No garlic—just good music
The ninth annual Sacramento Heritage Festival is the best place to catch all kinds of music, from local to international, from jazz and blues and folk to rock and whatever
Sorry, this Festival doesn’t have an overt political agenda. Nor does it promote garlic, asparagus, mandarin oranges, wine or crawdads, or extreme sports or three-on-three hoopin’ it up. And it does little to save the redwoods, the whales or the tree huggers and mammal huggers. It doesn’t burn a giant wicker man in the desert. It doesn’t even revive decrepit, medley-playing rock stars. It’s simply a festival that, for the past eight years, has drawn from the Bill Graham book of music mixology by practicing that lost art of promoting one of the better aspects of humanity—music.
The ninth-annual Sacramento Heritage Festival happens Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. both days at Gibson Ranch, a sprawling, grassy 300-acre park in northern Sacramento County, off Elverta Road just west of Watt Avenue. Headlining on Saturday is the East Oakland-based hip-hop group Souls of Mischief, part of the Hieroglyphics collective that also includes Del tha Funky Homosapien. The Souls replace the previously announced former Kennedy High hip-hop MC/DJ chums Blackalicious, which backed out due to health reasons. Headlining on Sunday is legendary jazz saxophonist and former local resident Pharoah Sanders. In charge of the not-for-profit festival, which annually donates proceeds to resuscitate area school music programs, is Executive Director Big Mike Balma, CEO Craig McKeown and a cast of fervent, music-loving volunteers.
Booking an eight-stage outdoor festival with over 100 acts from the U.S., plus Africa and Jamaica, begins months in advance. Press packages pile up in Big Mike Balma’s crowded office, late-night listening sessions ensue, cigars are smoked as agents wheedle. It’s Broadway Danny Rose time.
“As soon as we finish booking in early April, we’re already accepting packages for next year,” Balma notes. “We get a lot of breaking bands; those are the California bands we are looking for. Our budget is so low that we can’t really afford hit acts, so we try to get ahead of the pack. We try to keep out ticket prices really low, make it affordable for families. The first year they were $5. This year, advance tickets are $7.
“It ain’t like a Kings ticket!” Balma adds, laughing. “And we still sell beer for the same price as at the first fest.”
Balma, who owns a business that installs computer networks, is a smooth operator. He’s done this for nearly a decade and has a clear vision of the mission of the Heritage Festival. “Aw, hell, don’t talk about me, talk about the music,” he says bluntly.
The truth is, the Sacramento Heritage Festival, as it stands today, was directly inspired by Balma’s 1993 sojourn to the legendary springtime New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where a multi-weekend, multi-stage cornucopia of music, food and culture conjure up something most folks never want to end. Balma, McKeown and the late Frances Bona were part of the advisory board for the Sacramento Blues Festival, which ran from 1976-1993. They emerged from the demise of that fest, looking to broaden the musical base. “We thought that if we diversified just a little bit, that maybe it could succeed,” Balma explains. “Then I went to New Orleans. I knew this is what we had to do.”
As fortune would have it, after a rocky beginning in 1994, a well-known record retail chain stepped up to the plate. “A local radio station was our main sponsor the first year,” Balma recalls. “They said they were gonna give us $10,000. They wanted the whole thing, be the only sponsor. They were set to give us all this promotion, all this stuff, and we thought, great. This will give us a real jumpstart the first year. Two weeks before the event, they pulled out. We had nothing! No money, no radio support, nothing. They really screwed us over. So I called [blues guitarist] Ray ‘Catfish’ Copeland over at Tower and asked him, ‘Do you think Tower would even think of helping us out?’ He set up a meeting for us, and within 10 minutes they said, ‘Sure, sounds great.’ They saved us.”
In 2001, the Festival moved from the original location of Camp Pollock to Gibson Ranch, which was necessitated by the appointment of a new Camp Pollock executive director who stipulated an un-festive “no beer” policy. “We didn’t think that would work,” Balma deadpans.
One thing that does work is an attitude of freewheeling creativity. “We aren’t afraid to try anything,” Balma offers. “Hell, we tried trad jazz—for one year. We had a spoken word stage for a few years. Now we have Stage X—an experimental stage, originally. It’s DJs and hip-hop now.” Hard dance record store Subsonic Underground advised Balma to bring in artists like Simon Apex, Orion, E-Train, Dred, Lockmonsta and Dragn’fly.
This year, the new stage they are trying is a little coffeehouse tent called Café Sacramento. “All sorts of weird stuff in there, not just singer-songwriters, though that is what it started out as,” Balma reveals. “But then we thought, ‘Why limit?’ We got a package that was really good, but they didn’t fit anywhere—this three-piece Senagalese band, BouJouBumBastik. Then we got this eight-piece Moroccan band, Hamsa Lila. They were cool, too.” Joined by local favorites Freight Train Riders of America, Anton Barbeau, Forever Goldrush and Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days, this new venue could prove to be the revolutionary, worldly place to hang.
Eighty percent of the artists booked are from the Central Valley. Fifteen percent are Californians and five percent are national/international artists. One local-music advocate who appreciates the mix is Billy Harper, host of the Fox and Goose’s Monday open-mike night for the past three years, and leader of the Americana band Derelict Country. “I think it is great that someone took the initiative to feature local musicians,” Harper says. “There is a hell of a lot of good talent in this town—great songwriters, some great pickers. How do they get discovered? They have to have exposure. How to get that? Just these types of events.”
