In the early 1960s, through the classic 7 45-rpm vinyl record format, a certain kind of single conquered America. Groups such as Booker T. and the MGs, Archie Bell & the Drells, and The Five Du-Tones, who brought the immortal “Shake a Tail Feather” into the world, created a vivid form of dance music that combined doo-wop harmonies, chicken-scratch rhythm guitar, Stax/Memphis horns, and a galaxy of tempo shifts and breakdowns into a buoyant style that sent dance floors around the world into a frenzy.
Nick Waterhouse (pictured), the performer/composer who will be appearing this weekend at the first Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival, was not alive yet when this all happened, but decades later, this Southern California kid discovered the magic in those grooves and made it his own. Steeped in vintage records and thoroughly schooled in the black arts of analog recording, Waterhouse has taken what most listeners consider a niche market for collectors only and turned it into an R&B renaissance. Listening to “Katchi,” his 2016 release featuring the like-minded artist Leon Bridges, one would think that a time machine was in operation, and that its vehicle was a massively funky soul train.
Fans in Santa Barbara may remember a smoking set thrown down by Waterhouse and his group at Velvet Jones during the 2014 New Noise festival. This time Waterhouse returns for a daytime appearance alongside the great modern soul singer Macy Gray and a host of other artists, all of whom will entertain a slick-dressed crowd during breaks in play at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club on Saturday, October 7.
Speaking with Waterhouse recently upon his return from a popular European tour, I asked him about his singular fixation on re-creating classic-sounding grooves. “Forty-fives continue to be a formative thing for me,” Waterhouse said. “I know there are other cultures, but that music [so-called Northern soul] never ends for me.” Among contemporary artists, he’s hardly alone, as everyone from Daft Punk to Calvin Harris has been inspired by the sound, but Waterhouse nevertheless stands apart as a distinctly pure and resourceful interpreter of this irresistible music.
On Saturday, he will be joined by a large ensemble, including horns and backup singers, in a format that he prefers above all others. The object will be to get people in hats, dresses, and summer suits to kick up their heels and let loose, dancing in the daylight to songs that sound like they belong in a movie about the mods. For Waterhouse, “the atmosphere must match the material,” so expect an ultra-cool scene sponsored by KCRW and saturated with fine Santa Barbara wines from the vintners at Happy Canyon, Sanford, Standing Sun, Summerland, and many more.
Headliner Macy Gray was a last-minute substitution for the recently deceased Charles Bradley, and will close the day with a set that is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m. In the 5 p.m. slot, be sure to check out Laura Pergolizzi, aka LP, the androgynous, Los Angeles–based singer whose 2015 breakout “Lost on You” boasted one of that year’s biggest hooks.
For the music industry vets and promoters at Castle Field Entertainment who are putting on the event, it’s an opportunity to explore Santa Barbara’s potential to support a serious outdoor music festival in a venue that, while not created with music in mind, like the Santa Barbara Bowl, nevertheless has significant experience handling large crowds. Let’s see if the same folks who like to do the divot stomp can also shake a tail feather.
The Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival takes place Saturday, October 7, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m., at the S.B. Polo & Racquet Club. Visit sbpoloandwine.com.