S.B. Music Series Spotlight Singer/Songwriters
by Brett Leigh Dicks
As Pieta Brown gently caressed the strings of her acoustic guitar, Bo Ramsey’s electric guitar enchantingly followed suit. Soon this captivating duo was radiating a sound so subtle that it barely resonated. But despite the Tap Room of Buellton’s Firestone Brewery being filled to capacity, as the song gradually drifted into the ether, the silence in the room was deafening.
Such is the experience of the music series in Santa Barbara. As the traditional live music bar — SOhO and Velvet Jones notwithstanding — becomes a scarce commodity, a variety of concert series have stepped in to bridge the gap. Spearheaded by Sings Like Hell, series such as Tales from the Tavern, Trinity Backstage, and Song Tree have taken command of curious venues and turned them into musical sanctuaries. And when people go along to listen, they actually go along and listen.
“It’s so neat that people on the other side of music are being so creative,” mused guitar legend Ramsey after playing Tales from the Tavern. “God bless ’em, man. If it wasn’t for shows like these, we wouldn’t be working. Playing in this kind of setting is what brings us out night after night. To be out there playing when everyone in the audience is on the same level — and you can hear a pin drop — is deeply rewarding.”
The enthusiasm Ramsey projects for the series is echoed by the myriad artists who are now soliciting performances within these four series. But such a response is not confined to the artist — audiences too yearn for the musical enrichment offered by the undercurrent of talented performers that adorn each series. For Sings Like Hell (SLH), a subscriber series currently in its 18th season, the fervor of its supporters affords the series an enviable artistic liberty.
“I have people who subscribe before I have even announced the new series,” explained SLH founder Peggie Jones. “A lot of the time, there are performers on stage that none of the people in the audience have even heard of. I really set up the series for myself because I was tired of being in bars. This just shows there are a lot of people like me who want to hear something new and different. The irony of it is that I’m now in the bars all the time looking for young new bands!”
A subscription to SLH doesn’t simply provide the chance to enjoy the likes of Damien Rice and Gillian Welch before the rest of the world discovers them. It also infuses Sings Like Hell with a unique sense of community. In regularly bringing together a collection of people with a common interest at the stately Lobero Theatre, fans are able to interact with each other. The resulting union is something that Jones feels is almost as important to Sings Like Hell as the music itself.
It is that patron kinship that each of these series seemingly share in common. And for Trinity Backstage — a monthly series staged in the enchanting Guild Hall of the Trinity Episcopal Church — the sense of community also encompasses the artists, such as Larry John McNally and Peter Gallway, who perform there. Founded by two musicians, Kate Wallace and Douglas Clegg, the series presents acoustic-based artists in a setting whose vibrancy is matched only by its charming coffeehouse atmosphere.
“During the Beat era, the coffeehouse scene was huge,” Wallace explained as we awaited the start of a Trinity performance. “Joan Baez and Bob Dylan came out of that particular scene. So this is a place you can sit with a cup of coffee and some friends and listen to some great acoustic music. And the people we present are all amazing artists with great track records — it’s just that you haven’t heard of some of them.”
Another monthly series that utilizes a church setting is Song Tree, which takes place in Goleta’s Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation. With the semi-circular seating arrangement perfectly lending itself to musical appreciation, series instigator Tom Lee presents an eclectic offering of performers who typically express themselves acoustically. From the golden voice of the legendary Utah Phillips to the ethereal tones of Kathrin Shorr, a Song Tree artist is one who fuels the soul.
“I look for artists who have the Song Tree sensibility, whose entertainment value is in who they are as people, as well as who they are as musicians,” offered Lee. “The audience has come to expect something that is positive in spirit and of high musical quality and I’m very protective of that. I want the audience to walk away feeling they’ve been nourished by the performers. And I want the performers to also appreciate the Song Tree crowd.”
A little farther up the road in Buellton, Tales from the Tavern takes command of the Firestone Brewery for six consecutive Wednesdays each year. Another subscription-supported series, Tales from the Tavern seeks to bring stand-alone singer/songwriters into an intimate and appreciative setting. And by closing the bar during the performances and filling the room with candles, the setting quickly inspires an unwavering connection between performer and appreciator. After commencing a few years ago with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot playing in a windswept tent, this series has matured into one of the county’s hidden gems.
For a city the size of Santa Barbara, we are certainly blessed with musical options. But, as Trinity’s Kate Wallace surmised, the support of these series simply comes down to the nature of Santa Barbara itself. “You put on a Nascar event in Nashville and you will bring in 60,000 people, whereas the symphony there would be lucky to draw 3,000. A large number of the people who live in Santa Barbara enjoy the arts. It might be a small place, but the percentage of people willing to come out and support the arts is huge.”
• Sings Like Hell: The 19th season kicks off with Sonya Kitchell Band and Cynical Girls with Marti Jones and Amy Rigby on Saturday, April 22. Visit singslikehell.com.
• Trinity Backstage: Dana Cooper performs on Saturday, April 22. Visit trinitybackstage.com.
• Song Tree: Small Potatoes plays on Saturday, April 1. Visit songtree.org.
• Tales from the Tavern: Currently planning their next series. Visit talesfromthetavern.com.