A big Pig
Collaborative Blind Pig Records helps put Chico on the map
Chico’s reputation in the music recording industry continues to flourish as big-name blues labels come to town to take advantage of the local facilities and technical talent available here.
The creative concept of PBS’ American roots music series, Sierra Center Stage—top-notch recordings and interviews done at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Big Room—caught the attention of Blind Pig Records owner Edward Chmelewski about a year ago.
Chmelewski had worked with series’ videographer-in-charge, Peter Berkow, on blues singer-guitarist Deborah Coleman’s 2002 album Soul Be It!. He had also recorded at the Big Room, and had known Berkow from his days as a working journalist (Berkow still teaches journalism at Shasta College).
“Peter had been on our mailing list for years because he’d been a journalist,” Chmelewski said from his San Francisco office.
He said one thing led to another—the Coleman recording, the discussion of what was happening with Sierra Center Stage—and because of Chmelewski’s confidence in Berkow, a new series was born. The Blind Pig blues series of CD and DVD recordings were made at the Big Room by Berkow and his team, including recording engineer Dale Price and multimedia designer Jeff Daub.
“The first guy [in the series] was Magic Slim, one of the last guys standing of the Chicago blues style,” Chmelewski explained, referring to Slim’s August 2005 CD and DVD, Anything Can Happen, which were recorded live at the Big Room. “We were documenting his art, his historical significance. He’s a terrific live act.”
In October Blind Pig released its two latest Big Room blues recordings—both DVDs—Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers’ Big Blues Party, and Tommy Castro’s Whole Lotta Soul.
Chmelewski said when he was contacted by Castro’s people to do a recording of one of his live shows, he suggested, “Why don’t you do it up in Chico? They have state-of-the-art sound, great acoustics, great sight lines. … I talked them into filming at Sierra Nevada.” And, of course, the production team used was Berkow’s.
Based on the connection between the local folks—Berkow, Price, Daub and Big Room emcee-promoter-manager Bob Littell—and blues labels Alligator and Blind Pig, it’s evident that Chico is becoming significant on the national and international musical map.
Back in May 2004, the hubbub was all about the new Sierra Center Stage series, which is similar to the long-running Austin City Limits. The local production was poised to put Chico and the Big Room into the national spotlight. Sierra Center Stage‘s four PBS pilot programs featured award-winning musicians Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings, Strunz & Farah, The Ford Brothers Band and Aussie guitar phenomenon Tommy Emmanuel, thoughtfully selected by Littell, engineered by Price and filmed for TV by Berkow, his wife and business partner Anita, and their crew.
Price, who runs Electric Canyon Studios and ProSound Audio Services in Butte Creek Canyon, has chalked up an impressive body of work including the aforementioned Coleman CD, the Sierra Center Stage series and Huey Lewis & the News’ Rhino Records CD and DVD, Live at 25. Following the start-up of Sierra Center Stage, Rhino—a division of Warner—jumped onto the Big Room bandwagon and recorded Lewis in December 2004.
Price also has his hands in the current Blind Pig Big Room CD/DVD series as well as the CDs of many local bands like bluegrassers Mossy Creek and the recently signed reggae-based Mystic Roots.
Daub, the multimedia designer with a bachelor’s degree in recording arts, did all of the Blind Pig series DVD authoring, which, according to Berkow, is ‘the complex coordination of audio, video and graphics that allows you to negotiate the menus with your remote control.”
Berkow noted other local talents, including cameraman Bill DeBlonk, lighting pros Alex Belden and Bob Tolar, and former Big Room audio engineer Sloan Tash, who’ve helped put the series together.
The success of Sierra Center Stage has set up a 2006 season featuring the Big Room shows of Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, Chicago rock-and-soul nonet Sonia Dada, “bayou queen” blues singer-pianist Marcia Ball and Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark.
“Peter has been a great connection and a great friend to the label,” said Chmelewski, who recognizes the project for what it means.
“Let’s face it, this kind of non-popular, non-top-40 music, what we call ‘American roots music'—we’re locked out of the mainstream. No MTV, no VH-1, no commercial radio. What is happening with Sierra Center Stage provides artists that are not mainstream with television exposure. They run a first-class operation, they’re committed to the music. It’s a good relationship for both of us, which we hope to continue.”
Even without the backing from hip markets, Blind Pig Records has been able to cater to a national audience.
“People are coming to us now,” said Price, the recording engineer. “We’re at a level where Blind Pig records an album [at the Big Room] and then Alligator, their competitor, comes to us and says, ‘Can you do that for us?'”
That’s how Marcia Ball’s Grammy-nominated album Live! Down the Road came to be. The record, nominated for a Grammy in December, was recorded at the Big Room by Berkow and his crew.
“This entire town benefits from [brewery owner] Ken Grossman and his support of music,” said the ever-enthusiastic Berkow. “And it’s spreading to the entire country.”