While there may be a laundry list of sorely missed music venues, one could make a strong case that no venue’s closure had more of an impact on the music scene than Zoey’s.
The beloved downtown Ventura venue was the heart of the local acoustic music scene. When it closed in 2013 due to a “perfect storm of issues,” it was simply devastating to a community who in many ways didn’t know how good they had it until Zoey’s was gone. It was the rare venue that was a “listening room” where performers knew that the crowd, regardless of size, would be there to do just that: listen.
As much as the venue itself was loved, so were its owners, the husband and wife duo of Steve and Polly Hoganson, who treated their regular customers and performers like family. Rare was the night when you were not greeted with a hug from Polly, a free drink from Steve and some great conversation.
Lucky for us, though, the Hogansons did not leave the fickle and fractured live music business for good. After a brief and well-deserved sabbatical, they re-emerged with Ones to Watch Productions, a name taken from their incredibly popular open mic series at Zoey’s.
Putting on a series of shows outside of Ventura at venues in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, the Hogansons were able to help the many acts they had become friends with over the years to book dates in the area. They didn’t, however, have the stresses involved with the day-to-operations of running a business and booking acts on a nightly basis. In addition to the new promotional company, they started the Santa Barbara Music Foundation to help foster the acoustic community in that city.
All that has led to Ones to Watch Productions’ most ambitious project yet, Topa Topa Mountain Folk Fest, which takes place in Ojai on Saturday, Oct. 1.
The Hogansons, who rightfully refer to themselves as “curators of music” instead of concert promoters, have long tossed around the idea of an outdoor folk festival. It came extremely close to happening in Ventura a few years ago. It was a tragedy that, in many ways, brought about this event.
When the Hogansons lost close family friend Diego Hinojosa, it led to them learning about Turning Point Foundation, a Ventura-based nonprofit that helps mentally ill adults. Throwing a small benefit for Turning Point last March (proceeds were donated in Diego’s name), they felt there was a need to do more to help the organization — and thus Topa Topa was born.
Now, before anyone starts debating the actual definition of a folk festival, it’s true that Topa Topa would be more fairly classified as an Americana or Roots Music Festival. But the bottom line is that it’s an acoustic-heavy outdoor event, and that in itself is as close as this area has had to an actual folk festival in decades.
It’s also a full-fledged Zoey’s reunion concert with the one-man Sons of Anarchy soundtrack The White Buffalo headlining, with support from a host of acts that honed their chops at Zoey’s: Jaime Wyatt, Todd Hannigan, Lee Koch and many more.
With ticket sales already exceeding expectations — a testament to how starved acoustic music fans are in these parts — naturally one has to ask, is this a one-time benefit fundraiser? Or can we expect a yearly event that becomes a full weekend complete with national headliners? The Hogansons are cautiously optimistic.
“We would like to do one a year and keep it a benefit for a charity,” explain Polly. “We could definitely see it growing. Maybe bigger acts. Maybe two days. But we will always have local acts involved. We believe in nurturing local talent.”
And the biggest difference between running a venue and putting on a festival?
“With a venue there’s the day-to-day grind of owning a business. Rent, employees, etc.,” adds Steve. “This is more fun. Despite the moving parts and bigger operational size, overall a festival is more focused on the music and artists, which is what we’ve always loved.”
So while Zoey’s is no more, the elements that made it such a special place, the receptive audiences, the talented artists and, of course, Polly and Steve, will all be together again at Topa Topa Mountain Folk Fest.
Topa Topa Mountain Folk Fest takes place on Saturday, Oct. 1, at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.topatopafolkfest.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.