It’s official: One of the top blues bands in California — and maybe the nation — is from Santa Barbara. Meet the Rent Party Blues Band, a four-piece that just returned from Memphis’s International Blues Challenge, where they ranked as semifinalists after winning the Santa Barbara Blues Society’s Battle of the Blues Bands last year. Composed of Kris Ehrman (guitar), David Rojas (vocals/guitar), Sebastian Martinez (bass), and Vicente Zavala (drums), the band is affirmatively keeping the blues robustly alive in a surprisingly bluesy corner of a decreasingly bluesy nation.
The band formed at the end of 2014, after Ehrman and Rojas discovered a shared liking for the blues while working as music educators at Notes for Notes. After recruiting Martinez and Zavala via SBCC music classes, the group delved into the deeper cuts of the blues from originators such as Otis Rush, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and T-Bone Walker. “We want to go back before all the post-British Invasion–style blues, to educate ourselves and educate our generation,” Ehrman said. He and Rojas, he said, spent many months marinating in classic blues music before honing the Rent Party sound. “It kind of gives us the same opportunity that the Stones or the Beatles had — they got to hear it fresh and be excited about it.”
The band competed with a total of 250 international acts and made it into the top 25 of the semifinals, but their much-praised performances came from an unlikely set of hands. “It’s an interesting mix of people, and we have a lot of different styles and a lot of different mentalities as far as music goes,” said Martinez. Rojas, who grew up in a musical household with his mother, singer/guitarist Olivia Rojas, was steeped in world music sounds; blues was something of a foreign affair. Zavala, meanwhile, has a rock-rhythm background and a jazz-rhythm education, without which the blues would be much harder, he said.
And yet all speak of traditional blues with reverence, not only for its foundational influence on so many genres, but also for its continued topical importance. “We’re bringing some sort of reality to the game,” Ehrman said of typically heavy lyrical blues themes, which he and Rojas often impart to their students in the Notes for Notes program, who have taken a deep interest in the blues. “It really highlights the inequality that I’m privileged enough not to have.”
Many in Memphis doubted their chops, said Zavala, who revealed other competition-goers were “surprised, shocked, and not really expecting anything from us,” being Californian. The surprise went both ways: The majority of other acts were much more blues-tinged rock than true blues, and the band found its kindred spirits not on the competition circuit but off the main drag, seeing local bluesmen perform alone in bars. “We try to keep the foundation of blues. It just kind of assured me that we’re doing the right thing,” Zavala said.
Their semifinalist placing has reaffirmed their commitment to the rootsiest of blues, a commitment seemingly shared among some Southern Californians — The Delgado Brothers, from Ventura, won the International Blues Challenge’s First Place prize. When they play Seven Bar & Kitchen, they will be sure to bring a celebratory spirit. Referencing the optimism of B.B. King, Rojas said, “It feels good to know that you can choose to be optimistic and be happy,” describing blues as a triumph over tribulation. Though they’re bluesmen, they have plenty of reasons to smile.
The Rent Party Blues Band plays Thu., Mar. 10 at Benchmark Eatery (1201 State St.) at 8 p.m. and at Seven Bar & Kitchen (224 Helena Ave.) on Sunday, March 20 at 7 p.m.