Home is where the guitar is
For a group of formerly homeless musicians, a Wednesday-afternoon jam session provides a cornerstone to a new foundation
A bass player, typically, is the stand-up guy in any band.
And Paul Vercoe, true to form, showed up at the weekly jam session a little early. At 2:15 on this Wednesday afternoon, he was the only musician in the room. Vercoe was accompanied by a human friend named Melody, along with his usual two pooches—a laid-back pit-bull-chow mix named Lull and a nervous Chihuahua-dachshund mutt named Maggie.
As the dogs wandered over and sniffed around, Vercoe, wearing a large shirt a shade too summery for the bleak weather outside, leaned back in a hard-maple colonial-style chair and fingered the fret board of his blue electric bass. “I don’t want to be a rock star,” he stated.
Slowly, the regulars began to filter into the room, an auxiliary chapel off to the side of the North Sacramento United Methodist Church, located a block off Del Paso Boulevard at the intersection of El Camino Avenue and Cantalier Street. First Jim Talmadge, the church’s guitar-playing choir director, showed up with his son David, who was visiting from San Diego, where he’s stationed in the Navy.
Then Lonnie Smith, a tall, ponytailed man with a salt-and-pepper beard, came in toting a bucket of KFC and a shrink-wrapped box containing soft drinks and snacks. Smith started organizing the weekly jam sessions in the spring of 2002 with the help of the Rev. Linda Kelly, a Methodist minister who is a spiritual director at Loaves & Fishes. A long table was set up to accommodate the refreshments.
More people showed up. Bill Holston plugged his electric guitar into a small amp, while Mike Hicks maneuvered a set of congas to a pew that ran along the side of the room. Paula Lomazzi pulled a violin out of a case, and Mary Superak got her acoustic guitar ready. At one point, an invisible gift left on the brown cut-pile carpet by one of Vercoe’s dogs found its way to someone’s shoe.
“That’s it!” Vercoe bellowed. “Dogs go into the car!” He never got around to taking them outside, though.
Meanwhile, Smith plugged his severely angular electric guitar into a tiny amp and tinkered with a stomp box while he talked up an earlier jam session. “We played Southern-fried rock for two hours straight,” he enthused. Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allmans, Marshall Tucker “and ‘The Pusher,’ man, at least 10 minutes …”
“God damn the pusher man,” someone began singing. “Hey, you’re in the house of the Lord,” someone else admonished, laughing nervously.
Finally, at 2:30 p.m., Talmadge began strumming his guitar and singing in the kind of baritone popular with 1960s folk-revival groups like the Limeliters. “Once I built a tower to the sun,” he sang, as Superak stood, facing him, following on guitar. Lomazzi started fiddling a mournful accompaniment, and Smith began improvising on electric guitar over the top. He was running his guitar through an effects box, his volume turned way down to fit in with the acoustic instruments. Smith’s guitar tone had a distanced metallic aural sheen somewhere between Carlos Santana’s and Todd Rundgren’s 1970s guitar sound.
Talmadge, the tacit leader of this particular session, had learned the song from the radio. He thought it was by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. He segued into a song with which more people were familiar, “House of the Rising Sun.” Talmadge’s solemn baritone vocals reverberated off Superak’s churchy soprano, with Smith’s guitar lines and Hicks’ low-key conga rhythms laying a shifting foundation underneath. The overall vibe was like a cross between a pleasantly stoned acoustic jam in a city park and an impromptu post-Bible-study music session. The song didn’t so much end as it came hobbling to a halt.
And that was fine with the regulars.
A few weeks earlier, most of the same group had gathered for the weekly jam, which had the added pressure of being a rehearsal for an outdoor Christmas Eve concert at Friendship Park, an area adjacent to Loaves & Fishes on North 12th Street where homeless people can congregate; it was rained out.
“This isn’t a true homeless jam,” violinist Lomazzi was emphatic in explaining. “No one here today is homeless now, although a few of us were homeless once.”
“It’s a formerly homeless jam,” someone else offered, laughing.
The impetus for the jam came from Smith.
“I was aware that there were a number of musicians out here in Friendship Park,” Kelly explained. “I could see it was a need for their spirits to be who they are. You can’t take music away from a musician. It will kill them, spiritually.
“Homeless people are real people with real needs,” Kelly added, “just like anybody else.”
