Singer, musician, and bandleader Adam Phillips is a big guy with the big, thick legs. When he said, “Go big or go home,” as he did in a recent interview, he was challenging himself. He responded by going very big, creating the Folk Orchestra of Santa Barbara. With 27 musicians, the orchestra is an outlandishly ambitious musical cross-pollination between Phillips’s twin passions for acoustic roots music and chamber orchestras.
As ensembles go, it hovers somewhere between large tribe and a small village. There are eight violins, four violas, four cellos, two string basses, three mandolins, bagpipes, flutes, a harp, drums, a handful of guitars, and at least one banjo. The trick, Phillips explained, was achieving the right balance between the folkies and the bowers.
Every Thursday night for the past three weeks, the orchestra could be heard at Telegraph Brewing Company on Salsipuedes Street, rehearsing for its coming-out gig at the Presidio Chapel on March 26. The band’s sound is so large, it can’t get lost, even in the cavernous concrete of the Telegraph company’s industrial vastness. There, they work out the details of several folk melodies from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The music is scored precisely and played by a blend of professional musicians and highly skilled amateurs. It’s not a jam session for pickers and noodlers. As Phillips explained, part of his motivation was to create a self-sustaining musical ground zero for local musicians, with a definite emphasis on local. “My goal was to get people who could play,” he said. “But I also really wanted people who were kind.”
At rehearsals, it’s clearly Phillips’s show. He’s the conductor. Instead of a baton, he uses a guitar, a mandolin, his voice, and, on occasion, bagpipes to coax and conjure the right mix of sounds. It’s a gorgeous broth of Gaelic schmaltz — soaring, gliding, euphoric and melancholic all at once — washing over the pyramids of wooden barrels and stainless-steel kegs. “It’s like The Chieftains,” he explained, “only with an orchestra.”
It’s chilly inside, and many of the musicians wear scarves and knit caps. Phillips, who grew up outside Buffalo, New York, is no stranger to the chill. He moved to Santa Barbara 12 years ago after his sister moved here in 1999. He got a master’s degree in music at UCSB and started several bands, including the Mission Creek Trio, a stripped-down version of the orchestra with guitar, violin, and cello. For three years, he was music director of the Santa Barbara Revels and also works as music director for the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. Along the way, he fell in love and married a dancer with State Street Ballet, with whom he’s had two daughters. It was about the time his youngest was born that the lightbulb for the folk orchestra went off in his head. It enabled him to play with the textures and tones of classical and folk again, but on a bigger scale than the Mission Creek Trio. “I kind of wanted it to be too big to fail,” he said.
411 The Folk Orchestra of Santa Barbara has open rehearsals at Telegraph Brewing Company (418 N. Salsipuedes St.) every Thursday at 8 p.m. and will perform at the Presidio Chapel (123 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Sunday, March 26, at 4 p.m. Visit facebook.com/folkorchestrasb.