Unplugged in Chico
Local acoustic scene enjoying new wave of success
It’s a Saturday night at Grilla Bites on Cohasset Road. Any other night, four tables might be occupied at this restaurant that specializes in organic food. Tonight, the large room is filled wall to wall with patrons enjoying music from acoustic quartet Wings of Swing.
Pamela Cather and Pam Laughlin are ripping it up gypsy-style on violin and clarinet, while Mark Wippolt holds down the bottom end with a swingin’ acoustic bass. Gordy Ohliger is charming the crowd with a combination of smooth singing and Django-esque guitar work. Everybody in the finely tuned room can hear fine, but the band doesn’t even need a sound system.
Across town, the Lewis brothers are staging their “reunited again for the first time” show to a jam-packed room at Café Coda. It’s a rare opportunity to really hear the brothers, who are both good enough to play at any festival in the state. Though each frequently plays dance gigs with local bands, the tone of their bluegrass instruments is usually obscured by the din of the crowd and the overall volume of electric instruments.
Tonight feels more like being on the Lewis family back porch. For once you can hear the subtlety of Sid’s blistering finger work on banjo and guitar. Bythos zips through the set of mostly original tunes on the fiddle, and you can actually feel the resonance of the wooden instruments.
A week later, Coco Caffe (in the FedEx Kinko’s strip mall) is hosting an all-ages acoustic show to a standing-room-only crowd. Local indie songstress Aubrey Debauchery and a clever Sacto duet named Hardy Harr! are both playing acoustic sets. The crowd spills out to the parking lot, where an equally large mob mills around. The kids outside are straining to hear through the door and waiting for any opportunity to squeeze in.
With the addition of new venues like Café Coda, and with places like Grilla Bites becoming unlikely hubs for larger shows, the acoustic scene in Chico is enjoying a bit of resurgence. And with that comes a new flock of young musicians looking to cut their teeth at smaller clubs with the hopes of playing in front of larger crowds.
Sometimes the acts at these venues are acoustic by design. Other times, members of local bands are experimenting with an “unplugged format,” as was the case recently when hard rockers Vext Intent showed up at Café Coda with nothing much more than an acoustic guitar and lyrics scrawled on paper. The place was packed with fans that knew the words and were more than happy to sing along.
Eric Danielli, owner of Café Coda and a musician himself, observes, “It’s a refreshing way to hear a band you’ve seen a million times.”
While some local rock groups are finding new ways to entertain their fans with a stripped-down format, the four-piece group Make It So has been discovering newfound success.
As mandolin player Bob Kirkland explains, less than a year ago his group was struggling to lure loyal but smallish audiences to places like Teaz Me and Bidwell Perk, where the acoustics don’t exactly lend themselves to a performance. The group, which features stunning vocals by Peggy Kirkland and harmonica wizardry by Bob Littell, is suddenly playing to packed houses at Grilla Bites.
“These are the best rooms we’ve had to play in since the golden years of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when nationally known groups like Chico’s own 8th Avenue String Band played clubs like DeJaVu Mining Company,” Kirkland explains.
He attributes the increase in audience size to better-quality venues, but he also detects a wider general interest in singer-songwriters. “For a long time, you didn’t see younger fans,” Kirkland says. “But now you’re seeing more college-aged kids attending these acoustic shows.”
There’s certainly evidence to support Kirkland’s case. Café Coda features a custom, built-in sound system and in-house recording studio with a window looking out to the stage. The room has only 49 seats at the tables, but another 50 or so might pack the place six nights a week. The music has been so popular, the café has added a well-attended bluegrass-and-breakfast show every Friday and Sunday morning. And, though Grilla Bites does not have a stage, and only the occasional show, the restaurant (totally by accident) has a room ambience perfectly suited for quiet, acoustic instruments.
Steve Schuman, promoter for North Valley Productions, has also noted an increased local interest in acoustic music, as has Darla Novak, talent coordinator for the Butte Folk Music Society.
“Acoustic music is the sound I gravitate toward personally,” says Schuman, whose company specializes in folk music shows at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, Chico Women’s Club and Moxie’s Café and Gallery among other venues. “A simple instrument and a microphone is the perfect medium; it’s a very private moment that the artist shares with the audience.”
But the interest is not just in attending shows. Novak, whose Butte Folk Music Society puts on acoustic jams every month at Upper Crust Bakery, says she also notices an increase in first-timers.
“So many people are showing up wanting to play, we might need to find a new place,” Novak says. “At the last one, there were too many for a jam-session, so people made connections and broke off to find other places to go make music. Some wanted to play swing music; others just want to play more traditional folk styles.”
And it won’t be long before those amateurs showing up to the jams will want to venture out to try their luck in more professional settings. Has Beans Coffee & Tea Co. has long been one of the hot spots for open-mic nights, as well as regular acoustic performances.
Now it’s just a matter of venues sticking around, something that has plagued Chico for years, and seeing if crowds will keep coming to shows.
“This town has a wonderful community of qualified musicians who deserve to be heard. Many are good enough to play on any stage in the nation,” says Bob Littell, who is also the talent coordinator for the Sierra Nevada Big Room. “The test will be time. Six months from now, it will be interesting to see if the crowds keep supporting the venues. Will they just go to see bands they know, or will they come to the clubs to hear new acts they have never heard just because they’ve come to love acoustic music?”