Monday, January 22, 2007

Paradise Blues

When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I was struck by how pretty everything looks all the time, which left me feeling like I had moved into a dream. It's a very pretty dream, but maybe, at least at first, at least for my east coast blue collar blood, maybe a little too pretty, too dreamy. The line from "Orange Juice Blues" kept haunting me: "I'm tired of everything being beautiful, beautiful." So I went on a mission to find grit in Santa Barbara.

I couldn't find any, at least not Anglo grit. I found sleaze, both working class and upper crust, but that ain't no authentic, dare to do the right thing, unconcerned by dirty finger nails, do the hard work of the world, grit. The closest thing I could find was stylized designer grit, created from the clean pretty drafting tables of clean pretty minds, whose rebellion from stucco walls and red-tile roofs created coffee shops, bars, or restaurants where graduate students and ex-graduate students like me could drink three-dollar coffees or four-dollar beers and feel the authenticity of bared brick and ductwork, pre-distressed furniture, and the atmosphere of antique Coke bottles and old license plates. Had I moved to a new state or a new state of being?

After a year or two in town, a bit slowly, really, I discovered the venerable concert series, Sings Like Hell. Producer Peggy Jones and her hellions have succeeded in introducing grit into the dreamy prettiness of Santa Barbara far better than most, certainly far better than I. Within the beautiful, beautiful Lobero opera house, they stage some of the best musical acts in town, specializing in the graduates of--and those still enrolled in--the school of non-commercial knocks. Heavily flavored by the Austin scene, Sings Like Hell offers singer-songwiters who are more familiar with loud bars a chance to perform for a sit-down audience in an acoustically designed venue. The tag line of the series is "The best music you've never heard," and indeed the best shows not starring Richard Thompson are the ones by unknown surprises. Anyone familiar with Sings Like Hell knows all this.

Last month, for example, Brett Dennen, unknown to me and everyone I know, debuted at Sings Like Hell as the headline act, even though he had been billed as the warm-up. Tall, baby-faced, vaguely androgynous, with a big mop of red hair, he came on stage, plugged in an acoustic guitar with a big peace sticker on it, and made himself comfortable by kicking off his flip-flops and propelling himself around stage with his toes. A distinct "what in hell" buzz went through the crowd. Then the music started, energetic, subtely sophisticated, smartly arranged. Then he started to sing, distinctive voice, raspy and melodic, pouring out passion and remarkably mature for a 26 year old lyrics about struggling for love and peace and meaning in our consumer culture. Singing like Hell in the Lobero. Grit in paradise. We loved it.


Noelle Aguayo said...

Grit in SB on stage at the Lobero--I wouldn't have made the connection, yet I instantly understand when I read your entry. Raw, unpackaged untainted by corporate think tanks. Something left unexplained (and not as an intentional device) like stepping past the concept of boredom and discovering the creativity all around you and within you--without someone doing it for you. ahh.

kcmchughiastate said...

It is strange to hear you comment on the lack of grit in SB, since it is the very issue(sort of) that I discussed in my very last paper. It was definately the lack of grit, among other things, that freaked me out most about SB. I finally discovered your blog, and am now planning on checking it often, so write often.

Anonymous said...

Hey, anybody home?

You can get mighty hungry sitting around waiting for the next serving at Big Table.

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