Few musicians know Fiesta like Spencer the Gardener. Year after year, the folk-singing, surf-riding, indie-rocking balladeer of buoyant joys and deep thoughts has brought his unfailingly festive tunes to the mercados and cantinas just off of State Street. The year 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of Spencer’s appearance at the Casa Cantina at Casa de la Guerra, now in its 14th year, and he has become as much an irreplaceable part of the party as cascarones, Puebla dresses, and margaritas.
“Fiesta has always been about a feeling,” said Spencer. “When the moon is framed by the palm trees and music is coming at you from all directions, you look up to the sky, and there is a perfect, timeless feeling. That is Santa Barbara to me — much like coming over the hill from Summerland on the 101 after a long trip.”
Spencer loves Fiesta’s long-standing gaiety and the evocative atmosphere of spiritedness passed on through generations. “It even feels like it is coming from the past — and maybe it is my past,” he said. “People are laughing, singing, and dancing like they have been before me and will be after me — a continuity.”
The enduring Casa de la Guerra shows play into that sense of continuity. “Even though Fiesta has changed quite a bit, that Wednesday night just seems somehow limitless and ongoing,” he said. “Spirits from the past dance with souls in the present on their way to the future.”
When New Noise Santa Barbara took over leadership of the Casa Cantina a few years ago, he said production values jumped up. “The whole thing went up a bunch of notches,” said Spencer. “When Jeff and Warner are involved, things always change for the better without sacrificing the initial intent.”
Fiesta was a fixture in Spencer’s life long before he began a music career. He recalls heading downtown from his childhood Mesa home to walk through El Paseo to see “all the colorful dresses and the purpose and ambition of all the dances” or to take in the illuminated Mission façade backdropping the action on the stage steps. The influence of rancheras and cumbias filtered down into what came to be his signature sound, and he even has a Spanish-language album titled Fiesta. “Without a doubt, Fiesta has been a bit of a musical influence,” he said.
Besides S.B., Spencer has also lived in London and Mexico, and his music carries an international flavor; every year, he plays shows in Mexico or elsewhere in Central America. His music has taken him to some exotic places thematically, too, such as his recent children’s album, Organic Gangster, which features songs encouraging kids to eat organically and forewarns kids about the dangers of corporate agriculture. “Organic Gangster was one of those lucky and beautiful detours that just happened quickly and positively. I never planned on making a children’s record; just all of a sudden there it was, and it has delivered me to places I did not expect — places like the front page of Nicaragua’s La Prensa and a viral YouTube hit, ‘The Gobble Song’ on Thanksgiving, to name a few,” he said. A sequel is already in the works.
Though he admits feeling dismayed at the current state of the world — “seems that every day the bar is raised in some tragic way or another,” he said — and nostalgic for the less-regulated, less-floodlit Fiestas of days gone by, he says that his creativity and the joys shared with audiences keep him going. “The fact that people look forward to it is a blessing and lucky in kind of an indescribable way,” he said of the Cantina tradition. Hear him this Wednesday, and hear why he has become the Casa’s house musician — where, with his good-spirited, smile-cracking jollity, he’s right at home.
Spencer the Gardener plays with Matt Armor at Casa Cantina at Casa de la Guerra (15 E. De la Guerra St.) on Wednesday, August 3, at 6:30 p.m. The cost is $6-$10. Ages 21+. For more info, call (805) 965-0093 or visit sbthp.org.