Life of the Party, Man About Town
Santa Barbara’s Veteran Party Royalty Spencer the Gardener Prepares for its Annual Fiesta Party Duties, with a Film and Album in the Offing
By Josef Woodard | July 21, 2022
Spencer Barnitz, a k a the wily epicenter of Spencer the Gardener (STG), is literally a man and a bandleader about town. By one measure, last year, Barnitz was a rare musician inducted into the Independent’s roster of Local Heroes, but Barnitz, longtime king of DIY operations, needs no “official” approval or status. The people have spoken — and partied with him. He is “officially unofficial,” as heroes go.
As an annual centerpiece of the Fiesta festivities, Barnitz’s upcoming gigs — including the climactic set at El Mercado De la Guerra on Saturday night, Sunday afternoon at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mercado, and a Wednesday “Official Unofficial Kickoff” show at a location to be announced — will have extra-special firepower. Consider this rush of gigs another important, even ceremonial, community send-off to the COVID years (despite the pandemic’s stubborn lingering tendrils).
Speaking of the pandemic, there he was a year ago, leading the charge of his nearly three-decades-plus-old band as they dished up a potent, party-stoking set at the Lobero Theatre, just before the Delta variant (remember that one?) set us back into hermit mode.
Zach Gill, of Animal Liberation Orchestra and Jack Johnson band fame, had joined forces with Lobero director David Asbell to put together an evening of local talents (including my new band, Tableaux Sonique — thanks, Zach and David), and STG’s sizzling set capped off the roster of local bands before intermission. Barnitz returned during Gill’s set for an impressive spin as a salsa dancer, with singing partner Lynette Gaona in tow, as they jammed on “All Night Long.”
At that moment in time, “we had gone through the vaccine euphoria of the first two months of last summer, which was crazy fun,” Barnitz recalls.
Suddenly, though, Delta dawned on us, dampening the prospect of a celebratory — and free! — Lobero night out. Barnitz remembers, “Zach and I were talking a couple days before, saying, ‘Should we cancel this?’ It’s like, here, we’re playing this welcome back, Santa Barbara show, and the Delta variant comes to spoil the party. He was saying, ‘I’ve never had so many people call me and say, I’m not coming.’ The Lobero was worried that we were gonna have 2,000 people there. There were probably 300, and it was a fun show. But it just felt weird, like, should we really be doing this?”
Yes, they should have, and they did. Delta seemed far away, for a minute.
Fast-forward to Cinco de Mayo of this year, and the band is doing its party bidding and business on the patio next to the Pickle Room. An overflow crowd swells naturally from the Canon Perdido sidewalk across the street to the historic El Presidio, a “birthplace” of Santa Barbara. What would the founding fathers, soldiers, and padres think?
Barnitz calls up his song “Tragedy of Dreaming,” recorded on the album Run Away with Lulu. Its chorus lyric: “All that I thought I had left behind / comes straight back to me watching lovers cry / Always thought you might marry me / I guess that’s a thought that’s just lost at sea as I drift along endlessly / I’m all caught up in this tragedy, tragedy of dreaming.”
The sensitive song, suggesting a blend of Lou Reed, jam-band balladry, and Jane’s Addiction in a mellow zone, soaks in an introspective mood, punctuated at this gig by guitarist Rob Taylor’s tastefully melodic solo. Suddenly, the balladeer breaks rank and the party animal within emerges with Barnitz bellowing, “If you’re a freak and you know it, clap your hands.” Freaks on both sides of Canon Perdido oblige.
STG has long owned bragging rights as a premiere — the premiere? — party band in town. In fact, it is also possibly the most musically subversive party band around, playing fast and loose with a postmodernist agenda of genres and song mixology. At a recent gig, I ran into a new fan, noted promoter/manager/Lobero honcho Steven Cloud, grooving to the sounds. Cloud’s take: “This is the most Dada band in Santa Barbara.”
In terms of the presumed objectivity buffer between journalist and subject, for this story, I fail miserably. I went to high school in sync with Spencer and played in an array of bands in the same clubs. In dreamy teendom, I jammed with the now sadly deceased drummer Paul Bergerot — drummer for The Tan, the Beach Boys, and more — in harmonica player Paul Morales’s Northside garage, and later drove Paul, Barnitz, and future Tan co-pilot Brad Nack to go surfing at Jalama (I had the wheels, not the surfing jones).
