The local-national-global acoustic duo Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan officially got the blues four decades ago. And their origin story traces back to this paper, ancestrally: The Los Angeles–bred Ball, a gifted blues harp player and singer (and fingerstyle guitarist), had moved to Santa Barbara and was intrigued by a music calendar listing in the Santa Barbara News & Review — the Indy’s precursor. Ball recalled his fateful sighting of a listing: “It said ‘Kenny Sultan, blues and ragtime acoustic guitar.’ I thought, you know, this is somebody I should meet.” Meet they did, and history is still in the making.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Ball and Sultan are one of Santa Barbara’s prime musical success stories — if outside the mass/pop culture sphere — with a large discography on Rounder, Flying Fish, and other labels; various educational books; numerous film and TV placements; NPR spots; and a legacy on festivals, concerts, and gigging circuits around the world. On the home front, the duo serves as opening act for rootsy bands (they opened for Jim Kweskin at the Lobero Theatre a few years back) and has held down the fort on Sunday afternoons at the historic Cold Spring Tavern, when they’re in town, for time out of mind.
At the moment, eyes and ears are on the milestone prize. Ball and Sultan, in prepping for their grand 40th birthday concert at the Lobero this Saturday, sat down to talk in the kitchen of Ball’s woodsy vintage Westside house he shares with his wife, Laurie. Half its life ago, the duo gave a special 20th birthday concert at the Victoria Hall (now Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic home), a show recorded by former Santa Barbara Sound engineer Daniel Protheroe for the album 20th Anniversary Live!
As Sultan explained, their early inspirations included the famed acoustic blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, but their differences contributed to the uniqueness of the Ball and Sultan compound sound. “We both love acoustic blues, and we’re into Sonny and Brownie. But the way we have worked is that Tom brings a lot more of the Chicago electric blues into it, and I bring the jug band and ragtime in and adapt that to us.”
The tale of their seminal history touches on multiple points of local bygone heritage. Ball recalled that Sultan invited him to team up for an appearance on influential former KCSB DJ Greg Drust’s show, which led to an invitation from the Soujourner Restaurant (which closed in 2015) for a regular duo gig, the wages being pizza, beer, and $15. That led to other regular gigging, often five nights a week, in now-defunct rooms, including the Bluebird, Déjà Vu, and 1129.
While making a living by playing five nights a week, and later finding their place in festivals in Europe and elsewhere, Ball and Sultan also incorporated musical historicism and blues preservation into their work description, celebrating blues music of bygone eras. As Ball said, “One of the things we talked about very early on was that in addition to having fun, in addition to writing some songs, we also felt an obligation to, to try to — I’m hesitant to use the word ‘educate.’
“If we do it, we’re never going to be able to play a Lightning Hopkins tune with as much soul or finesse as Lightning did,” he continued. “But we have to remember, 90 percent of the audience out there has never heard of Lightning Hopkins. And if we introduced the song as being by Lightning and talk about it a little bit, maybe that’ll spur them to want to dig back a little bit. And that’s good for everybody.”
History is abuzz in the Ball and Sultan world as they enter the fifth decade of keeping the cultural faith of great American musical tradition going back to the early 20th century. Hear them most Sundays at Cold Spring Tavern, and on Saturday, October 26, at their special soiree at the Lobero.
4•1•1 | Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan’s 40th Birthday Celebration takes place Saturday, October 26, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 W. Canon Perdido St.). See lobero.org.