Never Lose Sight of Those Little Red Lights: A Banjoman’s Journey

By Dan Mazer

The 27th Annual Brookdale Bluegrass Festival was scheduled for this weekend (April 17th – 19th, 2020), but it was one of the first events this year to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the scheduled performers, it hurts my heart to miss one of my favorite events, but being stuck at home gives me the chance to reminisce about my first booking at that event, and my first visit to Santa Cruz County.

I’m a professional Bluegrass/Folk musician. In the late 1990s, I lived in San Diego and was the banjo player in a group called “The Jackstraws.” We were a costumed, themed entertainment act, combining folk music and comedy, performing at venues ranging from SeaWorld to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, to private parties, corporate events, and festivals all around California. After a painful divorce, I moved back to my old hometown of Washington, DC in the year 2000, to recover near family and friends.

In early 2001, The Jackstraws’ band leader convinced me to return to San Diego for one more summer with the band, so I began making plans for a cross-country tour to bring me back to California. One of the venues I contacted was the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival. Eric Burman, the festival director, told me that although he didn’t usually book solo acts, he’d take a chance on me, and that was how I got my first-ever gig in Santa Cruz County.

“BanjerDan” Mazer

My tour began in mid-February, and started with a trip North on I-95 to see family. The first stop on the tour was The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, MA. From there it was a quite an adventure, driving across the country in late winter. I had shows in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin; Pierre, South Dakota; Gillette, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; and Sandpoint, Idaho, on my way to “The Big Gig” of the tour, which was the Wintergrass Festival in Tacoma, WA. I have a vivid memory of driving into a fog bank on the way to Bozeman. The fog was so thick that I had to follow dangerously close to a truck, just so I could see its rear lights. I was afraid that if I lost sight of those little red lights, I’d drive right off the road!

After the weekend at Wintergrass, the tour continued with gigs in Portland and Eugene, Oregon; a recording session in Ashland; and in California I had shows in Arcata and Eureka on the way to Brookdale. The festival was held inside the Brookdale Lodge, and when I arrived I was immediately impressed with the beautiful old hotel, especially the natural stream running right through the middle of the dining room. Eric Burman greeted me when I arrived, and made me feel right at home.

Brook Room at the Brookdale Lodge

The 2001 Brookdale Bluegrass Festival featured Frank Solivan Sr. and Jr., Sidesaddle, Harmony Grits, Regina Bartlett, and Eric’s band, The Birchlake Ramblers. There was also an “underwater banjo contest,” which I missed, unfortunately. I remember in particular enjoying the Solivans’ show, but I have no clear memory of my own performance. That’s OK,
because Eric assured me that the audience enjoyed it a lot.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Bluegrass Music is the jamming. Bluegrass relies on the interplay between guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass, with every instrument playing a support role in between solos. Just as in a jazz “cutting session,” each instrumentalist is given a turn to play lead on a given tune. So, when all the performances were over for the evening, Eric led me to “the green room” where the jam session was taking place. The air was filled with the sound of hot pickin’, and redolent with the sweet smell of high quality cannabis. I was home!

At the jam session I met Frank Solivan II, who’s a truly amazing mandolin player and singer, and Santa Cruz’s own Pete Hicks, who’s a also a very talented singer and multi-instrumentalist. It was an insanely fun jam, made even more fun by Frank and Pete’s enthusiasm and broad knowledge of Bluegrass. Pete told me that he happened to have a
recording session scheduled the next day, and asked if I’d like to be on it. Since I had a couple of days off the before the next gig, I eagerly accepted.

The next morning I accompanied Pete to Jim Lewin’s place. I didn’t know Jim, but he’s another Santa Cruz County fixture. He’s a great guitarist and singer, and is a member of at least two fine bands, “Edge of the West” and “Great American Taxi.” Jim was the engineer on the session, and he blew me away with his guitar playing!

We spent most of the day recording live with no individual overdubbing, and toward the end of the evening, all the travel and partying and lack of sleep caught up with me. I had a bad headache, and someone gave me an industrial-strength Tylenol. A bit later, as we were recording a tune called “Minor Swing,” I hit a creative wall. That tune hadn’t been scheduled for the recording, but we were jamming away. The tune went around the circle several times, and Pete, Frank, and Jim were playing hotter and hotter solos, but after my second round, I was sleepy and out of new ideas. The other guys were playing so well, and when the third
solo came my way, I played it almost exactly the same as the second. I was afraid that I was going to completely mess up and ruin the entire take, so when the bridge of the tune came around, without any warning, I changed the rhythm to half-time, and fortunately the guys followed the time change, and took over the melody for me. Then, when it came back to the “A part,” I just put my hands over the strings and let the rest of the band finish the tune. After that, I retired to sleep on the couch.

That session was eventually released as Pete Hicks’ “Upstairs Jam” CD, and despite the banjo suddenly disappearing from “Minor Swing,” it remains one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever recorded.

BanjerDan Dresses the Part

After a couple of days visiting Santa Cruz and Monterey, I continued my tour with stops in San Luis Obispo and Palm Springs, before rejoining The Jackstraws in San Diego. During that summer season, I booked another tour to take me back to Washington, and as it happened, the departure date for that tour was September 11, 2001. So, I had the experience of driving across the United States during the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but that’s a tale for another time.