Smith had been going through a rough patch. He’d been dropped from Supplemental Security Income—he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder—and had joined the ranks of the homeless at Friendship Park, where he’d been organizing jam sessions and talent shows for a few years before. “Seeing how much talent there was among the homeless, but nobody had any instruments,” he said, “me and Linda toyed with the idea that we needed a place to have once-a-week jam sessions for about a year.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t any room at Loaves & Fishes, but Kelly knew about a Methodist church in North Sacramento that might have space, and she approached the minister there, the Rev. Brandon Austin, who agreed to host the session. Assistance came from Transitional Living and Community Services (TLCS), which Smith credits with helping him get back on his feet. “I do part of my recruiting from there,” he said. “Two of the guys that were there today are from Palmer, a one-year living arrangement through TLCS.”
Kelly pointed to Smith as a real success story for the transitional-living program, someone who went from being down on his luck on the street to a person brimming with confidence, who is giving back what was given to him. He’s even joined the church where the jam session is held.
During the recent after-
noon jam, the songs seemed to take on the character of whoever was playing—or missing. At various points, musicians would put down their instruments and step outside for a cigarette; suddenly, a guitar or violin or conga would drop out, and just as suddenly, it would drop back in 10 minutes later.
By 3 p.m., the session had been cooking, or at least simmering, for a while. Most of the tunes came from the part of the 1960s American songbook where pop and country touch—Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and Boudleaux Bryant’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” On the latter, Smith soloed all over the bridge, while Lomazzi followed the melody on her violin.
“I’ve known that since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Superak said after they stopped playing. “Oh, Donny Osmond—where are you?”
“Uh, that was the Everly Brothers,” Talmadge muttered, almost under his breath. Then he launched into Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’,” which everyone knew. By this time, Vercoe was experimenting with some unorthodox, wah-wah-inflected bass tones, which sounded like a disaffected duck. That song swerved into “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and Superak mimicked a trumpet solo with her lips. That led to “I Saw the Light,” and Vercoe got into the song’s barroom ecclesiastical spirit. “Praise the Lord,” he bellowed, “I saw the light.”
Smith was outside, and Bill Holston, the other electric guitarist, broke through his bashful nature, turned up his amp and added some nice consonant tones to the mix.
Superak dusted off one of her originals, and the group joined in. “Would you pour me just another cup of coffee … with some sugar?” she warbled, playing a jazzy two-chord vamp on guitar as Smith soloed on his guitar, Hicks accompanied on tambourine and Vercoe leaned back in his chair, nibbling snacks from a box of Crunch ’n Munch.
Superak paused, began singing Carole King’s “So Far Away,” stopped and then began strumming furiously and barking out made-up lyrics. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, laughing. “Let’s make something up.”
When that came apart at the seams, Talmadge began strumming and singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” which got everyone back into a recognizable groove—until feedback from somebody’s amp threatened to derail the song.
“Lonnie, play ‘Matadora,’” Kelly requested.
Talmadge, however, resolved to continue the Orbison song. He soldiered on, singing over a chiming cross-picking pattern, while Hicks slapped out a conga beat and Superak pulled out a harmonica and blew along. Vercoe, eyes closed, sang the chorus.
“That’s a funny tune,” Talmadge said afterward.
Then Smith began strumming a flamenco-like figure, presumably the original tune Kelly had called out a few minutes earlier. Lomazzi joined in on fiddle, others picked up hand percussion, and the group got a weirdly hypnotic groove going.
By this time, it was past 3:30 p.m., and the group continued for nearly another hour. Talmadge packed up early and left with his son, but the rest of the group continued playing—chatting, in between songs, about such things as maybe playing a little later one day to accommodate a really hot guitarist who works at the Salvation Army but doesn’t clock out until 4 p.m. “This guy plays like [Joe] Satriani,” Smith said, name-checking a lightning-speed jazz-rock guitarist.
At 4:20 p.m., people began breaking down their equipment, and Smith loaded a few guitars onto a rack.
“We always need new people,” Smith said. “I see this as a platform for people getting together to play music.”
As he pointed out, the jam is open to anyone who has Wednesday afternoon free. The idea is to provide the kind of positive musical experience that might help someone teetering on the edge to find the confidence to fit back into society—to give them a place where they can feel stable at least once a week. Donated musical instruments are welcome, too.
And dogs are also welcome.