Liz Barnitz, Spencer’s talented sister and now background vocalist, has kindly joined the ranks of my band Headless Household over the years. I even semi-dedicated an avant-polka tune to “Spencer the Polka Dispenser,” for which Spencer gamely provided a slinky-cool cameo vocal on the Headless Household album post-Polka. Both Spencer and Liz appeared with one of the Household’s annual Christmas concerts at Center Stage, under the moniker “The Flying Barnitzes.”
My close ties to the band and its members hit home when I went to hear them on the back patio of M. Special Fourth of July weekend. I tried to fade into the sizable, dance-happy crowd. Suddenly, saxist John Schnackenberg’s voice booms over the PA: “I think there’s a Josef Woodard impersonator in the house.” We banter ’til Spencer coaxes me into doing a shabby shimmy of a dance. “There it is,” Barnitz beams, before kicking the band back into action, with some serious dancers heeding the call.
What gave them cause to dance so fitfully? The usual eclectic STG mix, which includes a menu of s-word flavors — ska, surf, spy, soul, and salsa. At M. Special, the set list turns from the Barnitz original “Disaster on the Half Shell” to Blondie’s reggae-timing “The Tide Is High,” and from the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” to sounds and grooves from South of the Border. A calypso tune segues naturally into a Barnitz in-house specialty — cumbia — on “Camisa Negra,” with Lynette playing guitar while Spencer tackles the breathlessly tumbling Spanish lyrics. From both sides of the border came the Texas Tornados’ Tex-Mex classic “(Hey Baby) Que Paso,” which Barnitz adapted to the names of dancers in the house.
This personal touch is one key to the STG charm and magnetic appeal.
In his cabby cap and shades, with a quirkily lovable voice sometimes reminiscent of David Byrne, Barnitz brought the M. Special crowd to a frothy, collective high, as is expected at an STG gig.
As bassist Gary Sangenitto says, “Over the many, many, many years that I’ve been playing music with them, people have said something like, ‘Oh, I just don’t know about his voice.’ And I’m going, ‘But do you understand what he does?’ He unifies people. He makes you and the audience part of it all. He brings an ‘us’ to an event. It’s not about ‘Look how cool we are.’ It’s like, ‘Can we all be cool together?’ That, to me, is a front person. It’s a really beautiful thing. I mean, what’s a musician without an audience?”
After a beat, Sangenitto adds, “We’re like little punks that never grew up. We just grew old.”
Over a scrumptious empanada lunch on the patio of Buena Onda (“good vibes”), Barnitz agreed to an official unofficial interview with this objectivity-challenged scribe. Donning a baseball cap touting his lifelong haunt, Hendry’s Beach, and a t-shirt reading “CATOK” — guitarist Taylor’s band — Barnitz explained that he knew this place for its food and vibes, but also as a spot for a fairly recent addition to his interests, tango dancing.
That morning, Barnitz had been rehearsing with the precocious 15-year-old Cainan Gaona, son of Lynette, for his debut at Goleta’s Old Town Coffee as an STG bassist. (The young multi-instrumentalist, who started sitting in with the band from age 8, is mainly a keyboardist but is game for switch-hitting on bass.)
That afternoon, Barnitz would be playing a solo gig in his alter-ego “Organic Gangster” mode, for a family-friendly crowd at Wylde Works on State Street. He gets around.
Does he relate to audiences filled with children? “Sure,” Barnitz beams. “I treat them just like adults.”
As live music opens its floodgates again, STG has been filling up its dance card, especially this summer — including a show tonight (July 21) in front of The Granada Theatre, in a lineup featuring charter member and now N.Y.C.-based trumpeter Nate Birkey.
On his email gig alerts, Spencer ends a growing list of summer shows with this phrase, like a mantra: “And on and on and on!”
That “on and on” factor also includes a documentary in progress, and the making of a new album to add to the band’s handful of albums to date (not including the two “Organic Gangster” records). That discography, incidentally, also includes 2006’s Fiesta.
STG’s recorded output can be found where music is sold and streamed, but to catch them live is to truly understand what makes the band tick. Barnitz admits that the band’s ongoing live life defines the group’s deeper essence.
“On a record,” he says, “we can’t really capture some weird mashup vibe. Everyone does mashups now. I started doing mashups with the Wedding Band, when nobody was doing mashups. I think that’s why the Wedding Band was so strangely popular with college kids, ’cause it was so weird.” The Wedding Band is a specialty side project in Barnitz’s world going back to the early ’90s: a quirky cover band that developed its own following.
