This past weekend, April 15-17, some 28 bands and hundreds of fans came together for Sonoma County’s inaugural Next Level Showcase and Conference, with two days of music and a daylong seminar covering the business of creativity all aimed at helping local musicians get the information and assistance they need to take their music to, well, the next level.
Organized by the folks at Creative Sonoma (a program under Sonoma County’s economic development board) as well as the North Bay Hootenanny and Second Octave (both local promoters and event producers), the Friday and Saturday showcase took place at Arlene Francis Center next to Railroad Square, and the Sunday conference commenced down the block at Chop’s Teen Center.
In short, the two-day showcase was a fun-filled inspiration to anyone who’s a fan of North Bay bands, with a variety of genres and styles on display. Friday featured several folk acts alongside indie rockers. The crowd cheered along with harmonious groups like Rainbow Girls and emotionally-resonating rockers like Manzanita Falls.
Pop band Lungs and Limbs got a dance party going in the classroom stage, one of three performance spaces that featured bands, and the eclectic Oddjob Ensemble closed out Friday with a fantastic performance that included horns and accordions a plenty.
Saturday was a decidedly louder affair, what with experimental noise rock outfit Antiphony blasting the small saloon stage to pieces as the evening’s opening act.
Other spirited Sonoma County bands, like the quirky and solid Secret Cat, reminded the crowds that you can be both silly and sensational, and several San Francisco acts showed up as well, like Travis Hayes & the Young Daze, who were joined onstage by Petaluma singer Emily Whitehurst of Tsunami Bomb and Survival Guide fame.
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.
Nomo – Invisible Cities: Dean played this for me on the way home from seeing Ornette Coleman in San Francisco, and it was one of those moments when everything made sense. Nomo take the Fela Kuti thing many steps further than most of Fela’s acolytes who frustratingly seem stuck in tribute mode, and use a funk-based template for exciting arrangements. A thoroughly enjoyable Moondog cover, “Bumbo,” is everything good about this group: thumb pianos, a steady groove, and a horn section that stretches out and snaps back like elastic.
Neurosis – Times of Grace: I swore off Neurosis in 1993 with Enemy of the Sun, and even slept through one of their shows at Gilman around the same time. It takes love to retract such shunning, and upon reconsideration, Enemy of the Sun, though no Souls at Zero, is a fine album. Better yet is this 1999 Steve Albini-produced record, which does away with the tribal drumming and whatever weird effect Dave Ed used to have on his bass, and sticks to the true live sound of a band unafraid to mentally fornicate with the dark side.
Girls – Album: I allowed myself to be hoodwinked into this crap by Rob, who stated thus: “It’s like early, angry Elvis Costello backed by some cheesy ’60s LA pop band. It sounds about as unhip as possible, yet it totally rules. I love it when someone does something so well, you just can’t deny it – even if it seems like the wrong thing at the wrong time.” I trusted him until yesterday, when upon the fifth listening I just got sick of it and took it off. People are into its simple songs, with melodies and choruses, because that stuff hasn’t been popular for a while. That doesn’t make it good.
Up Tight! – Soundtrack: Jules Dassin is famous for The Naked City and Never on Sunday, but I’ve gotta say, there’s nothing like Rififi, which I saw once at the Rialto while Tom Waits sat behind me. The local angle on Dassin gets deeper when you factor in Thieves’ Highway, partially filmed in rural Sebastopol and which features the most gripping tire-changing scene in the history of cinema. This film, written, produced and directed by Dassin, has never been available on VHS or DVD. I’m dying to see it. Booker T. & the MGs play a soulful score, with an interesting re-recording of “Time is Tight.”
Not to Reason Why – Would You Hug Fire?: I’ve heard that the title was suggested by a developmentally disabled person, so cut it some slack. I’ll write more about the amazing packaging later, for the paper, but for now just know that it’s finally out. It’s been an exciting few years watching this band get better and better, and everything good about them comes together on this album. It used to be easy to lump them in with Explosions in the Sky but that’s no longer appropriate, especially with the strings and horns on this densely produced outing.
Elvin Jones / Jimmy Garrison Sextet – Illumination!: The last time Elvin Jones played at Yoshi’s, he was accompanied by an oxygen tank. Played up until the end. When I talked to John Handy, he echoed a story going around—even told by Ted Curson (scroll to “July 21st”)—that Elvin Jones once pulled a gun on Charles Mingus. This record is essentially Coltrane’s Impulse quartet without Coltrane, plus clarinet, flute, English horn and baritone sax. On it, Elvin plays remarkably. This is a good time to let you know that McCoy Tyner is playing at Yoshi’s on New Year’s Eve and surrounding dates, with Esperanza Spalding, Francisco Mela and Ravi Coltrane. Go.
Richard Harris – Slides: So I guess there was this thing going on for a while in the 1970s where it was okay to be unemployed and wasted all day as long as you gave off the vibe that love and nature were the most important things in the world. Rod McKuen, embroidered denim shirts, EST, all that kinda Sausalito-y post-cocaine stuff. It really has been 37 years since this album came out. Harris is sometimes atrocious in the best way and sometimes great in the most atrocious way, and telling which from which depends on your mood / glasses of wine you’ve had. I appreciate the challenge.
D’Angelo – Voodoo: You ever see a vat of tar on those asphalt trucks that smell? I know you’ve smelled it, but if you look up close, it’s incredible to see. Huge, round bubbles that slowly rise to the surface and dissipate rather than pop. That’s what this record is like: steamy, yet incapable of a rolling boil. It took me years to realize that it was more than rhythm and blurts. Perhaps I gravitate to the chicken on the back cover, and the fact that it is most likely about to be killed. A sleeper-wave album.
Superchunk – No Pocky for Kitty: In 1993, I thought for sure I had to be the only person listening to this album everyday twice. As such, like a Superchunk ambassador, I told everyone about it. When I met Kid Dynamo, and they had heard of this album, I freaked. The new book about Merge Records called Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records is excellent, and is a good reminder of the days when indie rock had no internet presence. I love being blown away when someone else has heard of some wonderful discovery. It happens more infrequently these days.
Reggie Workman – The Works of Workman: When one thinks of exemplary double-bass albums, one often thinks of Dragonetti Lives!, a wonderful 1975 recording on John Fahey’s Takoma label by Bertram Turetzky. (Listen to some of it here.) Turetzky plays with a lone piano backing, but on The Works of Workman it’s just the master bassist, his bulbous tone, and some fantastic Japanese engineering. Workman throws in a little bit of his dominant bass line from Olé Coltrane here, and weaves through compositions by Paul Chambers, Duke Ellington, Stanley Cowell and Luiz Bonfa. Recommended.