Sweet As Folk: Dulcet tones, acoustic alternatives & rock'n'roll brunches in Tucson's musical landscape
Like many esteemed rock critics before her, from Patti Smith to Lester Bangs, this columnist is also a sometime musician, which may well be the only thing she will ever have in common with either Patti Smith or Lester Bangs.
This is how she found herself singing U2 and Velvet Underground covers for a bar full of strangers one weekend not long ago when the opening band for a friend's gig cancelled at the last minute. The notice was minimal and the fame and glory pretty nonexistent, but it was a pleasant Friday night, there were drink tickets involved, and the prospect of getting paid to play music for an appreciative (or at least not actively complaining) crowd ultimately won out, a scenario not unfamiliar to a lot of working musicians in and around Tucson's local rock scene.
One super talented songwriter and musician I know (who shall remain nameless, lest bookers take offense) calls these kinds of shows "martyr gigs." It's like dying for your musical sins a little bit, she says, playing to an unfamiliar crowd without a full backing band.
Your voice, your playing and your songs, if you've written them, are naked and unadorned in front of a room full of strangers who are expecting to be entertained. Odds are these folks aren't here for you, they're just here for happy hour or brunch, but if you do well, they might buy your CD or come to your "real" band's show someday or say something positive about your set to the restaurant staff, improving your odds of getting more of these gigs.
And if you're super lucky, the strangers might leave a dollar or two in the tip pitcher you've left on the merch table (another musician friend's homemade tip jar sign reads "Just put the tip in, it will feel good!")
As anxiety -provoking as such gigs can be, they are coveted for a reason. People like the warm sounds of acoustic guitars and stringed instruments and simple piano melodies in the background of their dinners and happy hours and brunches. Venue owners like customers who are happy and relaxed and conversing and therefore likely to stick around to buy more drinks or food.
Musicians in turn get a usually modest but sometimes decent paycheck, and often score drinks or dinner on the house, all while getting a chance to try out new material on a neutral audience. Not only can this be a win-win situation, it's also one that doesn't require dividing your earnings among the four or five band members in a typical rock group. And unlike traditional rock live gigs, promotion is less of challenge since the crowd will often bring itself.
On any given weeknight in Tucson, you can thus find the front persons (or "sidepersons) of your favorite local rock bands playing intimate shows at such venues as the Royal Sun, the Parish, Exo Bar, La Cocina, or the soon-to-be-shuttered Flycatcher Lounge.
Local rock notables that often play solo or with pared-down versions of their live bands include, among others, Louise Le Hir, La Cerca's Andrew Gardner, Jacob Acosta, Steff Koeppen of Steff and the Articles, Bryan Thomas Parker, M. Crane's Nick Maskill, Ryanhood and ...musicvideo? alum Paul Jenkins. Such shows are usually worth checking out, in the same way that old MTV Unplugged or VH1 Storytellers deconstructed our favorite bands of yore. We get hear the music stripped down and at its core, without the noise and fuzz and percussive attack that, while also damned fabulous, can get in the way of absorbing the lyrics and heart of a song.
While these may be martyr gigs for the rock and rollers, other folks in the Tucson music scene make this kind of music as their sole focus, and they do it well. Tucson's favorite British-born Delta bluesman Tom Walbank is a prolific example, as is local lonesome desert country outsider Hank Topless, fingerpicking blue guitar teen prodigy Roman Barten-Sherman, the ever gigging Ms. Natalie Pohanic, and the cowpunk tinged acoustic duo of Miss Lana Rebel and Kevin Mayfield.
Others take a less traditional eclectic approach to the lounge gig landscape, including the improv horn based weirdness that is Mik and Scott, accordion and uke rock ala Little Cloud and acoustic alternative acts such as For Love Or Absinthe, October Intuition, and Monsignor Wednesday's Guitar Mass.
Meanwhile, many local talented local folks play blues based or folk/Americana music on a slightly grander scale. Leila Lopez's percussive, folk/punk-inspired indie rock is a great example, or the upbeat gorgeous jangle of hometown indie heroes Ryanhood, or the lush '60s Laurel Canyon Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young) inspired soundscape of Casey Golden, June West, Jess Matsen and, honestly, anyone lucky enough to get Connor Gallaher to play slide guitar in their band.
And then there are the traditional folk musicians. Which is still a thing, after all this time. And God bless it.
Naturally, being from the mostly rock and roll camp, I was intrigued by what inspires one to play folk music in this crazy modern age. So I asked a local "folkie" for some perspective.
East Coast transplant and folk rocker Joyce Luna is in this camp. A one-time veteran of a touring folk duo (Justina & Joyce), Luna writes and plays songs are of the sweet, pure toned Joni Mitchell-inspired variety and despite her relative youth, she approaches the genre earnestly, in the spirit of the folk godmothers of decades past.
Joyce Luna: "Why folk music? Well I had older siblings and so I was exposed to James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg and Joni Mitchell and Carole King when I was a kid because of them. I was always one of those sensitive kids who was told by adults and other kids that I was "too sensitive". Of course, most of those of us like that become artists, right? Anyway, I also really related to beautiful voices, and to lyrics that means something. Because there's something cathartic about listening to those deeply personal stories and knowing that you're not alone."
