CAMMIES: Week One
Folk/Acoustic, Blues and Country/Americana nominees
Imagine if the bomb dropped tomorrow and the 2010 CAMMIES crowd was left to rebuild society. Punk and metal nominees would be having too much fun raiding mutant gas supplies to put on generator shows, and everyone else would be too busy drowning their tears over useless electric instruments in irradiated Sierra Nevada reserves. The responsibility of filling the new world with music would fall solely on the shoulders of the lean and unencumbered acoustic/folk crowd.
Sarah Nutting and Karisha Longaker, together known as MaMuse, would not only brighten the darkness with harmonies poetically self-described as “one voice divided,” but also bring a sense of music history. Sparsely accompanied by mandolin, upright bass, guitar and flute and informed by old-time gospel, MaMuse’s music recalls simpler times, and perhaps predicts even simpler times to come. The reigning CAMMIES queens, MaMuse won Best Acoustic/Folk and Best Local Act awards last year.
Also ensuring this brave new world’s musical hierarchy does not become a phallacracy is Erin Lizardo. A musical powerhouse packed behind bangs and breathy vocals that some have pegged the best voice in Chico, Lizardo is the aural manifestation of feminine mystique. She also sings and plays keys for CAMMIE-nominated indie quartet Joybook and dabbles extensively in other media, designing artwork and filming a video for an upcoming EP. The third time may be a charm for Lizardo, who was nominated in this category the past two years.
Not only does Fera have a really bitchin’ nickname for crushing skulls at Thunderdome, he also possesses a knack for crushing hearts with his deceptively quiet, indie-tinged musical ruminations. Fera’s music carries a deep sense of philosophy: “Art, or everything, really, at its core is just creative energy and ultimately part of a greater collective consciousness from which it draws, and that energy is what gives rise to generation-defining creative movements,” he says. Fera is currently working on a sophomore album of solo material and booking a tour of the Northwest.
Michael Lee’s music originates in some similar dreamland, with softly strummed acoustic guitar and low-key, plaintive lyricism. The Napa Valley native rounds out these stark compositions with some occasionally surprising instrumentation (Ooh! A glockenspiel!) This shows a resourcefulness that could come in handy when all the music stores are burnt to the ground, and prompts one to wonder what kind of accompaniment Lee might dream up with empty large-caliber shell casings and stretched animal skins.
As ringleader of the Around Town Collective, whose members and known associates include a slew of other CAMMIES candidates and names of note in the local scene, Zach Zeller has an innate ability to organize like-minded misfits and bring out the best in the people he makes music with, whether he’s sharing the stage or twisting knobs. Doubtless he’ll capitalize on this and form an Around Town Militia that could end up controlling what’s left of the Western United States.
Last but not least, Luke Byron breaks the mellow acoustic-performer mold, opting instead for a more rockin’ approach. It’s likely his occasional backing band—which adds saxophone, bass, keys and drums to his acoustic guitar and harmonica—might lose some amplitude after the big switch is thrown, but the party will go on. Humanity’s earliest efforts at rebuilding will undoubtedly include bars, and Byron’s music should fill them nicely.
The blues doesn’t have quite the same social significance it had back in the early 20th century, but it’s still here, and its current practitioners are just as passionate about what they do. Generations of blues players—Leadbelly, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Susan Tedeschi—have always had one thing in common: feeling—squeezing that note for all it’s worth, whether it’s birthed out of despair or a place of happiness.
“When I see a good musician who plays like he means it I’ll say, ‘Man he’s got the blues,’” says Steve Rubenstein, who fronts three-time CAMMIES nominee Rube & the Rhythm Rockers. “With the blues it’s not just hitting the correct notes, but hitting the notes with feeling so that you affect the audience as well as yourself and band mates. Many of the songs I write are happy, but they’re still blues songs.”
