‘Stage’ presence

Sierra Nevada’s long-awaited TV music series is about to debut. It looks exciting. Now the question is: Just how big will it become?

SCENES FROM SCS<br>Tommy Emmanuel beams with excitement as Bob Littell riffs on “Nine Pound Hammer”

Tommy Emmanuel beams with excitement as Bob Littell riffs on “Nine Pound Hammer”

By Tom Angel

Give Bob Littell props for courage. It takes a lot of guts, even for a seasoned harmonica player, to climb up on stage and perform a duet with Australian guitar ace Tommy Emmanuel.

Littell, who hosts the new, much-anticipated public-television music series Sierra Center Stage, recorded at the Sierra Nevada Big Room and set to debut locally on Friday, May 14, at 9 p.m. on KIXE Channel 9, did just that, and he has proof: It’s recorded for all time as part of the series.

If you haven’t seen Tommy Emmanuel perform, there’s something you need to know to appreciate what Littell did: Emmanuel is a finger-picking monster of a player. He’s huge. He can make a six-string guitar sound like a symphony orchestra and can hold an audience spellbound for hours, all by himself. There’s nobody like him.

Littell first saw Emmanuel perform at a guitar festival in Winfield, Kan., near Wichita. The Aussie was unknown in this country then, and his performance was buried way down on the list, “like No. 40,” Littell says. But he absolutely stole the festival. Littell, who books the music at Sierra Nevada, knew immediately that he wanted him to perform in Chico.

So when Emmanuel, who’d heard Littell was a “fabulous” harp player, turned to him during a Big Room sound check and asked, “Well, ya want to play a couple of tunes with me?” Littell was flabbergasted: “You could have knocked me over with a feather. Needless to say, I said yes.”

Their “total rehearsal,” he adds, “consisted of deciding we’d play something bouncy in G.”

One of those tunes was the traditional folk-blues classic “Nine Pound Hammer.” There’s a terrific scene on the recording of it when Emmanuel, after trading a few licks with Littell, looks over at the harpist with a surprised and delighted expression that says it all: Whoa, this guy can play!

Those who were in the audience that evening, myself included, remember it as a perfect Chico event: A local musician goes head-to-head with an international phenom and holds his own. For his courage and, yes, fabulous chops, Littell got to enjoy “a magical moment in my musical life,” as he describes it, and what had to have been one of the biggest rounds of applause of his life.

In some ways their “magical” duet is typical of the series, which is scheduled to be released to public-television affiliates in June and conceivably could put Chico on the map just as much as Sierra Nevada beers and ales have done. While the four completed shows feature a wide range of musical styles, and the artists come from near and far, the series is also very much a homegrown product, made in Chico by Chicoans with the same skill and attention to detail that go into Sierra Nevada’s products.

Master slide guitarist Roy Rogers

Courtesy Of Peter Berkow

This isn’t a mega-production like, say, the 27-year-old Austin City Limits; there wasn’t money for that. But its technical values are remarkably high, and more important it has an energy, a musical spirit, if you will, that Chico viewers will recognize immediately as authentic.

Not only that, there’s a good chance they’ll see some of their friends and neighbors when they watch the shows. The cameras often pan around the room and over the dancers bobbing up and down below the stage. If all goes as hoped and the series is successful enough to warrant continuing it beyond four shows, audiences around the country and, perhaps eventually, Europe will be watching Chicoans having a great time listening and dancing to some marvelous American music.

The idea for a TV music series first bubbled up several years ago, when work began on what is now called the Big Room, the brewery’s elegant, state-of-the-art concert and special-events venue.

Ken Grossman, co-founder and now sole owner of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., says he thinks the idea originated with Steve Harrison, his sales and marketing manager. In any event, Grossman liked the idea, and from that seed a series, or at least the beginnings of one, has now grown.

Today Grossman is sitting behind a hardwood desk in his large office on the second floor of the brewery. Behind him an expansive floor-to-ceiling window looks out on the trees lining the parking lot. As usual, he’s dressed casually, in polo shirt and khaki trousers, which is pretty much the house uniform for men at Sierra Nevada. His beard, which archival photos on the brewery’s Web site show he’s worn since he started the company in 1981, is neatly trimmed and flecked with gray.

