The fronds must be pleased

One year after being evicted from a South Davis barn, heavenly music venue the Palms Playhouse has put down some nice roots in the Winters Opera House

Photo By Jill Wagner

It is hard to go back.

You want to know, but you don’t want to see. You want to keep the bittersweet memory in your mind’s eye, but still you are curious. On the one-year anniversary of the demise of the original Palms Playhouse, the once-vaunted site of so much brilliant music and cherished times is now flattened. Not many fronds of the Palms, as the Palms’ die-hard music fans call themselves, have the stomach for the trip.

Instead, they head 13 miles west to Winters, where the Palms Playhouse, a beloved venue for many of the greatest Americana and roots-music stars, has relocated inside the old Winters Opera House. It has emerged, with rusty tractor in tow, victorious.

Winters is where Dave Fleming, the Palms’ proprietor and resident music geek, recently sat, smiling at the club’s prospects, which he described as good and encouraging. “I’m surprised,” he added, “because I thought that immediately, we would fall off the face of the Earth, coming out here.” But Winters is only 35 minutes from Sacramento. “It isn’t that far, but I think some people think it is farther,” Fleming said.

Many of the Palms’ fronds fretted, wondering if the move would pay off and, more importantly, if the vibe would still be there. Recall the white-bearded tribal psychiatrist Utah Phillips counseling the audience on August 24, 2002, the final emotional night at the old barn: “The Palms isn’t going away, ya see. The Palms is a community, not just a place. The Palms is us. We all have to remember this.”

Much of the flock did follow the move, and the new Palms rode into downtown Winters and hitched up quite nicely with the town’s estimated 6,500 people. “Our numbers are averaging a little bit more than the old place,” Fleming said. “We are selling out weekdays. I guess I wasn’t sure how supportive Winters itself would be, but it has been supportive in buying tickets, supportive in so many ways. That has been a surprise.” Even where Fleming sells advance tickets—the Kimes Ace Hardware store—is a tad unorthodox.

Fleming also found the city burghers to be receptive. “At the city level, they listen, they ask questions; they are being very approachable, and they really want me here,” he enthused. “It is a really refreshing feel. At a personal level, people have been so nice to me, low-key and friendly. It is hard to think where else it could have been this good.”

Charlie Wallace, the publisher of the Winters Express and one of the seven-member consortium that offered the three-year lease of the Winters Opera House to the Palms, is soft-spoken and forthright—just like Fleming, whom Wallace claims the whole town loves. “He is an important person here,” Wallace said. “But he doesn’t talk a lot, so when he shows up at our town meetings, people listen. I don’t know—maybe that didn’t happen in Davis.”

Walk down Winters’ Main Street, and you know you are no longer in Davis. Go past the cozy Putah Creek Café, where cartoonist and former Winters resident Robert Crumb often sketched for years, gaze left across the street to the Buckhorn Restaurant and bar, where upper-body parts of deer and antelope still play and where the wooden Liar’s Bench patiently waits out front. Look ahead to the stately columned bank building or back around the block to the more woolly Wild Ox Saloon, and it’s apparent that the notion of “to thine own self be true” is very much alive and well in Winters.

“Our councilmembers are laid back; they have the same vision for Winters,” Wallace said. “Nothing rocks the boat too much here. The city stayed out of the way for the Palms, and it all seems to be going fine.”

Wallace, who rides around town on a Harley, goes to the shows, too. “Sometimes I help him bartend if he is short-handed,” he said. “I look out, and half the people are from Winters. Sometimes it looks like the old Palms. I think his population base will grow to encompass Vacaville and Fairfield people. Dave keeps track of every ticket; he knows where they are coming from, you know. I was glad to see that: Sometimes, artist people don’t follow the money. He is an artist and a businessman.”

Eighteen months ago, Fleming’s operative word was “vibe.” It was critical to him that the Palms’ next home have one. Not necessarily the same vibe as before, but a unique one that could marry up with the free spirit of the music.

Palms impresario Dave Fleming beams in front of an old ad banner that someone found rolled up under the Winters Opera House stage. He’s obviously happy the transplant of the Palms was a success.

Photo By Jill Wagner

In March 2002, after 11 years of running the old barn, Fleming received a fax from the absentee property owner, former Davis resident and Palms Playhouse founder Linda McDonagh. It advised him of the imminent sale of the property; it was his eviction notice. For five months, he sweated it out; dropped pounds; lost sleep; took many meetings; witnessed at a number of still-talked-about brilliant final shows from the likes of Chuck Prophet, Mumbo Gumbo and especially Dave Alvin; and lived on nerves and coffee. He hunted frantically for a new home.