In a year that saw the passing of harp-master Norton Buffalo, the local blues community has become even tighter, while it maintains its counterculture status in a town where younger, arguably hipper bands tend to dominate the music scene. For nearly 20 years Chico’s Midnight Blues Society has been the safe haven for players with decades of experience and stockpiles of guitar licks to do their thing.
Bawl ’n’ Chain and Sapphire Soul both formed out of those sprawling MBS jam sessions. Son of a preacher man and noted Northern California bluesman Jonathan Arthur fronts Sapphire Soul and has been making saxophone scronk for almost 40 years (the lifelong reggae fan has also spent time in Jamaica, and made a record there in 1985). Of course, many players in the tight-knit blues community have shared a stage at one point or another. Bawl ’n’ Chain is made up of husband-and-wife duo Mike and Kathy Williams, who for the past 15 years have enlisted the skills of some of the area’s best musicians, including Bobby Delgado, Jimmy Barnes and Eric Weber.
Weber also puts in a fair amount of time as trumpeter for the four-time (!) CAMMIE-award winner Big Mo & The Full Moon Band, led of course by the soulful powerhouse guitarist/vocalist Maurice “Big Mo” Huffman.
Amy Searson spent years sitting in with some of her fellow nominees before starting her own project, The Amy Celeste Band, in 2007, writing her own blues numbers as well as taking on some of the classics. As with many of this year’s nominees, Searson began singing in church choirs as a child before diving into old blues records during her formative years. And while she may not share the same plight as some of her forefathers, there are still a few things that give Searson the blues: “Warm beer, overcooked vegetables, my mother-in-law,” she says.
Fair enough. Just keep belting out those notes for all they’re worth.
Music lovers always debate which musicians and songwriters are authentic and which are mere crap, but when it comes to country music, tempers can really flare.
What makes country music good? Structurally, many country songs comprise little more than three chords in a blues pattern superimposed on a waltz beat: a merging of African-American blues with European polkas. The genre probably most associated with patriotism and conservatism actually derives its key elements from the music of slaves and immigrants.
Country music is inclusive; it draws you in, which may be why it’s such great music for dancing and drinking. Country music at its best speaks its mind like a close friend.
The local and outspoken country-music community defines itself by an adherence to traditional styles and covering artists whose most recent hit is decades old. The range of age groups and styles within the local country and Americana scene demonstrates the genre’s versatility and diversity (though there is near consensus among the CAMMIES nominees that “new country” pretty much sucks).
Aubrey Debauchery and the Puke Boots sadly has recently ceased being a working band, but its live shows, filled with sexy rage, riled up the local music scene over the past couple of years—rockers and punkers alike. Led by guitarist and tigress Aubrey Debauchery, the Puke Boots performed country rock from a sassy and strong woman’s perspective of sexual politics blended straight-up with a few shots of whiskey.
Whiskey also plays heavily in the songs of The Cheatin’ Hearts, which performs original honky-tonk tunes about drinking and women as well as kicks the dust off some traditional gems about whiskey and women. Lead singer Felix Thursday often heckles his audience with shouts of “Death to false country!” in between songs where his lilting vocal delivery coats the audience with warmth and sincerity.
Three Fingers Whiskey guitarist Jason Beltz says he plays country and roots rock because “it is steeped in the common experiences of life, and it’s real fun to drink to.” Since starting in 2001, the band is ready to record its third CD this summer.
Crazygrass mashes multiple-instrument talents into a high-energy mix of bluegrass, reggae, funk and Celtic. Over the past two decades Crazygrass has headlined festivals and played with many noted bluegrass artists. Banjo player and bandleader Sid Lewis is a mentor to local young musicians, helping them to play, write and perform music at his Chico School of Rock.
Chico also boasts the jug-less Rock Creek Jug Band, which got its start by playing local open-mic nights and the farmers’ market. The lack of a jug can be excused by the group’s inclusion of a washboard, guitjo, fiddle, standup bass and other old-time acoustic instruments for a sound that combines old blues, folk and country with rock and punk energy.