Frank Solivan II joined the U.S. Navy’s country/bluegrass band, called “Country Current,” and moved to Washington, DC. He and I reconnected there, and played a few gigs together. He’s now the leader of “Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen,” which is one of the most prominent Bluegrass bands on the national circuit, and which features Mike Munford on banjo, one of my very favorite pickers. Pete Hicks is a member of “The Central Valley Boys” and “Bean Creek,” and Jim Lewin is busy with his two bands and many other projects.

I spent the first decade of the 21st Century living in the DC area, playing and teaching the banjo, and performing everywhere from busking at Metro stations to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I also did several tours as a solo act, and went on the road with an “outlaw honky-tonk” band called J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters. At the end of 2010 I was thoroughly fed up with the cold winters and crowded noisy city life and decided to return to California. I ended up in northern San Luis Obispo County, near the town of Atascadero.

BanjerDan in San Luis Obispo

One of the first things I did upon returning to California was to start booking festivals, and so I reconnected with Eric Burman. It turned out that he’s the director of two festivals, as well as being a band leader. He booked me for the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival in 2012, and we got to know each other better. He eventually made me an ad hoc member of his own “Brookdale Bluegrass Band,” and I’ve been delighted to join him at the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival, the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival (both held at the San Benito County Historical Park), and the Pick & Gather Festival in Livingston. The connection to Eric has given me the opportunity to visit Santa Cruz County many times now, and I’m grateful to him for his kindness and generosity. I look forward to many more visits!

Dan Mazer Banjo Player

Since all my Spring bookings have been cancelled, and likely the cancellations will continue into the Summer, like most musicians and other workers in the “gig economy,” my income stream has dried up almost entirely. However, like many of my fellow musicians, I’ve turned to live-streaming performances from my home. If you’d like to hear my music and maybe contribute to my “virtual tip jar,” please subscribe to my Youtube and Facebook pages. To paraphrase an old wine cooler commercial: “I thank you for your support!”

BanjerDan on Youtube:
https://youtube.com/channel/UCqAIxWUYr7Bye-wPojuauHA
BanjerDan on Facebook: http://facebook.com/BanjerDan

(c) April 2020, Dan Mazer for the San Lorenzo Valley Post

Nose to Nose with BanjerDan

A Measure of Sweet Mountain Music ~ Sugar by the Pound

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By Julie Horner

A tidy vase of dried hydrangeas and autumn leaves on a rustic wooden table greeted me as I let myself in the gate. I sank into a chair on the wide porch, for all the world transported in the Indian summer heat of early October to some place in the nation’s South. The grateful shade under a sweeping California oak reminded me that I hadn’t strayed too far from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This old home is where banjo player and vocalist for Sugar by the Pound, Alison Steele, has sunk her roots to raise her babies, grow her own food, and nurture the love of making music. The other members of this all-girl band, Erin Valdivia (vocals, guitar), Cristy Aloysi (vocals, mandolin), and Sarah Farrell Mackassey (vocals, stand-up bass) live within walking distance of this quiet street of rustic bungalows tucked off the mountain town bustle of State Routes 9 and 236. So close to each other, in fact, that locals have reported seeing the girls walking their instruments across the highway on their way to practice!

Sharing a passion for family, food, and sense of community, the four friends started making music together just for fun at home. Before too long they found themselves playing out locally as a new force, dialing in their sweet sound together while rediscovering at the same time a sense of their own place as individuals. Each is already an artist in her own right: Alison, a fashion designer; Erin, executive baker and co-owner of Toast and Prost, which pairs craft brews with artisanal bread for local tastings; Cristy, artist and owner of Viscosity Glass; and Sarah, Yoga instructor, artist and owner of lille æske art house collective.

Now the girls are performing full throttle, breaking the all-male bluegrass old time-y mold with beauty, talent, and style. Alison explained that their music is not strictly bluegrass but is a blend of their experiences and interpretations built upon the foundations of old time, country blues, and American roots music. Inspired by the music of Appalachia, Sugar by the Pound sings folk songs in perfectly blended four-part harmony and plays melodies with simple traditional chord progressions using only acoustic instruments. Originally from California, New York, Indiana, and Virginia, the girls compose their own material and cover some of the most richly nostalgic traditional music ever written, bringing East and West Coast together for a uniquely warm, clear sound. And their contagious energy has audiences dancing and singing along.

Alison told me, “I have to say Georgie Buck is one of my favorites. I learned it after listening to Elizabeth Cotten’s version (she wrote the classic Freight Train Blues). She played clawhammer banjo and guitar. I like the part that says, ‘Georgie Buck is dead, last words he said, never let a woman have her way, boys, never let a woman have her way!’ We get a lot of hootin’ and hollering on that one for obvious reasons. It’s a powerful song with all of us singing strong harmonies and it really gets us and the crowd going. It’s fast, too, so it gets me stompin’ on my flatfootin’ board and smilin’. It’s one of the first songs we ever performed together, so it feels like home.”

An unknown composer once wrote: “Whiskey by the gallon, sugar by the pound, a great big bowl to put it in, and a spoon to stir it round…I wish I had a needle and thread, as fine as I could sew, I would sew all the girls to my coat-tail, and down the mountain I’d go!”

One little taste of Sugar by the Pound and it’s easy to picture this extended family toe-tapping the planks of that wide welcoming porch on a late summer evening in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

On the Web: http://sugarbythepound.wordpress.com

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/sugarbythepound

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(c) Julie Horner 2014

Julie Horner is a Boulder Creek based Irish-American folk musician and writer.