Elvis’ backup man

Bob Wren

Photo By Andrew Nixon

Have you ever run into that tall, bearded mandolin and fiddle player who sometimes shows up at the Davis Farmers Market and sometimes at the Fox & Goose and every Wednesday night at the Delta of Venus? That’s Bob Wren, who teaches the World Music Ensemble classes at Sacramento City College, though they don’t quite fit the definition of general ed. After class (Monday nights in Sacramento and Sunday afternoons at the Davis branch), students just sit around and jam for a couple of extra hours, playing ornamented Irish music they’ve memorized. Wren’s looking for new students. In fact, he needs them. With fewer than 20 students per section, his classes are in jeopardy.

The rumor is that you played with Elvis?

Well, I started classical violin at age 5 and had some really good instructors, and finally the head string contractor up there got [me and] my brother—I was 15—up there [to Lake Tahoe]. We played mostly at the Sierra, the Del Webb casino, in the main High Sierra room. Different acts would come through. Elvis was there several years, so we probably did about 100 shows, two shows a night.

What years would this have been?

1970 to 1975.

One story about Elvis behind the scenes.

He was the most down-home of any of the performers who came through. He seemed the most real. He wanted to eat at the employees’ cafeteria. Going up the elevator with him, you’d get the bodyguard with the gun, but yet, he seemed like he was just one of the folks. That’s what’s kind of impressive. I mean, it was funny to see the same women coming every night and probably paying to sit right in the same place. And these acts are so slick that they’re totally choreographed—every inch, practically, is the same. And yet, the same woman would be there watching the same show, the same timing of the joke, the whole thing. But he had a little wildcard energy. He might break into “How Great Thou Art,” so we’d have to shuffle through the music. The folks in control did not want that to happen. It made things not so slick.

You’ve been a professional musician ever since?

Yeah. A lot of rock ‘n’ roll groups, a lot of backing up vocal guitarists in the ‘70s, bluegrass groups. … In the ‘80s, I really did a lot of baroque music, a lot of background music at all the university libraries, playing on the mandolin and the fiddle, the guitar. Donna, my wife, and I put that together—background music in Mum’s and other fine eating establishments. People could talk and listen to this pretty music. And some of that is really good. I’ve now memorized 40 baroque sonata pieces, and they’re just tremendous. … The commitment to learning a baroque piece is even more challenging. The whole thing goes on for like a minute-and-a-half, the whole movement. Tunes within the World Music Ensemble, some of them may only last 10 to 15 seconds, so you can catch on to it. The cyclic nature of folk music does allow a lot of things to happen, trance energy or just that variation. It invites interpretation.

Now explain what the World Music Ensemble is.

We’ve got the mandolins, the fiddles, the flutes. There’s one woman, Catherine Mandella—sometimes she’ll play 20 instruments in a performance. There’s the Chinese flute, the didgeridoo. There’s the soprano sax. We have a bass clarinet player. That’s a beautiful sound.

And for you guys, world music means … ?

For us, we do a great deal of Irish music, Mexican music. We work with some Chinese music. We work with Turkish music. We work with some Indian [music].

And you put together the World Music Festival every year?

Right. That’s the last Saturday in October. The workshops and presentations go on from 10 to 5. We have free lunch, free dinner.

Is it primarily performance?

No, the African in the morning is very participatory. The drumming, it’s like a drum workshop circle. I danced last year, too, during the African dance workshop. And then we have a klezmer workshop. This year, that will be participatory as well. Some Mexican dance. An Irish whistle and flute player in the area, at the end of the workshop day, will be doing a demonstration on Irish ornament. And then we have a break with dinner, and then we started off last year with a couple hundred people showing up for the festival performance. It was just tremendous.

What is the main wisdom you try to share with all these people?

If you’re interested in music, building a repertoire that you like. So, when I choose tunes to give to the class, those are the ones I could play all day long. I could play them everyday. I really like them. So, my message is you don’t have to play all these. Play the ones you like. If you’re trying to play music from all the various peoples—and, you know, Native American music, that can get you involved with the idea of playing in an environment where the harmony and rhythms come from the sounds of the outdoors. That’s when you’re blending. So, music becomes, in some regards, everything. If you’re trying to build your repertoire from that attitude, the stuff you like, it can only be good.