We’re soon joined by Littell, the general manager of the Taproom and Restaurant and the Big Room, who’s similarly attired. Both men are in the neighborhood of 50 years old, and both are trim and fit looking. In fact, as the brewery’s Web site notes, it got its name because Grossman is an avid backpacker and named it after his favorite hiking grounds.

Grossman has always been a businessman who relies on intuition as much as bottom-line savvy. He started making beer because he loved doing so, and the rest somehow followed. If he has a maxim, it’s that quality sells. He doesn’t advertise, and yet Sierra Nevada has become the ninth-largest brewing company in the United States and the acknowledged leader among craft brewers.

He’s also a man who enjoys music, “all styles of music,” he says. He’s been drawing quality entertainers to Chico since he opened the Taproom and Restaurant in 1989, when he moved the growing company from its original location on East Park Avenue to a newly constructed brewery on East 20th Street. Then, with the expansion of the new brewery in the late-1990s and construction of the Big Room, and with the arrival of Littell as the booking expert as well as the Taproom manager, both the number and quality of acts increased.

Since it opened in 2000, the facility has featured nearly 100 shows, from the instantly recognizable—blues giant James Cotton, the Elvin Bishop Band, Gillian Welch, David Grisman, jazz great Cedar Walton—to such up-and-coming groups as Capercaillie, blues man Eric Bibb and the Derek Trucks Band.

The Big Room has never been profitable for Sierra Nevada, nor has it tried to be. Indeed, shows are booked only on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights because Grossman doesn’t want to compete with other local live-music venues that serve his products and depend on weekend crowds.

Jorge Strunz of Strunz & Farah

Compiled By Peter Berkow

It’s a good thing he’s the sole owner of his company, he says. “I don’t have to make things pencil out to the penny in order to do it,” he explains. “If I had a typical board-of-directors structure, they wouldn’t want me to [construct a Big Room]. It would be impossible to justify.”

The same is true of the TV series. “It’s never going to be a money-making thing,” he acknowledges. But he’s happy to do it, at least so far, and he’s confident that it will bolster Sierra Nevada’s already strong positive image among beer lovers.

So far he’s spent upward of $100,000 on the series, which seems like a lot but really isn’t, given the quality of the four shows done so far. Austin City Limits spends several times that amount on one segment.

The key to being able to do the shows so cheaply was hooking up with Peter and Anita Berkow, a husband-and-wife Chico-based video production team that brought just the right ingredients to the mix, including Peter’s extensive experience as a musician as well as a videographer of music groups.

“The musical connections in this town run deep,” Littell explains. “Peter is someone who had a track record plus the kind of in-place connections a project like this needed.”

He had cameras, he had equipment, he had knowledge, Grossman adds. “He made the cost tolerable.”

Peter Berkow tells a revealing story about how he got into the video production business.

It was the early 1990s, and he was teaching journalism at Shasta College in Redding, as he still does. His master’s thesis at Chico State University had been on using telecourses to teach news writing, and he decided to go further with the idea. He made a proposal to the Annenberg Foundation, which has bankrolled many such series for airing on public television stations.

For a year and a half the proposal sat on a shelf somewhere. Then one day, “out of the blue,” he got a call from Annenberg. We’ve got a little extra money, the foundation rep told him. “Do you think you could pull it off for $70,000?”

Berkow wisely didn’t reveal that he had no cameras or other equipment, no crew and no studio. Instead he said yes, and he and Anita re-mortgaged their house to buy what they needed.

Bob Littell and Tommy Emmanuel celebrating after their duet

Courtesy Of Peter Berkow

Their idea was to interview a wide range of working journalists, getting them to reveal the secrets of their trade, and then edit the interviews into 15 half-hour segments covering such topics as “Dealing with Sources,” “Media Law” and “Beat Reporting.” Berkow decided to aim for the top right off. One of the first people he called was Bob Woodward, of All the President’s Men and Watergate fame, perhaps the most widely known print journalist in the country.

