Taking place in the cultural heart of Santa Rosa, last year’s inaugural Railroad Square Music Festival, presented by the North Bay Hootenanny, was hands down one of 2015’s best days of music in Sonoma County. With two stages of bands belting out folk, rock and country music and wild acts from performance art groups like Circus Maximus, the free-admission and all-ages event perfectly captured the freewheeling, laid back and friendly way most people around here like to live their life.
Now, the Railroad Square Music Festival is in the planning stages for round two, set to take place once again in the historic square on Sunday, June 5, 2016. And the first wave of acts has already been announced.
Slated to appear at this year’s fest are the Easy Leaves, Royal Jelly Jive, the Dixie Giants, the Bootleg Honeys and John Courage; an eclectic blend of traditional country, gypsy jazz, New Orleans jazz, Americana and rock and roll. And that’s only the ones we know about so far. To stayed tuned to the happenings with 2016’s Railroad Square Music Festival, check the website here. To see highlights of last year’s event, click on the video.
It seemed like an improbable dream; organize a music festival in downtown Santa Rosa with multiple stages and a stellar lineup of the Bay Area’s hottest folk and revival acts, and make it free for all to attend. Yet, this year’s inaugural Railroad Square Music Festival was an outstanding success that brought together a friendly, communal and musical vibe that was positive as it was invigorating.
The all-day lineup of bands featured a host of performers who are beloved in the North Bay and beyond with headliners like the Brothers Comatose, T Sisters and the Sam Chase all on hand. I arrived just in time to see Santa Rosa’s own John Courage fronting his blues rock trio the Stone Cold Killers and playing an electrified set of sizzling solos and groovy jams on the Traveling Spectacular Stage, a vaudeville-inspired mobile set up that transforms from a truck into a full-on stage experience.
The main stage, donated by the city of Santa Rosa, saw Santa Cruz’s Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra perform the slowest burning set of the day. The young, but experienced group took traditional rhythms and infused them with a emotional and strained energy for supremely satisfying pay offs. The Old Soul Orchestra will be back in the North Bay on Saturday, June 20, performing at the Big Easy in Petaluma to raise funds for a European tour they have planned in the coming months.
The neighborly feeling at the festival extended from audiences to the bands, with special appearances and pairings; such as when enchanting singer Sally Haggard jumped in with Frankie Boots and the County Line for a ditty, or when the main stage was packed full of performers at the close of the show. The Brothers Comatose held crowds captive with their fast fiddling and multi-part harmonies, and many attendees stayed past the 7pm end time to contribute to an ebullient sidewalk chalk jamboree.
The Festival’s ultimate success was due to the tireless work of the North Bay Hootenanny’s Josh Windmiller and an army of volunteer staff who made the whole thing a smooth and easy experience. Food and drink lines moved quickly (even as 32 kegs of Lagunitas beer sold out in the early evening), kids and families hung out in the shade of the Big Tree kids area, and Wilson Street turned into an art walk with live art sessions by Luddart artists and wares from local vendors. Kudos to all involved. Here’s hoping the Railroad Square Music Festival returns next summer. If you’d like to contribute to the local music scene and events like this, you can donate to the North Bay Hootenanny, a nonprofit group, by clicking here.
At around noon yesterday, Travis Kennedy, owner of Daredevils & Queens, was paid a visit by the Santa Rosa Fire Department and given a stern verbal warning to not host any more gatherings there. No written notice was issued, nor any specific citations made pertaining to emergency exits or capacity—just a heads up that one of their marshals had walked by the other night and noticed a group of people inside. Kennedy had hosted a private birthday party for a friend, with about 50 guests, the week before. Any such afterhours assemblies at Daredevils & Queens, Kennedy was firmly instructed, are against city zoning code.
This, of course, is terrible, terrible news. The successful hair salon that’s also hosted numerous art shows, reunion events and musical performances has grown into an increasingly vibrant and important center on Railroad Square’s cultural map. Every single event I’ve attended there has been well-mannered and safely monitored. Especially because the city has placed such an emphasis on supporting the arts, Kennedy is understandably dismayed that he’s in a position to cancel all his upcoming events—including a May 2 show with Polar Bears, Shuteye Unison and Prizehog.
“The more I thought about it,” he told me today, “the more I can’t see how they could shut us down! I wasn’t charging any money, and it was a good thing all around.”
Kennedy has held events very sporadically—once every two months or so—and has never received any complaints from neighbors or police. He’s never taken a percentage of art sales, and in fact he always, always spends his own money to buy merchandise and support the artists and musicians he willfully opens his salon doors to. Is it really such a crime to broaden your place of business to support the local arts and music community?
Kennedy is looking into finding out how he can work with the city and continue to host events at Daredevils & Queens legitimately, but for now, all events are off.
It was a hella enjoyable night last week at Kate & Coalmine’s Roll Call, thanks largely in part to the very funny and ultimately surreal set played by Lila Cugini (seen here getting clubbed by, uh… a sadomasochistic police officer?).
The Roll Call, a recurring feature on Wednesday nights at the Toad in the Hole Pub in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, operates like a well-organized (and, thanks to the beers on tap, well-oiled) open mic. Performers are booked in advance, but the carefree, anything-goes attitude is the same. Basically, you never know what you’re gonna get; a time-honored concept which can be excruciating when it fails but awesomely surprising when it succeeds.
It worked for Lila, who happened to be celebrating her birthday last Wednesday and had plenty of well-wishers in tow. Lila opened her set by showing off and reading from her latest present, just given to her by a friend outside on the sidewalk: an autographed script of the pilot episode from M*A*S*H.
Then, kicking things off with a tongue-in-cheek ditty called “I Want An Ugly Man,” Lila told a story about copying and pasting the song’s lyrics onto a personal ad on Craigslist, just as an experiment. “And here’s the really terrible thing about dating in Sonoma County,” she related: two hours later, she opened an inbox full of responses from 19 homely, disfigured, fat slobs, all professing their undying, requited love.
Lila plays simple chords and sings simple melodies, and even when she forgets her own lyrics, she’s got a charming, hey-I-could-do-that-too thing going on. Her voice reminds me of a younger Lucinda Williams circa Happy Woman Blues, and her songs—“My Lovin’ Days Are Over,” “She Wants Him Back”—reveal a similar plaintive heartbreak.
But it was the set’s closer that brought the house down.
Last time I saw Lila, oh, about five years ago, she dedicated a cover song—Green Day’s “She”—to her son, Adler. On Wednesday, her cover song of choice had changed considerably: R. Kelly’s “Real Talk.” Totally goddamned hilarious. You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve seen a birthday girl with a voice full of heartbreak, strumming slow chords on an acoustic guitar, singing lines like “I been with you five years and you listenin’ to your motherfuckin’ girlfriends / I don’t know why you fuck with them ol’ jealous, no-man-havin’-ass hoes anyway.”
(P.S.: Throughout the set, North Country bike enthusiast and all-around man-about-town Chris Wells projected weird-ass videos on a screen, and just when the night couldn’t get any stranger, he quickly followed “Real Talk” with a candid clip of Lila, Kate and Dani (all of whom were at the Toad, none of whom knew they had been filmed) sitting around a campfire at a dustbowl hoedown party, singing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers” at the top of their lungs. Awesome.)