One of Harper’s recent open-mike discoveries is Jackie Greene, who will play Café Sacramento. “He is a young, modern-day Dylan. His songwriting is beyond his years and his proficiency on both acoustic and electric guitar is outrageously good,” Harper says. “He just showed up here one night. And Sal Valentino [Stoneground, Beau Brummels] was sitting next to me. He and I looked at each other and said ‘Whoa, who is this kid?’ “
The main stage, which is sponsored by the Festival’s founding major sponsor, Tower Records, features Souls of Mischief plus Bay Area barrio soul-rock band Los Mocosos, Jamaica’s Itals and the original Bride of Funkenstein Dawn Silva with her 12-piece big band. One of the more anticipated performances looks to be from the hypnotic West African pop griot Alpha Yaya Diallo and his Afro-funk band, Bafing. The formidable guitarist, singer and writer was part of Peter Gabriel’s Real World/WOMAD world-music family.
“Heritage is important in the sense that it brings people together while keeping your roots, your values together,” Diallo says from his current home in Vancouver.” It brings together different cultures. The point is you learn about other people. This is good what Sacramento is doing.”
The parallel musical universes of West Africa and the Mississippi Delta and hill country are stunning when heard together, and it truly points to the universality of sound. Balma’s personal musical love is for the blues, and so the MGD Stage is always strong. Besides local heroes Little Charlie and the Nightcats and Omar Sharriff, Balma is backing newcomer blueswoman Mary Dukes. And making return Sacramento appearances are powerful bluesmen like Coco Montoya and Arkansas’ Michael Burks. The legendary smooth soul bluesman from Houston, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, should be a highlight. Perhaps Diallo will jam with some of these guys to hear the profound, mysterious resonances that connect the blues with Africa.
Raley’s is a first-time sponsor this year. “They don’t have a whole lot to do with music, but they are very community-oriented,” Balma notes. “We needed a match for our great Gospel Explosion stage and they quickly agreed.” Just like in New Orleans, this area is where folks park themselves on opening morning and get glory-hallelujahed for the full duration. Both the classic quartets and a cappella groups like the Sons of the Soul Revivers, the Stars of Glory, W.D. Gospel Singers with Sister Arbess Williams are all sublime revelers who “jump for Jesus.”
Sacramento staples the Beer Dawgs, Jackpot, the Brodys and the Ricky & Del Connection (featuring ex-Kai Kln members) anchor the Alternative Stage, and are joined by local emo-rock buzz band Call Me Ishmael and Redding mainstay Slam Buckra. Then there’s Tiny Monster Invasion, a brand new “big soundscape-ish Floyd-esque group” that has never played a gig in Sacramento. “It just goes to show that if you take the time to make a good record, we’ll book you,” says Balma.
Entercom FM station 98 Rock features local music in a Sunday night program hosted by Alex Payne called “Local Licks”; some acts Payne has touted will play that station’s stage, including the Skirts, Luxt, East Bay band Persephone’s Bees (featuring local guitar legend Mike Farrell on bass) and San Francisco’s Deadweight, a wall of sound trio that features electric cello, “vile-in” and skins. Storm, a sassy, blond Melissa Etheridge-like singer from San Francisco, is set to do some experimental vocalizing with them.
Any stage lucky enough to tout the great jazz/world-music saxophonist Pharoah Sanders is hallowed ground. Ergo, the stage sponsored by a certain local non-alternative newspaper, with urban music and jazz coloring this turf: Native Elements, Variable Units and jazz/blues chanteuse Frankye Kelly are highlights. Her tribute version of “Angel of Mercy,” once a signature song for her cousin, the late blues star Albert Collins, is wrenching and not to be missed.
The music played will form another chapter in a lode of great tales Balma has stored up over these nine years, some of which are too blue for a family newspaper such as this. If you can catch Balma still for a moment, ask him to regale you with one. Someday, he might have to build a folklore stage just for himself.
Saturday, June 1: Souls of Mischief, the Coup, Coco Montoya, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, Dawn Silva, Los Mocosos, Jackpot, Storm, Shortie, Larry Garner, Joe ‘Guitar’ Hughes, the Brodys, Uncle Harlen’s Band, Deadweight, the Skirts, Call Me Ishmael, the C.U.F., Native Elements, Fillmore Slim, Persephone’s Bees, Freight Train Riders of America, Anton Barbeau, Key to Arson, Nevada Backwards, Slow Lorries, River Jordan, Verbatum, Victory Gin, UndaWorld, Waking Hours, Soul Clap, Random, Will Derryberry, Jackie Greene, Variable Unit, Tiny Monster Invasion, Crazy Ballhead, Rev. Rabia & Virgil Thrasher, Simon Apex & Ion, E-Train, Orion, Riff Raff, Jay Vigor, Livestock, Dred, Pittsburg Allstars, Stars of Glory, Endurance, Solomon Brothers, Oakland Silvertones, Old Time Gospel Singers.
Sunday, June 2: Pharoah Sanders, the Itals, Alpha Yaya Diallo, Michael Burks, Roy Carrier & the Night Rockers, Tempest, Phil Guy, Deadbeats, Chris Cain, Luxt, Arbess Williams, Broun Fellinis, Tenfold, Forever Goldrush, Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days, Frankye Kelly, Beer Dawgs, Ricky & Del Connection, Raigambre, Firepie, ¡Búcho!, the Sardonics, Mary Dukes & 32-20, MDSO, New Dimensions, Gayiel Von, Slam Buckra, Hamsa Lila, BouJouBumBastik, Paradigm, Die Trying, the Drama, Omar Sharriff, Shirley Bunnell, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, Stereotype, Slim & Tofu, LockMonsta, Haze, Joe Bieker, INE, Dragn’fly, Odd Couple, W.D. Gospel Singers, Spiritual Keys, Sons of the Soul Revivers, Charles Champion & the Sensational Travelers, Original Olde Tyme Religion Singers, Sons of Salvation, God’s Annointed Angels.