He had no trouble getting through to Woodward’s secretary at the Washington Post, but she wouldn’t pass on his call. So he tried an old journalist’s trick he’d learned a few years before while working for the Chico Enterprise-Record as editor of its short-lived tabloid Off the Record. He dialed an extension number one digit higher than the secretary’s. Nothing happened. Then he dialed an extension one digit lower than hers. To his surprise, a voice answered: “Bob Woodward.”

Berkow laughs as he tells the story. We’re talking over coffee at the Upper Crust bakery and restaurant in downtown Chico, and this tale has him even more animated than usual. His enthusiasm for his projects can be contagious.

"'How’d you get my number?’ Woodward asked, so I told him. It was a trick he could appreciate. Then I told him what we wanted to do. He was hesitant at first, but then he said, ‘Well, if you’re willing to fly out to Washington, D.C., I’ll do it.'”

Once they’d roped in Woodward, Berkow says, “everyone else fell in line.” He and Anita went on to interview dozens of such luminaries as Charles Kuralt, Andy Rooney, Roger Ebert, Dave Barry—even Helen Thomas, the doyenne of White House reporters, whom they recorded right in the White House.

“All of them were expecting some huge crew to show up, so they were always surprised when it was just Anita and I with one camera,” Berkow says. “Fortunately, everybody took an immediate liking to Anita.”

It’s not hard to see why. She’s a warm woman with a big smile who connects easily with people on a personal level, a mellowing balance for Peter’s Type-A drive. Together they’ve become a skilled team, Berkow & Berkow, with Anita handling videography and editing while Peter conducts the interviews, assists with editing and serves as executive producer. He also writes and narrates the programs. Their summers are spent traveling, gathering material for their series. They completed News Writing in 1995 and went on to do another series, a 26-parter titled English Composition: Writing for an Audience, that appeared in 2001.

When Peter says he first heard that Sierra Nevada was considering a public-television series, he knew immediately that he wanted to be involved and had the experience and skills to bring it off.

For one thing, the new series was to be about music, and Berkow had been a fixture in the Chico music scene earlier in his life here. Back in the early-'80s he headed up a popular jazz band, Peter Berkow & Friends, and he also performed regularly in a folk duo with Gordy Ohliger, the self-dubbed “banjo-ologist” who has since carved out a successful career as a traveling entertainer and music educator.

Berkow had long been a technophile as well. Early on he’d set up a recording studio in his home. That’s when he first became interested in video, producing a series of public-access-television shows featuring local bands and shot at the old Cabo’s nightclub on Oroville Avenue.

Tommy Emmanuel

Courtesy Of Peter Berkow

The Sierra Nevada series would bring him back to his musical roots, he realized, after years of focusing mostly on journalism, teaching and video production. It was an exciting prospect for him.

He first met “four or five years ago” with Grossman and Littell in the space that was to become the Big Room, though at the time it was still in the cinderblocks stage of construction. Grossman, who had once considered approaching KIXE to do the series, immediately saw the wisdom of hiring the Berkows.

“It was a leap of faith for Ken to trust that I could pull it off,” Peter now says. “But quite honestly, the PBS stations simply don’t have the creativity or skill to do something like this.”

As producer, it was Berkow’s job to line up the technical crews for recording, both sound and visuals. Bob Tolar, of Tolar Sounds, was already on board as the Big Room’s sound man. Berkow chose Dale Price, owner of Pro Sound Audio, to do the sound recording. Price, he says, has long been acknowledged by musicians as “a great tracking master.” He had the ability to do top-quality recording good enough for eventual broadcasting in surround sound.

The Berkows knew that their two Panasonic digital cameras were far from sufficient, that they’d need more to do the job right. Grossman purchased another, and Peter was able to talk the Panasonic company, for whom he’d once done an advertising testimonial, to lend him five more cameras. The company even sent a technician to Chico, at no cost, to make sure the cameras were aligned correctly.

Berkow also talked Grossman into renting an 18-foot camera jib that could swoop out over the audience. It would give the shows more movement and was worth the cost, he insisted.

