Basking in the glow of creation and community
“Ever wondered what would happen if some of Chico’s finest songwriters and musicians got together and formed a super-group? For a weekend? And recorded it? That’s the plan!”
Those are the opening lines of a notice that popped up in my Facebook inbox a few months ago. It was an invite from local musician Julian Ruck for something called “The Convergence,” a recording project aimed at gathering a large group of local music-makers out to Electric Canyon Studios the weekend of April 27-28 for two days of collaboration and recording. Looking at the potential guest list—an impressive and varied selection of some of Chico’s most respected acoustic and rock/funk/world musicians—I wondered aloud why I had been included in the call.
But I love to be invited to things, so I didn’t dwell too long on the facts that: a) I haven’t really been an active musician in town for a few years, and b) my musical comfort zone is a pretty noisy and unsophisticated place in comparison to the groovy land of serious musical chops I was about to enter.
I happily accepted the invitation to join the party, and by the end of my day of “converging” in Butte Creek Canyon with a dozen or so musicians—many of whom I barely knew—I (and seemingly everyone else involved) came away completely gratified and blown away by the experience.
“[I was] overwhelmed,” Ruck said when I asked him afterward how he felt about the weekend. “It’s hard to quantify. I went in expecting an experiment, and we came out of it with something truly amazing.”
I drove down the twisting Centerville Road into the canyon on the sunny and very warm Sunday of April 28 and joined the converging already in progress at Price’s rustic recording studio.
The deal was: You pay $35 for an hour of studio time to record your song, or you could pay to be one of the accompanists on hand.
Including engineer Price (who ably added drums and percussion to many songs), there were 17 musicians who took part: Alli Battaglia and members of her funky Musical Brewing Company; Ruck and his former Soul Butter band mate, guitarist Chris Miller; folk singer/songwriter Deedee Vest; rappers Himp C and Aaron “One-Up” Stroh; ukulele queen Mandalyn May; and many other regular players and singers on the scene.
Each of the dozen fresh, vibrant songs recorded could be broken down as an example of the seemingly effortless creative magic that was happening, but my favorite example of something new being created was Still Not Dead Yet slide-guitarist/vocalist Collin Wiley’s groovy “That Water.” It started off with Wiley singing and playing guitar and her band mate Katie McConnell doing a falling piano line, but when the full band joined in and Miller and singer-guitarist Chuck Epperson’s warm leads busted through, Wiley’s deceptively simple folk song became fleshed out into a full-blown slice of California Soul that would make even Nicki Bluhm proud.
“It’s like a real song!” Wiley exclaimed after her first take with the band.
And it didn’t hurt the chemistry at all that many of the songs either directly spoke to the converging of local musicians—Battaglia’s “Gather Round” (“Won’t you sing with me?”) and the soulful Alpine’s “Chico Sunshine”—or simply provided ample opportunity for joining in, which is what I was shooting for with my repetitive, ramshackle jam.
The spirit of convergence, however, was probably best exemplified by May’s impossibly catchy, circular, group sing-along chorus: “I’m gonna change the world/ one step at a time/ each day of my life/ I know that I am gonna …”
“[It’s] people from all different backgrounds coming together and blending together beautifully,” said Musical Brewing Co. mandolinist Matthew Stratton as he stood in a dusty circle rehearsing May’s tune.
It might come across as a bit sappy to gush about how blissed out everyone was (as Ruck said, “We make newlyweds wanna puke”), but it’s a worthwhile thing to point out: There is the potential for some great fun, excitement and spirited creation (not to mention making new friends) by simply agreeing to “Gather ’round the circle,” as Battaglia’s tune entreats.
“You have to give credit to the community that allows something like this to flourish,” Ruck said, referring to the notion that there’s commonality among Chico locals, especially when it comes to musicians, and all it takes to get past whatever barriers there are to collaboration is to throw a few Sierra Nevada Summerfests in a cooler and send out an invite. That sounds exactly right.