April's Halloween treat ascends from the underground

Happy Halloween: The annual springtime Sacramento Halloween Show has stayed somewhat secret for years and years. A bunch of local, semi-underground bands would organize themselves into new tribute bands, attempting to reflect a legendary artist’s career in one 12-minute set. With 20-something bands on the setlist, you’d get a full day of awesome music.

The concept is genius alone, inevitably chock-full of crazy costumes, weird shenanigans and hilarity.

Last Saturday’s Halloween featured 28 bands, including Neil Diamond, the Ronnettes, Talking Heads, Simon & Garfunkel and Salt-N-Pepa. Yes, it seems random, but there was a theme: New York and New Jersey bands. Fittingly, a deejay spun New York and New Jersey hits in between sets. LCD Soundsystem crooned “New York, I Love You.”

More importantly, if you’ve never heard of the Sacramento Halloween Show, this year marked its ascendance from the underground into a big thing that’ll keep growing and growing. It was held at the Verge Center for the Arts, with an actual raised stage, professional lighting and a huge improvement in sound. The cover was still more than reasonable at $5 for six hours of music, with beers going for $3.

A surprising delight this year was a condensed version of the Broadway musical Cats. Ten people dressed in leotards and fur engaged in a fully choreographed, legitimately touching series of tunes. I was blown away by the performers’ cat-like movements as much as their gorgeous voices, which elicited a huge standing ovation. OK, the whole room was asked to sit and therefore had to stand, therefore it was an obligation, but a standing ovation just the same.

In the audience, I found myself standing next to Alicia Keys, with her long braids circa 2001. And later, Dionne Warwick and her snappily dressed backup singers. Wigs were by far the most common accessory in the room, and it seemed like there were extras to go around. Our host switched personas from David Letterman to Howard Stern to Gene Shalit.

What really sets the Halloween show apart from other tribute shows is not the size or length or ethos. It’s not about singing along to perfectly executed covers with die-hard fans. It’s watching local artists transform into enormous personalities, beyond the music and the garb. They take on mannerisms, inflections and history: Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs crawled across the floor, spitting water onto the front row; Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav completed several costume changes during and between songs; synth-punk duo Suicide was purposefully disengaging; freak folk duo the Holy Modal Rounders proudly shared that it was the first band to use the term “psychedelic” in a song in 1964. Every set is a well thought-out piece of musical theater.

To scope out photos and notes from the show, the official hashtag on social media is #sachalloween2015. Yep, an official hashtag means it’s definitely not a secret anymore, so tell everyone and get ready for a bigger Halloween next April.

Soloing: Sacramento jazz guitarist Ross Hammond’s newest record Flight might be his most personal and quiet yet. Shedding the quartet fans got accustomed to with Cathedrals and Adored, Hammond performs exclusively solo and exclusively acoustic. The result is at once sparse and intricate; merging free-form jazz and bluesy rock, with more folky inspirations.

The 15-track record is comprised of traditional tunes, hymns and originals, all reflective of Hammond’s life in some way. He was, after all, born in the South and basically raised in a church. Meanwhile, songs he wrote for Flight are inspired by family, by being a father.

Hammond keeps things interesting by employing four guitars: a 12-string, six-string, small parlor guitar and resophonic guitar, which has a metal resonator. The 12-string, in particular, Hammond plays fingerstyle. His recording technique maintains interest as well—he simply used a portable recorder wherever, and the captured atmospheric sounds play a role, too.

Flight is officially out Tuesday, April 14, and he’ll have two album release shows: at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 12, at Gold Lion Arts (2733 Riverside Boulevard) and 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 13, at Luna’s Cafe (1414 16th Street). Both cost $10 to attend.

—Janelle Bitker