Passing the torch at Sierra Nevada’s iconic venue
After nearly two decades spent managing the Sierra Nevada Big Room, Bob Littell is coming full circle. He retired from the brewery on March 9, and now, instead of booking bands, the harmonica wizard has returned to playing in them. During one recent two-week stretch, he had 11 gigs.
Recently interviewed at the Naked Lounge coffeehouse, Littell said all that playing took him back many years, to when he was making his living—what there was of it—as a full-time musician. It didn’t last; he was married and had children, so out of necessity he began working in the restaurant business.
He spent 17 years as general manager of La Hacienda restaurant in Chico before moving to the brewery in 1997, where he managed the Taproom. That included booking bands, a skill he took with him when the Big Room opened in 2000.
For several years, Littell did both jobs, managing the Big Room as well as the Taproom, but it was too much. He’s grateful that brewery owner Ken Grossman was understanding and agreed that the Big Room was enough of a responsibility for one person.
During his tenure there, Littell presented nearly 1,100 shows featuring world-class musicians as well as up-and-coming artists. Among the latter was the now-famous Nickel Creek bluegrass band, whose members were just 15, 16 and 18 years old and virtually unknown when they played the Big Room. Backstage before the show, they were throwing spitballs at each other “like little kids,” Littell recalled. Then they hit the stage and blew everyone away with their prodigious talent.
Among the notable veterans who have played the Big Room are such remarkable musicians as Rodney Crowell, Béla Fleck, the late Richie Havens, Marcia Ball, Ricky Skaggs, Gillian Welch, jazz pianist Cedar Walton and famed folk guitarist Richard Thompson, as well as many others.
Just last week, on April 15, the Big Room featured the Mark O’Connor Band, winner of the 2017 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. It was one of the last shows Littell booked.
Perhaps nobody is as closely associated with Littell and the Big Room as the Australian guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel. Littell first encountered him at the Walnut Valley Festival, in Winfield, Kan. Littell says he was walking through the festival grounds when he heard, off in the distance, an amazing solo-guitar version of several Beatles tunes strung together. He’d never heard anything like it, he says, and went to investigate.
At that point, early in the festival, Emmanuel was playing the smallest of its five stages. Before the four-day event ended, however, he was headlining the main stage.
Littell was amazed by Emmanuel’s brilliance and invited him to play the Big Room, where he packed the house in the first of some 18 well-attended performances there over the years.
Emmanuel was also one of the featured artists on the Sierra Center Stage DVD series recorded in the Big Room for PBS. Series producer Peter Berkow noted in an email that Emmanuel invited Littell to join him on one of the tunes, and “it was so good,” Berkow wrote, “he demanded Bob play on three more.” The songs were completely unrehearsed, but all four ended up on the DVD, “and they are legend among harmonica players all over the country,” Berkow said.
During his tenure, Littell became known—by musicians as well as audiences—for the quality of his shows and their attention to detail. He’s always quick, however, to credit Grossman for building such a superb venue and then giving him free rein to present outstanding shows: blues, R&B, bluegrass, maybe a little zydeco thrown in. Littell says he never asked to sit in with a visiting band, but gradually word got out, and numerous bands invited him to join them on stage, where his stunning harp work made some great bands sound even better.
In fact, he will be joining Rita Hosking and Peter Wilson for a show in the Big Room this Sunday, April 22.
Littell is 70 now, and though he’s in good shape (he hits the gym every day, another perk of retirement), he recognizes that “maybe it’s time for a younger generation to take over.”
Just as he’s gotten older over the years, so has his audience. They’re still filling the room and dancing up a storm, but there’s a lot of gray hair in the crowd.
To Littell’s successor as Big Room manager, Mahina Gannet, who’s just 34, that’s a sign that younger music lovers are an underserved group. She wants to change that, not by decreasing the number of traditionalist shows but rather by adding an equal number of others—indie and alternative rock, especially—that will appeal to younger music lovers.
She has created two distinct brands for the Big Room’s shows: Sierra Nevada Heritage Series and Sierra Nevada Presents. The former will feature the kinds of music Littell presented. “What Bob offered was important to people, so it’s important to me,” she said in a recent interview at a corner table in the Big Room.
Sierra Nevada Presents, on the other hand, will feature bands likely toappeal to a younger crowd. She cites, as an example, the May 20 show by Cults, a New York-based indie-rock duo that she promises will bring “100 percent different music than has ever been seen in this room.”
The Sierra Nevada Presents series will be different in another way: The shows won’t be accompanied by a buffet dinner. The Heritage shows will continue to offer the dinners, but the price has gone up (to $22, but with dessert included), and online reservations are required.
Outdoor shows will be held in the adjacent hop field, where a container bar called the Hop Yard is currently being set up. Gannet said she expects it to be a good venue for local bands to play in (and it will get its first test when the CN&R’s CAMMIES Finale takes place there this Sunday, April 22).
Gannet, who’s from New Jersey originally, began working in the music industry right after graduating from New York University 12 years ago. She was production and tour manager for acts like Eric Clapton, Neko Case and Death Cab for Cutie and spent a lot of time on the road—too much for someone who is “a bit of a homebody,” she said.
She came to Chico seven years ago—her partner, local musician Trevor Sellers, grew up here—and fell in love with the town. She continued to tour to make ends meet, but her goal was to start her own restaurant. She’s now one of three owners of the downtown eatery Momona.
Gannet’s thrilled to be managing the Big Room, she says. She knows she has big shoes to fill but is confident that she can expand and even improve its offerings by bringing music lovers more options.
Will it work? “We’ll see,” she said.