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

Welcome Fairies and Earthlings

With the intensity of Scorpio, the craftsmanship of Virgo rising, and the joy of personal contact from a Libra moon, Ben Lomond craftsman, Robie Hiroz, makes magic and music in the mountains.

By Julie Horner

With steady hands rough and stained with varnish, Robie slowly takes the top of the fiddle off with a butter knife. The top releases. “The seal breaks – makes that sound – POP! Scares you at first,” he says. A four-inch crack running parallel to the neck where it meets the upper bout has necessitated a visit to Robie’s Fiddle and Banjo Shop in Ben Lomond. In business for 17 years refurbishing violins and banjos from an outbuilding behind his home that he built and named “The Saloon,” this is a visit home to where this fiddle, salvaged and refurbished from a prior lifetime, was purchased nearly a decade ago.

Once the top is removed, Robie repairs the crack with wood glue and clamps, easy enough. While he’s got the fiddle open, he is compelled to practice a new technique that he has recently discovered that coaxes a warmer tone from the old wood. “First, using little thumb planes, I shape the inside of the fiddle’s top to get more sound. Then I shorten the base-bar (a wooden ridge running nearly the full length of the top’s underside), which allows the bass tones to take over. You get richer tone even in the high strings, and the low strings have that growling sound.”

Wiry and unstoppable at 78, Robie retired in 2010 after 33 years as the graphic arts teacher at Santa Cruz Harbor High School. His specialty? Having fun with the kids. “Especially break dancing!” His philosophy in teaching is this: “If you make a mistake, it’s good, because it will take you someplace else where you’ve never been.”

Robie’s been playing banjo since he was 27 and fiddle for about 19 years, he says. He used to bring his banjo and fiddle to his classroom to practice. “I like the banjo, it’s exciting, but my heart is with the fiddle. I love those Irish melodies…and not fast…I like to get the beauty of it. The classic Irish melody.”

His craft is evident in projects large and small on his sunny quarter acre, including the old-time saloon (which doubles as his workshop, complete with a miniature bot-bellied stove) and a wee elf house handcrafted to exquisite detail inside and out. His latest idea shrinks the elf house to doggie size, and he has begun selling these custom canine dwellings at Mountain Feed & Supply in Ben Lomond. The hand-made sign on latest doghouse reads: Welcome fairies and earthlings! “Each one is different, and I get faster as I go.” Each doghouse takes about two weeks of solid work to make.

robie2

Robie Hiroz – Robie’s Violin and Banjo Shop, Ben Lomond, CA

Clara, Robie’s wife of 56 years, inspired him to take up the fiddle. She plays with the Cabrillo orchestra and with quartets at Ben Lomond Library, he says. They’ve known each other since they were kids. “I think I was seven. I first saw her in church playing violin as a youngster, her brother playing piano. She fixed someone’s fiddle for them and I thought, maybe that’s something I can do! He’s discovered after nearly 20 years of working on them how to make them sound good.

Robie repairs and refurbishes banjos and fiddles. He also makes his own banjos. Known by word of mouth and open by appointment, “I usually have about 30 full size fiddles on hand, and many smaller sized ones for youngsters. Come to the shop to try all the fiddles!”

You can also find Robie playing banjo or fiddle once or twice a week at Mountain Feed, usually noon to 2:00. “…playing out there in the sun…been doing that for about six or seven years. People especially seem to enjoy the Irish music. I enjoy talking to the people. Astrology is a big deal for me, too, and I sometimes get a chance to discuss that with folks.”

Robie’s Violin and Banjo Shop | 831-336-4625 | cahootshome@cruzio.com

Copyright 2018 Julie Horner for the San Lorenzo Valley Post

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