Sings Like Hell Blazes Into a 20th Season
by Brett Leigh Dicks
After laying his laconic vocals around the first verse of “Angel of the Morning” last month, legendary songwriter Chip Taylor gently opened his eyes, glanced across the Lobero’s stage at his youthful partner Carrie Rodriguez, and let a soft smile creep across his weathered face. Rodriguez, a portrait of purpose, was lost in the moment, passionately picking up where Taylor left off. Then the unlikely duo of grizzled veteran and fresh-faced lass took the song cascading into its chorus. It was a magical moment, and one that provided the most perfect insight into the remarkable musical dynamics that the Sings Like Hell concert series constantly throws forth.
Across the course of 19 seasons since 1996, Sings Like Hell has been merging established performers with emerging talent to deliver a monthly series unlike any other in the country. By staying true to the music, the series — which kicks off its 20th season on October 21 — has evolved into one of the nation’s most renowned showcases for roots-based singer/songwriters. On any given evening you could find yourself reveling in the genius of Richard Thompson or Randy Newman and wondering why you hadn’t already heard of Devon Sproule or Richmond Fontaine.
That’s what Sings Like Hell is all about. It is not about brands or fashions. Nor is it about catering to formulas or perceived demand. It’s about the tried mixing it up with the new. It’s about challenging and delighting. It’s about making music.
When Music Went to Hell Before record companies got addicted to demographics, target audiences, and marketing strategies, there were simply singers and their songs. Sometimes they struck a chord, sometimes they did not. It didn’t matter what category they fell into or who they sounded like; the only important thing was the music. That’s something Peggie Jones, the founder, booker, promoter, and heart of Hell, knows far too well.
“When I first started Sings Like Hell,” she recalled recently, “the singer/songwriters were the unsung heroes. They were a liner note rather than an entity in their own right. The singer/songwriter is where the whole business has evolved from, but somehow they found themselves as the underground!”
Jones knows because music and its roots have always loomed large in her life. Prior to making Sings Like Hell a monthly gig at the Lobero, Jones was inviting singer/songwriters to her Santa Ynez home, where they would perform in the backyard’s natural amphitheater at the foot of Figueroa Mountain. And with the likes of Tom Russell, Dave Alvin, and Peter Case all stopping by, the informal Saturday-night series was considerable.
It takes a dedicated soul to turn her house over to a bunch of musicians, probably the type of musical soul who spent her teenage years escaping through a bedroom window, climbing across a garage roof, and heading to the Fillmore West every night of the week. After college, Jones crossed paths with Santa Barbara’s Cache Valley Drifters, who introduced her to California folk icon Kate Wolf. Wolf’s star was quickly on the rise, and the musician turned to Jones for help in guiding that ascension. That introduced Jones to the business side of music.
After a stint as a consultant within TransAmerica’s entertainment division, Jones started Little Dog Records with Pete Anderson. She also fronted a Santa Barbara public relations firm, representing clients such as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Ensemble Theatre, and the Civic Light Opera. In looking back on her career, it’s clear that Jones has managed to wear just about every musical hat. But it seems that, unless she’s being drenched in the music itself, none of those hats appears to fit terribly well. So that’s why she opened her front door and then dedicated her life to live musicians.
“There is an honesty to live music,” explained Jones. “You can’t hide and you definitely can’t fudge it. These days anyone can do anything in the studio. Other than the songs themselves, a recording is no longer a measure of talent. Performance-wise, anything can take place in there. I have heard people rave about guitar solos on recordings that I know for a fact have been constructed and built. The guy couldn’t play that solo if his life depended upon it. Take them out on stage and you soon see their true worth.”
When a residency at the Lobero by the Pasadena Playhouse dissolved due to the company’s collapse, Jones received a plea for help from the theater’s director Dave Asbell. She took it as an opportunity to expand her backyard series to Santa Barbara’s historic stage, and began filling the playhouse’s empty dates.
“I had enough savings to buy six nights of bookings,” remembered Jones. “So I thought the best thing I could do was to contribute six nights’ worth of rental fees and transfer my house concert series down to the Lobero. It was my finances that actually determined the length of that first series. So I figured that I would just see how it all worked out.”
