Sounds like Chico, only bigger
Uncle Dad’s Art Collective gives local songwriters the big-band, Big Room treatment
“It’s like a little present that I’ve been waiting to open.”
That was Aric Jeffries, singer/keyboardist for local indie-pop trio Solar Estates, as he waited to be called to join the Uncle Dad Orchestra to sing his song “Repetition” during a rehearsal last Sunday at the 1078 Gallery. Jeffries is one of 20 local songwriters whose songs were selected by the local fun-makers of the Uncle Dad’s Art Collective to be performed as part of their Small Town, Big Sound showcase at the Sierra Nevada Big Room (Sunday, July 12). And just as with the rest of those chosen (songwriters were also invited to sing with the orchestra), Jeffries had no idea what had been done with his song until he was standing at the mic in front of the big band.
And what the orchestra did with the song Jeffries originally wrote as one of Solar Estates’ all-electronic tracks was make it, well, really big, with bass, cello and violin highlighting the original rhythm; French horn, two saxes and trombone playing with the melodies; and a trio of female vocalists adding backup harmonies. The songwriter smiled as the last notes drew out, and afterward said that he went into the project completely open to anything and was very pleased with the results.
“It turned out beautifully, and I feel excited by it,” he said. “It’s a compliment that they wanted to play my song in the first place, so it feels even better to hear that they did such a nice job with their rendition.”
This was the last practice before the Big Room show this weekend, and the last six of the 20 songwriters were getting their time with the band, which includes a keyboard/guitar/bass/drum quartet (made up mostly of local jazz band Bogg), a four-piece horn section, three-piece string section and three backup vocalists. More than 80 songs were submitted by 65 different songwriters for the show, and the finalists represent a wide range of Chico players—from rapper Himp C and folksinger Kyle Williams to musical-playwright Marcel Daguerre and bluesman Big Mo.
Though he was being pulled in several directions at once, keyboardist and Uncle Dad’s co-founder Josh Hegg seemed his usual mellow self as he calmly directed the musical proceedings. “I’ve been eating and sleeping the show for a month,” he said during a break.
Hegg said he and the collective came up with the format after he had a conversation with Big Room promoter Bob Littell who suggested that Uncle Dad’s do a show at the venue. “The show was built around the concept of wanting to do a show at the Big Room. It needed to be very Chico-minded, which was sweet, because that is where our heart is.
“It’s been a crazy one. This one takes the cake,” he added. “It’s been a labor of love project, but super fun, [and] the artistic product is incredible. I’m really happy with it.”
Arguably, the most difficult work had taken place weeks earlier, before the musicians were hired to join the band, when Hegg, guitarist/drummer Michael Bone, drummer Madison DeSantis and bassist Alex Montes de Oca (who is not performing for the show) wrote arrangements for all the instruments. Each song took about four hours to arrange and chart, Hegg said, with the whole process lasting about 2 1/2 weeks. “It’s like musical weight-lifting,” he said, adding that the bulk of the arranging was handled by Bone.
“[This is a] chance to do something at the Big Room that is original, [and] more work than we are comfortable with,” added Bone. “I always wanted to hear my own songs with a big band, and I assume most people never thought they’d be able to. It’s just exciting.”
Small Town, Big Sound is the latest, and arguably most ambitious, of the evolving series of community-centered productions that the busy Uncle Dad’s Art Collective has staged—e.g., the live Purple Rain and Led Zeppelin IV recreations, and the group’s many original, multidiscipline musical-theater productions (The Loveseat Diaries, Everybody in Outer Space shows, etc.). All of them feature the core group collaborating with an expanding cast of local musicians and artists. “[We’re] always trying to stretch our limits and grow,” said Bone.
And with this big and very Chico production taking place at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room, Uncle Dad’s appears to be experiencing a very noticeable growth spurt.