Wednesday, November 28, 2007

At the Corner of Ruin and Grace

When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I was struck by how pretty everything looks all the time, too pretty for my east coast blue collar blood. 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 four-dollar coffees or five-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-songwriters 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.

A couple weekends ago, a great example of grit in paradise came to Hell. Eliza Gilkyson was born in Hollywood to folk-singing DAR cultural elite, but she must have used her silverish spoon to feed on large doses of unrefined life. Her songs celebrate a scar-studded, mistake-wizened, regret-free history of seeking truth, heat, and marrow from the acid Sixties through the current era of consumerist delusions. Tall, thin, and still attractively hip, she wears a guitar as naturally as any grizzled rocker. Her voice reaches the ache of longing as readily as it belts Bush-bashing blues. ("I'm from Texas," she said in the intro to 'Man of God,' "and we're still missing our village idiot.")

The grittiest thing about her is that she keeps improving as a songwriter and performer even as she pushes 60. Five or six years ago she warmed up the audience in Hell, a performance memorable mostly for her stand-up comedy between likable songs. A headliner this time, Gilkyson's hit her confident stride. She regaled us plenty with her wit, but settled in the second half of her set into moving us with her artistry, her songwriting, her lyrics. I was especially impressed by glimpses of what I think are unreleased songs, including the great line for locating grit, at "the corner of ruin and grace."


George said...

If you have the opportunity to go look for grit, you're already romanticizing it.

Queen Whackamole said...

We're so clean and green in Santa Barbara that even the complaints get recycled!

What this town needs is less couture, and more poker.

George said...

Ah, an auto-plagiarizer! Moved by his own hand, as it were.

Trekking Left said...

Nice post, Patrick.

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