Serial Thrillers

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.”

4•1•1

• 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.

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