of  organizing a "rock" music festival in downtown Ventura but were dissuaded by the financial risks and logistical headaches inherent to such an undertaking. Todd Winokur who owned the now defunct Café Voltaire, attempted something on a smaller scale in the late ’90s, but no one has, until now, actually had the chutzpah to do it full-throttle.

The festival’s head honcho Mark Rasmussen, a transplant from San Diego who publishes No Cover, a monthly music event guide, apparently has the guts for such an endeavor, which he modeled loosely after South by Southwest, the acclaimed annual indie festival in Austin, Texas. But by this publication’s press time, his guts were not bringing a whole lot of glory as many musicians and venue owners found themselves in the dark as to who was playing where on which day and at what time. Consistently unreachable by anyone, including VCReporter, Rasmussen and his de facto partner Phillip Wright, seemed to be scrambling to fit venues with lineups at the last minute— and the rumors were being kicked around like hacky sacks at a Phish concert.

By Wednesday, two days before the event, word on the street was that management for one of the festival’s headliners was threatening to pull out at the last minute, if the band did not receive the deposit it was promised. Management was unavailable for comment at press time.

The confusion surrounding the two-day event, which has been advertised as a 100-band, 18-venue celebration of the So Cal lifestyle, reached a fever pitch when just one week before the big day, venues dropped out only to be replaced by other venues and bands were moved to other locations. No information to this effect was available on the music fest Web site. The incomplete "complete lineup" only became available on Monday, four days before downbeat.

Ali Versacci, production manager for Zoey’s said that they felt it was best for everyone involved if they pulled out as an event participant. J.R. Richards, the lead singer for Dishwalla was slated to perform at Zoey’s for the music fest, but Zoey’s decided to fly solo and use The Lodge for his July 3 performance instead. He is still listed on the California Music Fest Web site as a performer. A matter of days before the event, Dirty Words, who are scheduled to perform at two different venues during the festival, got wind of a rumor that Bombay’s had pulled out and couldn’t get in touch with Rasmussen to confirm whether or not they were still playing there.

"About a month ago it was easy to get in touch with Mark,” said the band’s guitarist Kenny Benson. "Now I can’t get a hold of him. It’s really unprofessional." VCReporter confirmed that Bombay’s will be a participant as planned (they jumped into the game only a couple of weeks ago, having reconsidered after previously declining). Benson, along with the other performers has been given no instructions for equipment load-in even though they will be playing downtown venues during the annual July 4 street fair when Main and Santa Clara streets are closed to traffic and parking is virtually non-existent.

Sometime in June, Rasmussen told VCReporter that 900 tickets, at $40 a pop, had already been presold despite the fact there was no way to purchase the tickets online, and an official lineup hadn’t even been announced. As it turns out, Rasmussen was requiring local bands to purchase tickets for resale, in order to play the event. According to Benson, Dirty Words shelled out $300 in March and has yet to recoup its investment. Robin Ryder of Le Meu Le Purr said that his band turned the offer down flat.

While Rasmussen’s handling of the details hasn’t exactly engendered confidence among participating acts and venues, most people understand that the first time for an event of this scale is always a rough ride. Mikee Bridges who owns Epic Ventura, a California Music Fest sponsor, has been organizing the massive Tomfest in Washington state for 14 years. He says the event is polished now but it wasn’t always that way. "The first time, I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off," he laughed. "What’s a permit? I need insurance?" Bridges believes that Rasmussen’s heart is in the right place even if his organizational skills seem a bit lacking. "No one supported me, and so I wanted to support him. He’s trying to do something cool."

Versacci, who has worked on a number of big events nationwide tends to agree. "I think with it being the first year, that might explain why stuff has been left to the last minute," she said. "Mark and Phil have a great vision and I hope they have a great success."

Jared Williams, owner of Hush and Westside Cellar, says that he’s reallocated staff and adjusted his operations to accommodate the music fest because, "We believe in the endeavor and it’s these things that will bring life to Ventura."
Proceeds from the California Music Fest will go to the organization Work Vessels for Vets. A surfing competition and art installation will be folded into the music event. Approximately 100 bands will perform on the main outdoor stage at Mission Park as well as a variety of participating venues in downtown Ventura from the early afternoon well into the night on Friday and Saturday. Some over-21 venues that serve food, such as Bombay Bar & Grill, will allow minors in before 8 p.m. Wristbands for entry into all the shows may be purchased in advance or on the day of the event. People will be able to patronize single venues a la carte if so desired, for a cover fee to be determined by music fest organizers. For the lineup and other information, visit  www.camusicfest.com.      

michel@vcreporter.com