On Monday evening, April 13, UCSB’s Old Little Theater housed a crowd of 50 music lovers, who for an hour shirked their real-life responsibilities to escape into the feel-good melodies of old-timey American music. The SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind sponsored the show, titled “The Act of Playing Music,” a gig interspersed with discussion about performance music.
The event featured Dan Wheetman of the late John Denver’s band, who currently plays for Marley’s Ghost and whose musical revue, Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, was nominated for a Tony Award. Joining him onstage was Van Dyke Parks, a musical jack-of-all-trades who has collaborated with a number of artists, from The Byrds to The Beach Boys. On bass guitar was David Jackson, who’s better known as a saxophonist, flautist, and composer. Missing from the stage was Phil Salazar, a celebrated bluegrass fiddler who was scheduled to attend but unable to appear on account of an injury he sustained in a car accident.
In spite of Salazar’s absence, the trio was good-natured and light-humored, and frontman Wheetman cracked jokes from start to finish. Of his harmonica headgear, he joked that “the orthodontist says I only have to wear this during the day.” And of his oversized bass, Jackson quipped, “This, by the way, is a bass guitar. I am not a leprechaun.”
But the fun, affable personalities onstage quickly proved themselves to be worthy and talented musicians. Right away, they launched into a jaunty rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “(If You Ain’t Got The) Do Re Mi,” a heartfelt Dust Bowl Ballad that drew whistles and cheers from the crowd.
Wheetman followed the first number with a quick discussion of performance business and the essence of music. He reminded the audience that a musician interprets music on a physical level when he/she studies a song’s structure, but he also explored the emotional dimensions of music and the way that a musician must learn to “take something of [himself] and put that into the music.” He talked about the joys of playing music with people and for people. “Wonderful things can happen,” he explained. “Of course, you can trainwreck, too. And we’re not afraid of that.”
That expression of the trio’s comfortable attitude toward performing seemed to hold true. The gig felt personal, like a jam-band garage session that just happened to take place in front of an audience.
Following Wheetman’s mini-lecture, the trio launched into Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose,” an upbeat Western swing number, infused with elements of blues, country, and New Orleans jazz. And they had fun doing it, whooping and cat-calling the whole way through. They stepped up the pace with “St. Anne’s Reel,” a fiddle tune with roots in the French Canadian school, that had feet tapping and heads bobbing throughout Old Little Theater. The trio had the crowd smiling with “Drop Down, Mama, Let Your Daddy See,” a Yank Rachell/Sleepy John Estes tune, and quickly sobered the mood with “Cowboy Lullaby,” a slower-paced ballad Wheetman wrote.
At the audience’s request, Van Dyke launched into “Orange Crate Art,” a song he wrote “to preserve Schumann,” a Romantic composer who wrote “folk songs,” whom he said he respects and admires. Van Dyke likened the songwriting process to “paint drying,” as it involves patience and persistence. And while he had the mike, an audience member jumped at the chance to ask him about his experience collaborating with big-name artists.
To that question, he answered that “the aim of collaboration should be just to survive the collaboration,” at which the audience chuckled. He called his experiences working with other artists “very painful, but quite rewarding.”
Following Van Dyke’s piece, the trio ran through a few other numbers, including a Dylan piece, a deep, emotional Skip James tune, and a twangier rendition of Marley’s “One Love.”
The show was by no means groundbreaking, but it delivered some of the better elements of American folk, Mississippi blues, Western swing, and country music, among other genres. It was a collection of feel-good old tunes, and it was a foot-tapping good time.