In Spencer the Gardener, he says, “We still do that. We end the show with a medley that we’ve done forever, which is ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ into ‘She’ll be Coming ’Round the Mountain’ into ‘Jambalaya,’ and it ends with a punk version of ‘It’s a Small World.’ I would say that that really sums up everything well for a show that you’ve just seen of ours. And it fits with what we’re doing, but that’s hard to capture on record.”
And from the fiscal, live livelihood standpoint, he says, “We’re in a really lucky situation because we still make money — not ‘real’ money, but money as if you’re a waiter at a popular restaurant.”
As a Santa Barbara native and, apparently, lifer in these parts, Barnitz’s countless local connections and affiliations add up to a dense, complex matrix. Take his gigging at Old Town Coffee, which came about through a childhood link to owner Tim Ward. Ward grew up with Barnitz on the magical plot of land known as Yankee Farm, situated above Hendry’s Beach at the rustic edge of Hope Ranch.
Looking back at life on the “farm,” Barnitz points out that “everybody talks about how bad their childhood was. Mine’s the opposite. I was scarred ’cause I’ll never get that again. I still go up and have Thanksgiving there. It’s like the land that time forgot.”
Barnitz’s band-ographic history, which has taken him to London with The Tan in his early twenties — a popular new wave/surf band that came within spitting distance of a major label trajectory — and touring around California with STG, finds its root system in the 400 to 600 block of State Street in his formative years. Playing at the tiny hip cubbyhole of George’s, the treasured bohemian club Baudelaire’s (as lionized in Santa Barbara–bred Mike Mills’s film 20th Century Women) and Club Iguana, home to STG’s earliest triumphant beginnings around 1990, Barnitz cut his teeth and honed his charismatic stage style in these grass-rootsy lower State Street outposts.
But the cultural GPS lands especially boldly on the small and mythic oyster bar turned music haven of Joseppi’s, across the street from Baudelaire’s, run by New Jersey-born émigré, raconteur and accordionist Joseppi Scozzaro. Barnitz briefly worked shucking oysters and slinging spaghetti dinners at Joseppi’s, following his year-long recovery from a nasty traffic accident while on tour with Spencer the Gardener in 1991 (which also badly injured drummer Bo Fox). Soon enough, the musical urge led to the creation of the Wedding Band, with Scozzaro in the mix.
Of Scozzaro, who died in 2017, Barnitz asserts “I loved Joseppi, and owe him a lot.”
Barnitz explains that the Wedding Band moniker “was kind of a joke, ’cause we would be perfect to play at a wedding,” he laughs. “As it got popular, UCSB girls would say, ‘You’re gonna play my wedding.’ All of a sudden, in the ’90s, we did play a few of them, and they were really fun. But we didn’t play that many. We were like the wedding band made up of teenagers. We were rebels.”
Lines could be blurred. As Sangenitto recalls, “We would do shows where the Wedding Band would be hired to do something … and Spencer the Gardener would be playing clubs around there. We would combine gigs where the Wedding Band would be the cover version and Spencer the Gardener would do Spencer songs.”
Although Barnitz keeps STG bopping all year-round, Fiesta time is a special Spencer time. He figures that he started playing at Fiesta proper, around 1991, and started the annual “official unofficial” Wednesday night pre-opening shows in 2005.
Reflecting back to his childhood, Barnitz comments, “I’m a child of when Fiesta was looked upon as a really fun time in Santa Barbara. We all loved it, and it was one week out of the year where your parents were happy, you went to a parade, and it was like, ‘Oh look, now I’m singing this song in Spanish.’ It had a profound influence on me. I have been surfing Mexico and just been traveling for a while, singing songs in Spanish all my life. It’s not a big hat and a shot of tequila.”
One interesting twist with Barnitz’s presence in Old Spanish Days is that his set lists tend to focus more on sounds and rhythms from Mexico and Latin America than the European land of the Conquistadores. Flamenco and Spanish garb may figure into OSD regalia but are not part of the STG agenda.
Where did cumbias enter Barnitz’s life and consciousness? “Probably with [cumbia classic] ‘Rosa Maria,’ when I was like, I don’t know, 10. I can still remember this song. This is a song that I sang in Mr. Hall’s class in high school on Fridays,” he laughs.
Peripherally, surfing also had something to do with his cumbia obsession, a side effect of many surfing trips down in Mexico. “Because I spent a lot of time in Mexico,” Barnitz says, “I also heard a lot of cumbias — which is one of the most popular pieces of music in the world. I just started writing some cumbias in English. But like [Barnitz’s original] ‘To the Sea,’ that could be a Pogues song, it sounds like an Irish sea shanty, but there’s a backbeat of a cumbia in it. There are a lot of [musical] things that borrow from each other in the world.”
