Don’t get Rhan Wilson wrong, it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy the holiday season, he just wants to shed a different light on the whole gift-giving revelry. The producer and brainchild behind the annual Altared Christmas extravaganza takes your common Christmas carol and gives it a little, well, kick in its bloomer-wearing ass. Translating the music of old merry tunes into minor keys and conjuring more than 20 local stars, like Tammi Brown, Dale Ockerman and Patti Maxine, to gather on one stage as various characters, the lifelong guitarist presents a two-hour show each December that aims to rock a “Christmas that Grandma could never have imagined.” There’s plenty of irony and improv throughout a set that ranges from somber duets, heavenly gospel and, of course, brash rock comedy (think “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Clause” sung by an elderly woman).
Singer Amanda West is hiding out. Sort of. Having just returned from the Folk Alliance convention, the songstress (and producer of August’s WomanSong all-female concert in Big Sur) is busy off stage compiling the 12 tracks to her sophomore release. “I’ve actually been trying not to book shows because I’m working on a new album,” she says, making this week’s Cayuga Vault show on Saturday, Dec. 5 (alongside world-folk duo HuDost) all the more tantalizing for fans of her deeply cathartic folk. A special winter show, the concert will likely be her last for a while as she heads into the studio to lay down a record she describes as happier than 2008’s The Way to the Water. It will reflect what she says are her more recent experiences “connecting with the Universe and finding confidence.” “The images around the new CD are persimmon fruits,” she reveals. “It’s related to one of the songs on the album that’s become a symbol of inner knowing, strength and self empowerment.”
When one door closes, another door opens. Singer Matthew Chaney can attest to that. Dropping out of school to take a hiatus from his studies as an environmental science major, the singer-songwriter dove into the music scene a year ago armed with plenty of folk songs, equally infectious as affecting, and a crew of friends to fill out his rising acoustic ensemble, Tether Horse. “The idea of dropping out of school links in with the name of the band,” Chaney explains. “It’s that whole idea of being tethered to our society’s idea of the right direction to go and that if you want to be successful you have to follow these set of rules. I wanted to do something apart from that.” At a crossroads and confronting new opportunities, the 24-year-old says he had “a bit of a freak out moment” before choosing the right-brained path to close the books and hit the stage.
If you prefer to sit back and let a jazz set gently simmer in the background, beware of Future Dog; the band is out to change your mind and musically kick the seat right out from under you. Calling themselves “ambassadors of the neo-speakeasy,” the three gents are unconventional members of the growing jazz-funk trio revival that’s been coming out of the Santa Cruz woodworks lately. Why unconventional? Somehow electronica and rap influences have made their way into the band’s set. And, ironically, founder/bassist Brett Wiltshire says it’s all to get back to jazz’s earliest days. “Jazz originated in the party scene of a smoky speakeasy with dancing but it’s progressed into a genre where people sip wine and clap in between songs,” he says.
A couple of years ago, I was getting out of my car at the end of a long day when I suddenly heard salient live jazz grooves blooming in the vicinity. Pulled by musical gravity, I followed the polyrhythmic beats and found myself at the steps to a quaint red house. There I was, smack in the middle of a normally quiet Westside neighborhood; I could almost see the cartoon musical notes fluttering out the window and into the dark night. What else to do but knock on the door to investigate further? When that door opened, guitarist Sweeney Schragg stood perplexed as I told him how his music had led me to his home; his crooked-necked expression looked at me like I was a peculiar character who’d lost my way off Pacific Avenue. ... And that was my first meeting with Santa Cruz jazz guitar trio Quasimodal. Still practicing in that same tight living room, Schragg and co. (Pete Novembre on bass and Chris Haskett on drums) are celebrating a new CD on Thursday, Oct. 29. Delivering Discordia Concors to Kuumbwa’s dinner and jazz series, Quasimodal brings metal-loving Novembre’s aggressive attacks on standup and electric bass, Haskett’s uptempo swing and Latin nuances, and Schragg’s rhythm and blues rock past and Cabrillo College-trained jazz songwriting. “There’s method in the madness,” a soft-spoken Schragg explains how he constructs chord progressions as vehicles for improv, in which instrumental mayhem meets to morph into harmony. “I want to write interesting melodic structures,” the 59-year-old begins, “so that people appreciate it with intellectual curiosity.” Stridently funneling all three musicians’ diverse techniques into one sound that’s footed in traditional jazz, Quasimodal can juggle light bossa nova ballads to heavier tones of rock power all on one stage. Offstage, however, I still sometimes catch Schragg crisply fingerpicking his Gibson L-5 and conjuring his next tune on his porch in front of that same ol’ door. The address? That’s my secret—the rest of y’all can catch him with Quasimodal at the Kuumbwa.