Faced with the unenviable task of filling six concerts in a 700-seat theater that wasn’t traditionally renowned as a contemporary music venue, Jones needed to become creative. And the series’ name was an utmost priority. Luckily, the songwriter Peter Case had just played her pad, on the heels of releasing his Peter Case Sings Like Hell album.
“I told him that I had to steal that name,” said Jones. “It was the perfect name because the Lobero had always been so staid and I thought the only way I was going to get people in there to hear contemporary music was to be a little devilish about it and to make it sound like a bad thing to do.” Case liked the title too, explaining, “There is a real power that you tap into when you find a certain combination of words. … Titles are important because they’re the introduction to something that is much bigger.”
Case, of course, let Jones use the name, so long as he could be the series’ first installment. And like that, Sings Like Hell was born.
Dancing with the Devil While Peggie Jones had sufficient funds to rent the theater for the first season, the other costs associated with running a concert series began to mount. Jones needed help, and quickly, so she tapped into her network of well-connected friends. But while financial necessity drove her fundraising, the support that poured in was something no one could have predicted.
Guitar maker Seymour Duncan offered his graphic artist. Haagen Printing did the posters. Territory Ahead’s Bruce Willard and his wife Jodie threw their own money at the project, and so did former music executive Hale and Anne Milgrim, and Rob and Ellen Raede; all of these folks signed up as co-producers. But it wasn’t just big businesses and big names. The community chipped in too by buying season tickets, which required a huge leap of faith since the majority of subscribers had no clue who the booked musicians were. But rather than be intimidated, Santa Barbara’s music lovers were empowered, seeing the series’ surprises as journeys of discovery. The risky formula paid off: these days, nearly 400 of the 700 Lobero seats are occupied by season-ticket holders.
“I think people are more willing to go to this series and place their trust in someone else more than they’re willing to go to a random show or see someone they have only read about,” explained Santa Barbara’s longtime troubadour Glen Phillips. “The beauty of this series is what’s presented. There is so much music and so much media and so much competition out there that, when people find somebody they trust, they’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and take in that experience. There are a couple of venues, like Largo in Los Angeles, but there aren’t a ton of series that do that.” But maybe the success shouldn’t be shocking, because in some ways, Sings Like Hell is the way music used to be.
“When I started Sings Like Hell it was the only series that had ever been done like that,” said Jones, who always wears big poufy dresses to the concerts. “But, at the time, I didn’t know any better. When I was in high school, we never called ahead to see who was playing. We just headed out and didn’t care. We were going to the Fillmore and that was assurance enough! … Sometimes I saw bluegrass and sometimes it was punk, but it didn’t matter because I knew it was going to be good and, if it wasn’t good, at least it would be interesting. So I am thrilled that people have again embraced that idea of surprise.”
And embrace is right, as the atmosphere of a Sings Like Hell show confirms. The concerts have become a social event, where patrons discuss recent and future musical adventures and also catch up on a month’s worth of happenings. Outside the Lobero — or before and after, if you’re lucky enough to be at one of the backstage parties — wine flows as freely as the conversation. It feels a little like going to a concert with 600 of your best friends.
“I love what that concert series has become,” affirmed Peter Case. “I think it’s a great series in an amazing venue with a great audience. I’m always honored to play Sings Like Hell and to be associated with it. For a musician, the best live experiences are always those where there is some sense of community. That’s what I feel is happening in Santa Barbara with this series. There is a music community that relates to these shows and that then enables musicians to come together and celebrate their community.”
Case rightly alluded to another unique aspect of Hell: The sense of community extends beyond the audience to encompass the performer on stage. And that family feel is no doubt enhanced by the frequent visits from the father-and-son combo of Richard and Teddy Thompson, and by past processions of the Wainwright clan.
