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.
Sourgrass shows are undeniably still parties, just bigger and at official venues, and still involve a good deal of whiskey, both as a recurring theme in their songs and as the band’s favorite inebriant. But, their aforementioned “indoctrination” has certainly made 2008 a busy year for the boys. And what better way to wrap up the whirlwind than with a New Year’s Eve show at their favorite venue, Moe’s Alley.
Seated at a candle-lit table, pints of a winter brew in hand, the band reminisces over the chain of events that brought them to this point. The catapult from backyard jam sessions to selling out local venues has been just the latest chapter in the group’s long-running friendships; Cirincione, frontman Jay Palmer and bassist Eric Ressler have been friends since middle school in Los Angeles. And although the guys have “always played tunes together,” the seed of the Sourgrass snowball really started when Cirincione met guitarist Conor Spicer and former bassist Scott Kennedy in the forest-wrapped dorms of UC Santa Cruz. The three were jamming regularly by the end of their freshman year, and playing parties soon after. As Cirincione remembers it, the trio would play for hours as background music to college debauchery. Palmer soon joined in the fun, adding soulful, reggae-tinged freestyles over the music.
“We were playing in backyards and in our rooms and garages, drinking too much wine and whiskey, and having fun. All the sudden it just happened,” says Palmer. “I can’t even remember how it went from there to there.” The bewilderment wasn’t entirely because of the booze. Although they put in some of the effort (about 30 percent, according to Ressler, who replaced Kennedy late last year), Sourgrass happened at the will of the people. Their first shows were largely at the recommendation or organization of friends-turned-fans. And their recordings, including the upcoming Mint Condition, were made to please the ever-growing Sourgrass community—a community that, in the past year, has packed venues across Santa Cruz with overflowing amounts of energy and dance, helping the band to sell out Moe’s Alley and set the record at Moe’s and the Crepe Place for most alcohol served and most money made at the bar.
And what began as surf-jam reggae has grown and tightened as much as the fan base that follows it, evolving into an infectious groove of blues, soul, Motown and funk—all set against a backdrop of what the guys call the “true rock” that raised them in the ’90s and the classic rock they tapped into as teens. Listeners can expect a high dose of Sourgrass’ trademark funk and Palmer’s powerful, wailing vocals on Mint Condition, as well as the return of an old favorite, “Summer Saturdays.” The tune, a pop anomaly in the Sourgrass catalog and the audience’s favorite sing-along, is inescapably sweet and infused with simplicity. Spicer’s upbeat guitar repetitions—delicious shots of instant lightheartedness—bob through the song’s powerful imagery and Palmer’s beautiful vocals, which, intentionally or not, twang the song with the genuine sadness of lost love. All of this has crowds continuing to show up to live gigs to feed off the group’s vigorous, sometimes hilarious and always contagious, stage presence.
“We play music in bars, for people,” explains Palmer matter-of-factly. “At our shows, it’s not just about the music. It’s about what happens around the music.” Cirincione nods, adding, “You make friends at Sourgrass shows, you see old friends, you rekindle friendships. And most everyone is friends with us. It’s one big family.”
Sourgrass performs with Wooster at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 31 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12/adv, $15/door. For more information, call 479-1854.