The need for the right vibe is ultimately what led him away from Davis and the city councilmembers who were pushing hard for the Palms to relocate either to downtown Davis’ old City Hall or to the Varsity Theatre. No vibe, no go, he said ultimately.

The Winters Opera House, built in 1875, is a second-floor ballroom with high ceilings, exposed brick walls and a burnished wooden dance floor right up front. It was refurbished 10 years ago by the aforementioned Winters business consortium. It holds 220—that’s 70 more seats than the old barn—and has modern conveniences like heating and air conditioning, plus more bathrooms.

“The vibe is still there,” Fleming admitted. “It’s different, but there is still a vibe. That is something I’ve struggled with this year. The old barn was so … lovely. But this place still feels independent; it feels totally non-corporate and though the room itself is more formal than the other room was, well,” he said, laughing, “the joke around here is how do I sleaze up the room without ruining it?”

Fleming, though, is serious. “I don’t know if I am going to be able to do that or not. It is just not as funky. And therefore, I think certain looser musics, including blues, feel a little bit different here. New Orleans music really thrives in a room that feels sweatier, divier, sleazier.”

But check out the word from singer and pianist Marcia Ball, a high priestess of shaking your tail feather if ever there was one: “I like it. A lot.” she said. “Whereas the old Palms was a throwback to, ‘Let’s throw a show in your garage,’ the new Palms is, ‘Let’s have a concert in the town hall.’

“Winters reminds me of my little hometown in Vinton, La.,” Ball added. “It is about the same size—on a good day—and that upstairs room in Vinton’s only two-story building was the Masonic Lodge. I have a picture of Vinton’s very first Mardi Gras in that room, and it looks just exactly like the Winters Opera House. So, I feel real comfortable there.”

The Palms’ recent upcoming calendar looks familiar: Joe Louis Walker, Laura Love, Maria Muldaur, Lucy Kaplansky, Sourdough Slim, Beausoleil, Mary Gauthier, Tish Hinojosa, Slaid Cleaves, Roy Rogers and Mumbo Gumbo. Many hope Fleming will consider some musical expansion—more jazz, classic rock and classical. The return of Matt Haimovitz, a young classical cellist who is consciously taking his powerful playing out of concert halls and into clubs, performs on Saturday, September 20 (see “Proof through the night,” page 53). Along with the recent booking of Australian multi-didgeridoo player Xavier Rudd, both are promising stretches.

The Palms debut of Richie Havens, someone Fleming has always wanted but could not afford before, was a smashing success. He’ll be back. “I do have some hesitations—Winters is a smaller town, farther from Sacramento,” Fleming said, before musing: “Should I have spent eight grand and booked Procol Harum this summer? What an interesting show that would have been with original members! It probably would have sold.”

Nevada City station KVMR has stepped up its live remote broadcasts from the Palms to every other month. “I had to install an ISDN line, and KVMR had to purchase a $4,000 audio transceiver the size of a laptop called a Zephyr,” Fleming explained. Earlier in the year, the Zephyr quietly slid out of the back of a pickup truck headed to Winters to broadcast live sets by local folk-blues artists Jackie Greene and Bodhi Busick. Someone driving along the street saw the Zephyr lying on the road and knew what it was; apparently, a number of people in Grass Valley and Nevada City have taken volunteer broadcasting classes offered by KVMR. The Samaritan took the transceiver directly to the station; an employee then rushed it to Winters so the show could go on. “That was a $4,000 sigh of relief,” said Fleming.

Most fans know now that the old 1930s International Harvester tractor is out back in the courtyard, nestled among little Italian lights, potted palm trees and bistro tables, where folks still gather before shows or during set breaks. The famous old green-room walls with thoughts and signatures of performers, some now departed, were not destroyed. They’re in a storage room downstairs.

“The new green-room walls are looking pretty fun,” Fleming admitted, smiling. “And the old ones—where to put them? Me and interior decorating—what a nightmare.” He shook his head ruefully.

And what of the club kitties that often graced the stage and bar and curled against Palms-goers’ legs? “We have six now,” Fleming confessed. “They are great. We go for walks every morning. You can see pictures of us on the Palms’ Web site, out in the country. Very nice.”