Once in awhile, a band hits the scene with a force like some astral phenomenon striking the sky; you can’t ignore it and its colorful, startling resonance leaves you looking for more. Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, that rock trio Green Flash has the name that it does: The band thrusts well-manicured musical ass-kickings seemingly delivered with a slow smile. Edgy. Raw. Intoxicatingly warm. Carly Flies churns out both heavily distorted electric guitar riffs and patient, clean fingerpicking embedded with drummer Peter Wallner’s hard-driving beats—with each citing Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine as influences. Then there’s bassist Raya Heffernan, who pilots the melodies and dramatic swagger with unrestrained, piercing vocals that wrap the artful package together like a shiny bow. The band, which started as a duo last year and solidified with Wallner in April, already has buzz around it and plays Thursday, Oct. 22 with Kurt Vile & The Violators.
While a plentiful number of folks in the vicinity have fond memories of following one Jerry Garcia from gig to gig, Markus Puhvel joined quite a different frontman on a tour bus traversing quite a different country. Call him a Fabréhead, if you will, Puhvel spent the most formative of his musical education learning from Cuba’s iconic songwriter and tres player, Cándido Fabré. When Puhvel entered Cuba in 2001 he was a standard guitarist, when he left two years later (after his spontaneous travels alongside Fabré, a “fountain of inspiration”), he was a veritable addict of the tres guitar—and the distinctly bright, joyous sounds of its three pairs of metal strings are now the backbone to his Cuban son band, Bailongo. “I was absolutely transformed by Cuba,” Puhvel says. “I came back and have been playing Cuban music ever since.” With “bailongo” meaning “community dance party,” the six-piece he established two years ago is currently garnering a reputation for one dynamic call-and-response live show that makes the separation between stage and dance floor virtually seamless. Audience and band coalesce as each lights the other’s fire, and a flamboyant, uplifting spirit pervades for an unfailing pick-me-up. “It’s music built for audience participation,” Puhvel says of the band’s set of son standards and original fusion tunes. Polyrhythmic grooves take flight by way of congas, bongos, bass, maracas, clave and … saxophone? Yep. Saxophonist and singer Joe Mancino’s jazz-educated approach on brass replaces the traditional son set-up of trumpet or flute. That bebop-meets-Cuba blend adds to Bailongo’s ability to shift between time-honored Latin folk and jazz sensibilities. “We’re rooted in Cuban traditions,” Puhvel begins, “but taking it different places.” This week’s show at the Cayuga Vault is truly a peek into the closed-off world of Cuba: salsa lessons precede the concert, and a DJ spinning strictly Cuban tunes will fill in the gaps between sets.
From backyard band to Santa Cruz bar stars, Sourgrass brings on the funk
Sourgrass has come a long way for a band that considered naming itself “Chocolate Subways and Marshmallow Overcoats.” In fact, they’ve come a long way since this time last year, when they were playing funk- and blues-fueled rock shows in backyards and garages. “This year is when we were really indoctrinated into the Santa Cruz music society, so to speak, because before this year we were just a whiskey band that played parties,” explains drummer Drew Cirincione.