But maybe more than anything else, Sings Like Hell is a series that thrives upon contrast. Be it musical, cultural, or generational, Sings Like Hell typically brings together two divergent acts for each show, thereby fueling new legacies and providing a bit of cross-pollination of different styles and eras. And to top it all off, Sings Like Hell is officially a nonprofit, meaning that no one is reaping profits or cutting corners — it is, quite literally, a charity for great music.
“I have a long history with that theater,” said David Crosby, who first played the Lobero at age 17 and these days lives in the Santa Ynez Valley. “But to go there now and play as part of the series is always fun. I have also seen a lot of my most favorite artists there. When you can see an artist the quality of Shawn Colvin, you really know that you’ve lucked into the good stuff. But the series not only offers people that are well-known and established, as the next week they will turn you on to somebody brand new who you have never heard before. That happened to me just recently with the Duhks. They’re such a great little group.”
In fact, after the Duhks’ performance last March, Crosby greeted them backstage. That meeting led to a dinner in the band’s hometown of Winnipeg, where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed a few months later. That same night in Hell, the other performer, Devon Sproule, a spry young girl from Virginia, walked up State Street to find SOhO. She left the club later with an ear-to-ear grin, happy enough, apparently, to book a show there on October 3.
“The series contributes a lot to Santa Barbara,” concluded Crosby. “They’re not only people who really love and value and treasure music, but they also couldn’t care less what the latest fad is.”
That’s why one night you can wander out to the courtyard behind the theater and be chatting with someone on the brink of a great career like Damien Rice and turn around to be entertained by the remarkable history of Lyle Lovett. It’s a wondrous equation that pays off each and every concert.
“There aren’t a lot of towns that support music that aren’t in a predetermined genre or fall into a particular classification,” said Phillips. “Even I keep wondering where people like Aimee Mann and Neil Finn actually fit in? How do you present them to people? They define a genre that doesn’t have a name and that doesn’t have a marketing campaign. They don’t mean anything to anyone unless of course you’re looking for those artists. But that is a totally legitimate genre in itself and that’s exactly what Sings Like Hell deals so well with.”
Keep the Fires Burning Over the course of 10 years and 19 seasons, Sings Like Hell has evolved into one of the most respected musical series in the country. The performances are rarely part of a wider tour, the majority of tickets are sold through subscription, the series is registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and, more often than not, the audience knows little about the artists they’re about to see. In short, Peggie Jones and Sings Like Hell have broken every concert promoting rule in the book. And this coming season will be no different.
It starts on October 21 with the irreverent Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane. (You’ve probably never heard of ’em.) In support will be Fats Kaplin, Lucas Kane, and Michael Fracasso. (How about those guys?) On November 18, Grammy nominee Sonny Landreth and his band will drench us in the Delta blues along with Eugene Edwards dropping his power pop. For the December 9 show, it’ll be the Zane Williams Trio teamed with fast-rising star Brett Dennen, who recently opened for John Mayer across the country. Welcoming in the New Year on January 20 will be the whiskey-soaked vocals of Elliott Brood and the poetic serenity of the Ana Egge Trio. On February 17, Gandalf Murphy and Jeffrey Foucault will deliver some Americana-flavored surprises, but there’s no secret about Greg Brown’s immense talent. He’ll sing like hell in the series closer on March 24, this time dragging the impeccable Bo Ramsey along.
And, lest we forget those extra special shows that come through Hell from time to time, mark Monday, December 4, as a must-see, for that’s when Jackson Browne and David Lindley take the stage. With Kiki Veneno opening, that’ll be a show for the ages, but Jones is warning that it’ll likely be open only to subscribers, so there’s even more reason to sign up for season tickets this fall.
With the intent of doing nothing other than bringing music back to the people and raising a little hell along the way, it is no surprise that people like Richard Thompson or Greg Brown return to the series so often. It is also little wonder that locals the caliber of David Crosby or Glen Phillips offer Sings Like Hell their considerable musical support. And it goes a long way toward explaining why Chip Taylor smiled so much while he was in town. This is music culled straight from its roots. Maybe some of the names are unfamiliar and the music doesn’t fit in some flashy category, but that’s the beauty of Sings Like Hell, for listener and performer alike.