Ten Years of Hell

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.

4•1•1 For more info on
Sings Like Hell and/or to subscribe, see singlikehell.com,
email Peggie Jones at hellgirlsb@aol.com, or call
963-0761.

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