When a friend dies unexpectedly, the mind searches for meaning in his or her passing. In Randy Madron’s case, the meaning is both in what the musical community has gained by his life and lost by the guitarist’s untimely death in his sleep, at the age of 53, on the morning of July 15. As a member of the Goods, the Beaver Trail Boys, the Wedding Band, Spencer the Gardener, and countless other groups, Randy brought along a depth of musicianship and soulful playing that made all his performances memorable. We will miss that, but know that anyone who played with him throughout the years has gained from making music with a natural musician of such innate talent.
Randy had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music from the 1940s to the present. His knowledge, however, was not academic, but visceral and intuitive. He knew what made a good song work, and when it worked, it was fixed in his mind-both lyrics and music-regardless of era or genre. He, along with other Santa Barbara musicians such as Jeff Elliott, Barbara Woods, Kim Wilson, Mike Lopez, and Randy Tico, grew up and learned music together in an atmosphere where getting a gig meant a steady engagement rather than a show. He honed his chops in front of audiences, and learned what moved people’s bodies and spirits.
With Randy in the band, taking requests from the audience was a pleasure for both fellow performers and listeners because almost any song would be rendered in the spirit and soulfulness with which it was originally created. And (in what is becoming a lost profession-the journeyman musician) he could do this night after night without becoming jaded or bored, and was only rarely contemptuous of the audience. Anyone who has ever tried this realizes that it is extremely hard to do, but Randy made it look effortless. In fact, it was effortless for Randy because there was no place he would rather be than playing music in front of people, which he did throughout California, the Pacific Northwest, and Mexico.
Natural talent and a willingness to share it were hallmarks of Randy’s life beyond music as well. In spite of a cantankerous streak that occasionally reared its head, he held no grudges and left behind only friends. On July 24, more than 150 fellow musicians and friends from Santa Barbara, Goleta, the Santa Ynez Valley, and the Painted Cave community where he lived attended a memorial concert and wake for Randy, held at one of his favorite haunts, Cold Spring Tavern. One could hear reminiscences about his prowess at everything from surfing to auto repair.
Randy and I loved to share stories about skiing Mammoth, where he had lived for a time working on the mountain. Since I had never actually skied with him, I asked his girlfriend and musical soulmate, Heather Levin, whether he was as good as his talk. Without hesitation she replied yes, and said he had also become a great snowboarder in two days’ time. “He was just a soul who could do things with ease,” she said affectionately.
The musicians who showed up at Cold Spring that day were themselves a testimonial to the affection and esteem in which Randy was held by so many. Some of the best players from almost every type of music played in Santa Barbara were there, representing blues, country, rockabilly, rock, jazz, and classical-far more musicians than could ever fit on the tavern’s tiny stage. The genre-hopping Wedding Band, a perfect vehicle for Randy ever since he joined in the late ‘80s, played a set that underscored his versatility, culminating in a rousing rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that was both funny and spooky, and laid bare how much Randy will be missed. That realization has grown increasingly among the musicians with whom he played. Spencer Barnitz, the frontman for the Wedding Band and Spencer the Gardener, bemoaned the loss of the sense of danger that Randy brought to those groups. Indeed, Randy’s personality had as much flavor as his playing. When someone hires the Wedding Band for a party, they better know they are not getting your typical “wedding band,” but an experience. Randy was integral to that chemistry.
Randy’s last night was spent doing what he loved to do best: playing music. The Wedding Band performed at The Independent‘s Senior Editor Matt Kettmann’s wedding. Randy, while complaining of fatigue and indigestion, showed none of it onstage. On a break, Randy and I sat out back and talked about how long we had been playing music. The break almost over, he went inside. I heard him tune by himself and then play a little wistful chordal melody reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland that lasted less than a minute before the chaotic merriment resumed. In hindsight, that minute of music seems like a gentle lullaby to a tired soul, but in that moment under the stars on a hot summer night, it was magic. I consider that song and memory a parting gift.