Before long, a documentary film in progress will bring Barnitz’s saga to the big screen. In the works for two years and culminating with a Lobero Theatre concert slated for November 18, the project was launched by musician-writer-producer Emile Millar. With Millar in the producer seat, he brought filmmakers Robert Redfield and Terri Wright into the fold.
Redfield says, “I want to avoid a dry chronology. The ‘aha’ moment for me as I researched the story is that Spencer’s life and his music is more than the party band that first meets the eye.
“We’re including fun archival footage from The Tan and early STG and also from today’s performances of beloved STG songs, along with the first performance of Spencer’s new material. About half of the primary photography is complete. There are other interesting and fun paths that take us to the whys behind Spencer’s music and to how he became a cherished community treasure.”
Along his path, Barnitz has run up against some serious health threats, but his forward momentum and will to keep his band pumping and enjoying life remain strong. “I’m pretty happy with where I am,” he says, “except for my physical ailments that seem to pop up all the time. I have to have a kidney transplant. I had open heart surgery [to repair mitral valve prolapse]. I still have plates in my face from that car crash,” he says, referring back to the 1991 accident, which left him with multiple broken bones.
“I’ll be able to handle it. I went surfing yesterday. I played at the wharf. I got a gig coming up. It’s bizarre that I have this. With the exception of some of the times that I’ve gotten really depressed — I actually got depressed from alcohol for a while — I’ve always enjoyed life. Not like ‘Oh, life is so great,’ but like, I can’t wait to play basketball now. [I’m into] the here and now and the present.” With a smile, he adds, “I probably spent too much time in my life relying on fun.”
Deep into our lunch confab, Barnitz turns philosophical about his life in motion. “What have I done in my life?” he muses. “I’ve surfed, played basketball, danced salsa, danced tango, played shows, read books. I like them all equally,” he laughs. “Playing a show is like playing basketball, and I don’t do that anymore.
“I’m really lucky. It’s true that something gone this way or that way would’ve changed things for better, for worse. Hard to say. I’d be different if my dad was alive; I don’t know if it’d be better or worse. If we wouldn’t have gotten in that car crash, we probably would’ve had a deal, and maybe we would’ve failed really fast ’cause that’s when you know if you fail or not.
“If The Tan wouldn’t have been so involved with getting a record deal, we really started doing well on our own. We were very much DIY before it existed. If we would’ve followed our path doing that, we would’ve really benefited. For a long time after that car crash was just like, okay, well we’ll, we’ll just have to do it ourselves. So there’s never been a better time to do that than now.”
He pauses, and adds a caveat, with a grin. “Granted, I don’t have to worry about a wife; I’m from Santa Barbara, and I have a house. I didn’t have to go get a full-time job at some point.”
But his job, or life mission, continues at a healthy pace.
Fast-forward to the band’s recent Stearns Wharf show, as part of a series celebrating the pier’s 150th anniversary. The band dishes up the saucy stuff of “Disaster on the Half Shell,” with a choice trombone solo by Skabone Stan (once part of the local band Crucial DBC), and “Tragedy of Dreaming” has its slow-dancing moment, until the “freak” part, when the crowd, as always, obliges.
Introducing other members of the band, Barnitz hints at lives beyond the Gardener: “You might not know it, but Lynette does marathons, and John is the tree whisperer.” (By day, Gaona is a vocal coach and Schnackenberg a prized arborist in town.)
Sure enough, cumbias are in the house and by the sea, in the form of the fave “Juana la Cubana,” “Hay Cariño,” and also the fairly recent original party anthem “Goin’ to a Party.” As for further local music links, that song was recorded by the recently belated musician-producer-boosterist Byl Carruthers and sports a hip, beach-centric video by Barnitz’s old pal Nack (check it out on YouTube).
On the mic, Barnitz explains why his sister Liz is not on vocal duty that night, as she just retired — as principal at Hope School — and was celebrating at the Ojai Spa. He shrugs. “This is the Cadillac of all bands. No stress. ‘Oh, you can’t make it that night? No worries.’”
And on and on and on!
Spencer Needs a Kidney. Can You Help?
Editor’s Note: Of the 123,000 Americans currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant, more than 101,000 need a kidney — but only 17,000 people receive one each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Kidneys are one of the few organs that can come from living donors as well as deceased donations. For more information about how you can help, email Liz Barnitz (Spencer’s sister) at firstname.lastname@example.org.