Blowing a kiss
Local reissue label Dig Music hopes to give vintage Northern California artists the Rhino treatment
Hollywood filmmaker and former enfant terrible Rolling Stone reporter Cameron Crowe described his movie Almost Famous as “blowing a kiss to music and the classic-rock artists you can still hear on the radio, even today.” For Dennis Newhall, Jeff Hughson and Marty DeAnda, the three Sacramento partners who share ownership in a local record label, Dig Music, that sweet statement makes perfect sense.
“We found a niche we love, and that is to make available previously unreleased music by Northern California artists, primarily from the 1960s and ’70s,” Hughson, Dig Music’s promotions director, explains. “Other labels may re-release stuff, but nobody is finding studio and live performances that have never come out on these bands—except us.”
And though none of the three owners have given up their day jobs yet, it isn’t for the lack of quality projects. Any label that can boast of presenting not one but two never-before-heard albums from one of the coolest singers on this planet, Sal Valentino (of the Beau Brummels, the ’60s American answer to the Beatles; and later in the ’70s, the ringmaster of Stoneground, the rhythm ’n’ hippie metaphysical blues caravan), well, that is a feather in the headband any day.
The Dig Music table, in a small, semi-private room at the Tower Café on Broadway, is a verbal romp through this town’s place in rock ’n’ roll history. That it is located in the birthplace of Tower Records—in the space once occupied by the drugstore Tower founder Russ Solomon’s father owned—is missed on no one. “We’re all Peter Pans. We don’t want to grow up,” Newhall demurs, just as matter-of-factly as, moments later, he explains waveform analysis in Digidesign’s Pro Tools recording-software program and how it allowed them to bring full dynamic-range fidelity to the missing live 1974 Beau Brummels concert album that kick-started the label just over a year ago.
For boomers who might be considering early retirement packages, these three old pals would look positively giddy. “The fact is, we all grew up together,” explains DeAnda, the label’s ebullient business manager. “Dennis and I were kids in school together; Jeff and I know each other from record-collector trade shows and music-industry events growing up. We all had and still have a driving passion for music.”
Longtime Sacramento radio listeners know the dulcet tones of Newhall; he was on Sacramento FM airwaves for 15 years, since the early days of KZAP. He is currently a staff engineer at Nakamoto Productions, he co-curates the Second Saturday Sacramento Rock and Roll Museum housed therein, and he does independent video production and voiceover work. “For me, starting this label was the same thing that would get you to be a DJ on FM radio in 1968—it’s the ‘I got something great that I want you to hear!’ ” he says, laughing. But, as Hughson, the first KZAP music director, back in 1968, and a longtime writer/DJ/concert promoter/rare record dealer points out, the name “Dig” has myriad applications. “We’re excavators of music from a certain time,” he says. “And we are committed to the very best fidelity—we work in a digital medium. And we dig this music! It’s a perfect name for our record label.”
Like all good indie labels, the home office is in a home—DeAnda’s, across from Land Park. “The neighbors get a kick out it,” he says, smiling.
But there’s a method behind the label’s frugality. “Band members are having a hard time believing that we are bringing these projects to market as quickly and effectively as we are,” he explains. “They see our quarterly profit-and-loss statements. We are not charging back bands for dinners or taxis. We are doing most of the work out of our own hands—sweat equity. They really appreciate this. We keep the overhead really low and we share in the profits, we want to share the money as soon as possible. We want people to know Dig Music pays—we may pay little right now, we’re new—but we pay right away.”
Calls from managers, artists and agents are filtering in. “Part of the low overhead,” Newhall notes, “is that we are using existing material. We can make money hitting 5,000-unit sales. That profit might go out the window when you put a band in the recording studio.”
Source material for the three albums in Dig’s catalog, and the five to eight more planned for 2002, is being mined from the vaults of West Coast radio that hold lost or unknown gems. The Beau Brummels, Stoneground and the East Bay funk of Oakland’s Cold Blood, led by the still-dynamic soul chanteuse Lydia Pense, all received calls from Dig after their successful finds. “We license the material from the artists,” says Hughson. “We involve the artists on levels that they never received at the major labels they were all signed to 30 years or more ago. Sal and all the rest of the players tell us, ‘No one has ever come to us and asked us how we feel about the sound,’ and ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ ”
Dig has been fortunate that none of these live concert/club performances were recorded during the years these acts were under contract to their major labels. “We called the labels up and checked with their legal departments,” Newhall says.
Dig Music’s top seller, relative to the short three-month time it has been in the stores, is Vintage Blood, Cold Blood’s only live album. “We’re selling about a thousand a month,” DeAnda reveals. “This band has never stopped touring. They’ve been out there building that audience for 30 years.” A recent Cold Blood appearance at the grand re-opening of the Stoney Inn on Del Paso Boulevard was crammed with boomers, including four women who have been friends since high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “We loved this band,” one woman said, laughing. “We never left the neighborhood.” And though she was speaking literally, her comment could easily describe Dig Music’s demographic target. One dancing dude nailed it that night, saying: “Hey, we’re the youngest old generation ever!”
And audiences aren’t the only ones having these cathartic reunions. One surprising byproduct of this music seeing daylight after so many years is that ex-bandmates are playing together again, a fact that makes the three partners genuinely happy. In mid-December last year, many of the 11-member soul gypsy tribe Stoneground reunited at the Powerhouse Pub in Folsom for a rare roots-music raveup supporting the band’s new release, The Last Dance—which was recorded at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium in 1973.
Singer-bandleader Sal Valentino, who lives in Carmichael, has buckets of charisma and still possesses a gorgeous voice. When he swung into Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” backed by Stoneground members Tim Barnes and John Blakeley on guitars, Steve Price on drums, Lydia Moreno—who flew in from L.A. for the gig—on vocals, along with local musician Erik Kleven on bass, DeAnda was beside himself. “And all of those folks onstage together could not wipe the smiles off their faces,” he says.
“The Beau Brummels, as a result of our CD, actually reunited to perform at San Francisco’s BayPop 2000, then went on to play more dates in New York for us,” Hughson adds. “We were the catalyst. Plus Ron Elliott started writing again. He had not written songs in 18 years, and as a result of listening to these tapes and getting enthused again, we got him back into it. He’s made his living these years as a graphic artist and royalties as a hit songwriter.”
This year, one of the members may become a full-time employee of the label, according to DeAnda, who travels around as Business Development Manager for the Western U.S. with AIG, the world’s largest insurance company. Plans also include the creation of a subsidiary blues label: Sacramento bluesman Mick Martin will join the fold, and Dig is also eyeing an emerging young blues talent named Will Derryberry.
In the meantime, if you see three guys still leaning into that table in the semi-private Tower Café room, talking about Pro Tools, how to get religion via Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen album and how their generation’s one defining young communal experience may very well be a transistor radio hidden under the pillow, you’ll know exactly who it is.