ON the Beat | Spencer-mania on Stage at the Lobero Theatre

Spencer the Gardener Goes Big at the Lobero, Jazz Found its Way Back to Town Last Week

Spencer the Gardener (center) and bandmates. | Credit: Nelson Roosendahl

This edition of ON the Beat was originally emailed to subscribers on November 24, 2022. To receive Josef Woodard’s music newsletter in your inbox each Thursday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.

Everyone knows him as Spencer. Mr. Barnitz does have a last name — which he shares with his fine-voiced sister Liz — but Spencer long ago attained first name basis/status in Santa Barbara. But this regional rock star — or, as Spencer put it at the Lobero last Friday, “international local artist” — couldn’t do it alone, and would never want to. He is completely entrenched in the limber, cross-genre, and bilingual grooves of his expansive band Spencer the Gardener and, critically, is also fixed on the notion of keeping strong links to his community of fans and neighbors.

Friday’s Lobero soiree turned out to be a throbbing fun-tank of Spencer-mania. The sold-out occasion was made possible by the new collective known as Hello Santa Barbara! — producers and situation-makers Emile Millar and Terri Wright, along with filmmaker Robert Redfield, director of an upcoming documentary about Spencer. Redfield could be seen roaming the room and stage with camera in tow, capturing footage for the film in progress, which will hopefully have its premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February. Excerpts of the film were screened before the exhilarating and heartwarming three-hour show by STG. Even in its teasing preview form, the film seems to hit all the right buttons (my Independent colleague-in-crime Matt Kettmann and I appeared as resident pundits).

Tapping a vast songbook including new songs destined for an album-in-the-works, a couple of The Tan songs (featuring bearded Tanner Brad Nack on bass) and the expected menu of cumbia/spy-surf/new wave/funk/”It’s a Small World” sounds worth dancing to, STG doled out the goods, generously. The music kept on playing, all the way through an encore segment that kept on giving. The crowd was eager to receive and reluctant to leave.

To tweak the chorus of an old Tan favorite, it was a good, good party.

Jazz Finds Its Way Into the 805

Django Festival All-Stars | Credit: Courtesy

Jazz, mostly MIA in the past year, returned to concert stages in the 805 last week with a crowd-pleasing twofer. Between the history-happy Django Festival All-Stars,at the Lobero, and 20-year-old jazz/soul/fusion sensation Matthew Whitaker at Campbell Hall, there was no excess cerebral heavy lifting involved, just fun-loving, virtuosic goods on display.

Catching the Django Festival All-Stars live can be a concert experience akin to both a comfy chair hangout and steady-voltage joy buzzer. Last week, the band — a princely ensemble in the active subcult of Django Reinhardt/Hot Club of France worshippers — made its fifth appearance in the inviting environs of the Lobero Theatre, and the result was reliably exciting, warm-spirited, and a history lesson in motion.

The band is composed of undeniably “hot” players in the old sense, especially the front line of amazing accordionist/chromatic harmonicist Ludovic Beier, lithe-fingered lead guitarist Samson Schmitt (son of former leader Dorado Schmitt), and violinist Pierre Blanchard, (who resembles the late Stéphane Grappelli), who graced this stage. The band mostly served up an ear-pleasing host of originals, written in a proudly old-school, pre-1950s style akin to the Django musical lingo. Joining the party this time was renowned jazz pianist and longtime Ojaian Roger Kellaway, whose ever-sophisticated and subtle pianism is accompanied by gymnastic arm arabesques.

Appreciating this joyful sound is easy, for jazz fans and dabblers alike. Forget about the idea of jazz as a progressive medium, emphasizing the importance of finding one’s own sound on an instrument. The All-Stars preside over a celebration of a time gone by, a period jazz parade in which the late arrival of Reinhardt’s timeless classic “Nuages” sealed the emotional deal.

Party-Ready Prodigy

Matthew Whitaker | Credit: Courtesy

Meanwhile, two nights later at Campbell Hall, Whitaker’s Santa Barbara debut validated his growing reputation as a wonder to behold. The 20-year-old keyboardist (mostly on piano, but also Hammond B-3 and with synthesizer spices) has a public presence going back to age 10, when he performed at Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame. At this point, he had been making his way into global jazz circles and such mass media ops as The Today Show. Oh yes, he also happens to be blind.

At Campbell Hall, the energized performer led his quintet through a set of originals from his three albums, blended with his intriguingly quirky new arrangements of jazz classics, including “Spain,” “Blue Rondo a La Turk,” and “Freedom Jazz Dance.” With electric guitar and electric bass joining groove-lined drums and percussion, Whitaker’s band veered into areas of neo-fusion and occasionally the dreaded “smooth jazz” zone, capping things off with the accessible R&B brews of “What’s Goin’ On” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s affirmation anthem “September.” What’s not to love and groove to?

He’s a party-ready prodigy, conspicuously gifted, bursting with energy and equipped with a strong will to please a crowd. For my money, though, the concert’s highlight was his version of a B-3 hero, Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Pilgrimage.” With the passing of both Smith and B-3 master Joey DeFrancesco in the past year, the jazz world is in need of new organ avatars. Whitaker could easily apply for the job.

Support the Santa Barbara Independent through a long-term or a single contribution.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.