‘It’s been a helluva ride’

CN&R music critic looks back at 20 years of Monday-night concerts in Sierra Nevada’s taproom

Big Mo performs for final Party in the Pub.

Big Mo performs for final Party in the Pub.

Photo By matt siracusa

A major chapter in Chico’s musical history was brought to a close on Monday (May 31) when, after 20 years, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. presented its final Party in the Pub. Sierra Nevada will begin keeping its restaurant and taproom open seven days a week beginning June 7, thus negating the option of presenting music on that night.

The honor of playing the last pub show fell to Paradise blues man Maurice “Big Mo” Huffman, whose seven-piece band (Pat Hilton, trumpet/flugelhorn; Eric Weber, alto/tenor sax; Steve Valine, pedal steel guitar; Terry Smith, keyboards; Dave Matson, bass; and Hal Race, drums) entertained a full house during their two-set, two-hour performance.

The aptly nicknamed Big Mo—in whose hands a guitar looks like a ukulele—and the band, highlighted by his soulful singing and no-sweat approach to his music, effortlessly worked out his original material that incorporates the blues, Southern rock and a whole lot more.

During the band’s performance I couldn’t help thinking about all the other musical presentations in the pub—which opened in October 1989—during the past two decades. Deciding to capitalize on the pub’s being closed on Mondays, the brewery began by serving up an occasional evening of music preceded by a one-course dinner—all for $20. Polish pianist Tadeusz Majewski’s mostly Chopin concert on Labor Day 1990 kicked off what soon became, under then taproom manager Rob Atkinson’s direction, a series of primarily blues-oriented events.

Since the restaurant was also closed on Sunday night, the series soon expanded, on occasion, to two nights in a row (with Monday’s no-dinner tickets going for a mere $10) and got under way the following February when slide whiz Roy Rogers (soon to become a brewery favorite) and his band packed the place both nights. They were followed in April by Bay Area guitarist Chris Cain and his band, which became the pub’s unofficial house band due to its many well-received appearances.

In the beginning it was West Coast musicians who predominated, and that set the pattern for the brewery’s now popular Big Room, which opened in 2000. However, it was the pub’s intimacy that made dancing just inches away from, say, Tommy Castro, so special.

Among the many fond memories I have are when L.A. boogie-woogie pianist Rob Rio invited local slide-guitar ace Ska-T to sit in on a rousing “Greyhound”; Portland’s Paul deLay (who was introduced by a band member as “the man who put the ‘harm’ in harmonica”) blowing up a storm on his chromatic harp; Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo creating so much magic together they were brought back for a third night; and Rod Piazza (of Mighty Flyers fame) walking the bar. Another Portland band, the Lloyd Jones Struggle, wound up putting out a terrific CD (Have MercyLive) that was recorded in the pub.

Just a few CN&R clippings from two decades of pub shows.

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Other West Coasters include Joe Louis Walker; saxophonist Terry Hanck; Little Charlie and the Nightcats; and Ron Thompson, many of whom have since gone on to international prominence (but who started out on Chico’s Palmz stage before landing at the pub).

Local artists weren’t overlooked, and among those who played the pub were The Fabulous Hofner Brothers, alto saxophonist Ylonda Nickell, guitarist Charlie Robinson, the Incredible Diamonds, Steve Cook and the Mother Hips.

Among the nationally known and acclaimed artists who played in the tap room were keyboardist Bill “Honky Tonk” Doggett; Floyd “Hey, Bartender” Dixon (who used some songs recorded at the pub on a CD); L.A. bluesman Phillip Walker; Larry “Texas Flood” Davis; big band vocalist Jimmy Wither-spoon; Roomful of Blues; and, for a Pale Bock release party, Dan Hicks and His Acoustic Warriors, who had the impossible task of trying to be heard over the raucous patrons’ beer-fueled din.

In 1997 Bob Littell took over as pub manager, and he has kept the music rolling in the pub and in the Big Room ever since. One of his most memorable pub shows featured the 16-year-old Corby Yates: “From the very first note, Yates stunned the sold-out crowd with a musical ferocity that caught everyone by complete surprise.” And who can forget Café R&B’s sensational 2004 performance?

When the brewery’s Big Room opened, most of the music was staged in that much larger venue. But I, for one, will miss those often very unforgettable nights in the pub. It’s been a helluva ride.