Meanwhile, Littell was busy lining up acts for the first four shows. Eventually the group settled on four, including Emmanuel. The others would be the master slide guitarist Roy Rogers and his band the Delta Rhythm Kings; a one-of-a-kind reunion performance by the legendary Ford brothers, Robben, Mark and Pat, the pride and joy of Ukiah, Calif.; and Strunz & Farah, a Latin/world-beat group known, especially among musicians, for the outstanding fretwork of its two guitarist leaders.

Grossman and Littell were determined to make the series as worthwhile for the artists as they could. The contracts they drew up not only gave them the gate money from their shows, but also allowed them to use the recordings and video at cost plus a small percentage of profits if they chose to make their own CDs or DVDs from the performances.

The performances took place over a period of about a year, mostly in 2001. Two of the shows, Roy Rogers and Tommy Emmanuel, are compilations of material shot during two concerts.

Littell went with Roy Rogers first for a couple of reasons. Rogers had played the Taproom several times, for one, and Littell knew him well. He’s also an underexposed master of slide guitar, the most expressive form of blues guitar. He played with John Lee Hooker for years, produced the great blues man’s albums The Healer and Mr. Lucky, and has played with Bonnie Raitt many times. Littell, Berkow and Grossman all agreed that more people should have the opportunity to learn just how brilliant a performer he is.

Ardeshir Farah and Jorge Strunz

Courtesy Of Peter Berkow

Joining him for those first two concerts were world-class keyboardist Phil Aaberg, the great fiddle player Tom Rigney, vocalist Shana Morrison (daughter of Van), and Rogers’ old friend and frequent playing partner, the legendary harpist Norton Buffalo. Both shows were bound to be exciting, and they were. Rogers was in peak form, and his excitement brought out the best in everyone, culminating in a bring-down-the-house version of “Shake Your Money Maker.”

Rogers and his wife Gaynell, who live in Marin County, have since become “like family,” Littell says. In fact, Gaynell, who manages her husband’s career, is now officially part of the Sierra Center Stage crew, helping with marketing the series to local public TV stations.

Rogers, speaking on the phone from his home, says he’s delighted to be part of the endeavor. “These guys really like the music,” he says of Grossman and Littell. “This is coming from a sincere place. They’re not doing it just as a promo for Sierra Nevada.”

It’s also been a pleasure working with the Berkows, he adds. “Peter understands it from both the musical and technical angles. It’s all worked fabulously well, knock on wood.”

He’s seen the segment taken from his performances and is happy with it. “The energy comes through,” he says. “When you do live shows, that’s what you want to come through.”

Like everyone else, he loves playing in the Big Room. “It’s almost perfect, an intimate room but still big enough to have a good-sized crowd. Those kinds of rooms are a joy to play in.” And the sound system is superb. “I can’t imagine a performer not enjoying playing there.”

Perhaps what most distinguishes this series from Austin City Limits is the inclusion of cutaway interviews with the performers and others commenting on the music. The Rogers segment, for example, includes interesting interviews with Bonnie Raitt and Sammy Hagar, among others, speaking about Rogers’ mastery of the slide guitar.

And the shows stick with the one featured artist or group, instead of squeezing in two or three in a one-hour segment. “It features an artist in a more well-rounded fashion, almost like a documentary,” Rogers says. “People like that behind-the-scenes stuff, they really do.”

He says he’s proud to be part of a series that’s committed to exposing authentic American music. To underline the point, he tells a story about an experience he had a couple of years ago while touring China with Norton Buffalo.

“There were a bunch of performers, and one day we were in a parade down a street in Beijing, and Norton and I were playing the blues together, and people just flipped out. They loved it. It really hit home to all of us how our American culture, our roots music, is the best ambassador we have. People want to listen to it.”

Robben Ford at the Ford brothers reunion (that’s brother Mark hunched over, playing the harp).

Courtesy Of Peter Berkow

Echoing that sentiment is Steve Opson, program director at KCSM, the public TV station in San Mateo. This kind of music plays extremely well internationally, sometimes even better than it does in our own country, he says, speaking on the phone from his office.

