Since its modest start in the fall of 1997, the Sings Like Hell (SLH) concert series has not only gained steam; it has also gained praise, accolades, and grassroots support from some of Santa Barbara’s most prestigious music makers and lovers. The series has also amassed an alumni roster that would put most booking agents to shame. In its 14-year—and, as of this Saturday, 200-show—run, the series has played host to up-and-coming folksters The Avett Brothers and Sean Hayes, famous crooners Damien Rice and Rufus Wainwright, world-music heavyweights like the Buena Vista Social Club, S.B. legends Glen Phillips and John Doe, and all-around music icons Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris. No surprise, then, that the SLH powers that be (namely, series founder Peggie Jones and longtime facilitators Hale and Anne Milgrim) have busted out the big guns for their 200th night.
This Saturday, March 12, the Lobero and Sings Like Hell play host to a birthday party of massive proportions, featuring Academy Award winner, Santa Barbaran, and longtime series supporter Jeff Bridges alongside his Crazy Heart coconspirator T-Bone Burnett, as well as special guests Glen Phillips, Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, David Piltch, and Jay Bellerose. I recently chatted with Bridges about film, music, his still-in-the-works record, and why Sings Like Hell holds such a special place in his heart.
First and foremost, how the hell did they get you on board for this thing? [Laughs.] Well, ever since I’ve moved to Santa Barbara—which was, god, like 16 years ago—I’ve been going to Sings Like Hell, and I’ve seen some wonderful, wonderful acts. You know, it’s [the Lobero] the oldest operating theater in California, gorgeous building, great acoustics. Peggie Jones has arranged this concert series where there are just incredible, incredible performers. I’ve seen Jackson Browne and David Lindley and Greg Brown, just a whole slew of great acts, and I thought, one day, it would be wonderful to play up there. And, lo and behold, I got to do Crazy Heart with my good buddy T-Bone [Burnett], and one thing led to another, and now we’re making an album for Blue Note [Records]. So when Peggie asked me, I thought, oh, jeez, why not?
How far into the recording process are you guys? Are you recording locally? All the basic tracks are done. We’re working on the vocals now. And we’re doing it in both; I have this little studio in my house, and we’re doing some vocals there, and we’ll probably go down to Village Recorders in L.A. and T-Bone’s place down there.
I know you and T-Bone have been friends for a long time. Can you tell me a bit about how you guys met? We met on Heaven’s Gate, which was 30-some-odd years ago. Kris Kristofferson invited a lot of his musician friends to be involved in that movie, so that’s where I met T-Bone and Steve Bruton, who’s another mentor of mine and a collaborator on Crazy Heart. It was a fascinating movie in a lot of ways, but musically, it was six months of playing with all these great musicians. And we kept our friendship over the years, and then when Crazy Heart came around, I initially turned it down because there was no music attached to it. And when T-Bone said he was interested, that certainly piqued my interest, and we went off and did that, and now we’re making this album. It’s a relationship that’s really inflamed my music.
Word on the street is that you guys are going to be playing a lot of the stuff from Crazy Heart, which is now a couple of years old. Do you feel like you’re stepping back into character revisiting these songs? I think it’s a bit different, but, you know, sometimes you’re stepping into things you’re not aware of. [Laughs.] I always think of myself as one of those guys who doesn’t bring his characters home with him, you know? But my wife has a different opinion about that. I think there might be some kind of subconscious thing going on.
You’re a pretty prominent supporter of the Sings Like Hell series. What is it that sets it apart from regular concertgoing for you? Well, just that thing about it [the Lobero] being the oldest theater in California; there’s a vibe. It’s just steeped in all this art that has been performed there, and somehow that lingers in the space. You can feel it as an artist, and that’s a wonderful thing. Also, just the series is presenting so much great music that’s fresh and not always what you’d expect. You get guys like Crosby, or Jackson, or Greg Brown just showing up there alongside singer/songwriters just doing their stuff straight and stripped down. That’s kind of rare these days. And it’s an opportunity to see artists close up. It’s not that big of a venue; you’re right in there. Because of this great series that’s being offered, you attract a great audience that loves music, and that is something that cannot be beat when you’re performing. [Laughs.] If you don’t get that reception, it doesn’t work; the circuit’s not complete.
Jeff Bridges, T-Bone Burnett, and special guests play Sings Like Hell’s 200th show this Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For season tickets and show info, call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com.