KCSM is the “presenting station” for Sierra Center Stage, which means it is the station that is lending its imprimatur and expertise to marketing the program to other public television stations. It will also be running the programs in rotation beginning with a primetime (10 p.m.) showing of the Roy Rogers segment on Thursday, June 3.

One of four public TV stations in the Bay Area, KCSM has more than a million viewers and enjoys a well-established reputation for “feeding hundreds and hundreds of hours of programming into the system,” Opson says.

By serving as the series’ presenting station, he explains, KCSM is telling other stations that it believes in the shows, that they meet the standards of public television, that they have the potential to be appreciated by audiences, and that KCSM intends to provide technical and managerial support for them.

“I’m pretty amazed by their quality,” he says. Because of the tight budget, they’re still an “introductory-level product, but one that’s really quite good.” And stations and their listeners like performance shows. So he’s optimistic that the response to KCSM’s initial “roll-out” of the programs will be positive.

“My not-so-secret fantasy is that I’d like to see this flower and become a much stronger product,” Opson says.

Much of its appeal, he adds, has to do with its location. “Chico’s a very interesting place. It’s not tainted by commercialism in the way Los Angeles is, for example. It’s a town where people still celebrate the genuine joy of music, and it shows in this series.”

Opson has been to Chico to see a couple of the shows shot for the series, and he’s been working with the Sierra Nevada crew for some time to help them develop the product. An important early consideration, he says, was creating a consistent theme. “You don’t want jazz one time, hip-hop the next, then country or folk. People don’t know what to expect.” So they decided to focus on what Opson calls the “great American sound,” which is to say robust American roots music in all its forms.

Remember, he says, Austin City Limits started out as a little country-folk show produced by a college TV station, and now it’s an institution. Sierra Center Stage has the kind of spirit and authentic feel that could eventually make it just as successful.

“It depends,” he explains. “The goal now is to get the program out to specific audiences and get their feedback. All the hype in the world [on KCSM’s part] won’t do any good if the program doesn’t have strength in the first place.”

SHOOTING TEAM Anita and Peter Berkow interviewing Bob Littell for one of the cutaway segments of <i>Sierra Center Stage</i>. The Berkows’ considerable experience as public TV producers has been key to creating the new series.

Courtesy Of Peter Berkow

If the reaction is positive, he adds, Ken Grossman will have to make some big decisions. As good as the programs are now, they need to be better, and that will cost money. In addition, public television stations are in the process of switching to high-definition television, which means a whole new set of cameras could be needed.

Opson says he’s already conferred with Grossman and the rest of the Sierra Nevada crew about what would be needed to move forward with the series.

“Ken is the heart and soul of public television,” he says. “He represents the community spirit that distinguishes our shows from commercial television. He needs to have faith that in time his support will resonate positively for both public television and Sierra Nevada.”

Ken Grossman is well aware that, with the release of the first four shows in the series, he and his crew are at a watershed moment.

“As a matter of fact, we’re having a meeting this afternoon to discuss where we’re going next,” he tells me.

He understands that, if he continues, the cost will go up—and so will the quality of the acts.

Grossman says he’s very happy with the shows so far. “We think we have a good product, but we also think we can make it better. We’re really novices at this. It was done on a shoestring.”

The arrival of HDTV “unfortunately obsoletes all the equipment we’ve got,” he continues. “That’s both an opportunity and a financial challenge.” They’ll rent the cameras at first, he says.

So much will depend on the reaction they get to the four shows going out next month. If it’s as positive as Steve Opson believes it will be, there seems little doubt that Grossman will commit to more shows and that the series will grow and improve. There’s a potentially huge market in Europe, where artists such as Tommy Emmanuel and Robben Ford are even more popular than in this country. And it’s no coincidence that Sierra Nevada beers and ales are now available in England.

At the very least the series will bring some outstanding acts to the Big Room. As Grossman says, “We may call it that, but it’s not really very big. We can’t afford artists who are used to playing 3,000-seat venues.”

That may change. The TV series is a real "bargaining chip" to attract artists, Littell adds. "Our leverage is much greater. My e-mail inbox is filled with messages from groups who’ve heard about the series and want to be on it. It’s just going to get better."