"I don't know if that that's why I grew up to write and play that music. Because I also listen to other genres and a lot of my songs are influenced by other things, like Motown and the early Beatles. But I would say that another other reason it inspires me is that folk music in the '60s and '70s was music that was talking about what was happening in society, highlighting injustices and calling out to people to join together and to do something. So, yes, I am a contemporary folk artist because that's the label that we put on to music that sounds like what I do, a woman playing a guitar and singing songs in that tradition. Music that you sit down and listen to."
TucsonSentinel.com: As a folk-leaning artist, what musicians inspire you to keep creating in this style?
JL: "I love Carole King and Jason Mraz and Sara Bareilles and Patty Griffin. I referenced Patty Griffin song Rain a lot when I was trying to communicate to my co-producer or my engineer a kind of production level for which I was striving. There's also an artist named Madi Diaz, and she has a song called 'Heavy Heart' that I love. Motown and early Beatles, Roger McGuinn and George Harrison playing 12-string guitar."
"Ryan Green (of Ryanhood) who produced my album had the inspired idea of using electric 12-string on my new album. Matt Bruner is going to play electric 12-string at my CD release show this Saturday night, so I'm excited to get to do that live!"
Green is one of many local players that leave Luna somewhat in awe, and the prolific nature of our local live scene was a welcome change from the East Coast.
JL: "Tucson has a unbelievable wealth of gifted musicians. I think a lot of people take that for granted, because they play a lot locally and a lot of music here can be heard for free. But when you have people like Mitzi Cowell, Don Armstrong, Michael Gilbert Ronstadt, Leila Lopez, Amochip Dabney and Connie Brannock, I could be writing names all day and I would not get to the end of the list. All of these folks are truly gifted, and I am inspired constantly here. Most other parts of the country in which I've lived or played shows, you might get to hear even your favorite local musicians a few times a year. Not every week!"
Luna will play a show this Saturday night at 6:30 p.m.Water of Life Church (3269 N. Mountain Ave.) with support from Tammy West in celebration of the release of her latest album, "Every Road We Take," produced by Ryan David Green.
Other fabulous shows in the indie acoustic/Americana/jangly guitar/folk rock/or otherwise pretty and not-so-ear-shatteringly-loud spirit this week include:
Leila Lopez Band at Crooked Tooth Brewing (7 p.m. Friday), Casey Golden at Exo Bar (8 p.m. Friday), Ivan Denis and Greyhounds at Hotel Congress (7 p.m. Friday), Hank Topless at Saint Charles Tavern (9 p.m. Friday), Jody Rush at Stillhouse Grill (7 p.m. Saturday), For Love or Absinthe at Flycatcher (9:30 p,m. Monday), Tom Walbank at Skybar (6:30 p.m. Tuesday) and Miss Lana Rebel with Kevin Michael Mayfield aka the brains behind Old Paint Records at La Cocina (6 p.m. Wednesday.)
So head out to your fave local musician hosting lounge or brunch spot or watering hole and don't let your favorite local musicians "die for their musical sins" in vain. And just put the tip in (the jar.) It will feel good.
And now for something a little louder...
Just because this week's column centers on the softer, more jangly side of Tucson rock, doesn't mean your friendly neighborhood music writer is unaware of the many fabulous rock and punk and garage and otherwise racouse loudness based live shows that are happening this week in our sun baked, heat stroked dusty desert oasis.
Friday night, check out one of a handful of great, loud, probably danceable gigs — or hop back and forth amongst them if you have the energy:
- TWGS, The Exbats and The Rebel Set at Cans (8 p.m.)
- Taco Sauce, Jaca Zulu and Seanloui at Club Congress (8 p.m.)
- Neo- psych inspired bands Silver Cloud Express, Tropical Beach and Psychedelephants at Flycatcher (9 p.m.)
Saturday night, more of the same with:
- Fools Like Me and M. Crane at Bar Passe (8 p.m.)
- Lando Chill with Lasso at Flycatcher (9 p.m.)
- Birds and Arrows at Che's Lounge (10 p.m.)
And later in the week, check out Cool Funeral with Puzzlehead, Dial Up, and Her Mana at 8 p.m. Wednesday over at Club Congress.
Farewell, Flycatcher, we hardly knew ye...
Since its heyday as Plush Tucson in the early 2000s (and dating back to the local and nationally jazz acts that graced the small stage when it was Cafe Sweetwater in the '80s and early '90s) the bar now known as the Flycatcher Lounge has hosted countless local and national acts over the years, and, with the exception of Club Congress, used to be the Tucson venue of choice for indie bands and postpunk legends as they passed through town.
Among this columnist's favorite "Plushcatcher" live show memories are a couple of incredible local Bowie tributes, a gorgeous baroque pop set by The Pernice Brothers, a majestic weeknight visit by British post-punk legends The Wedding Present, fabulous high energy, near capacity live shows by Old 97s and Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, and a pair of absolute rave ups by Japanese punk goddesses Shonen Knife.
Over the course of the past couple of decades, Sweetwater/Plush/Flycatcher has hosted thousands of DJ sets, tribute shows, live comedy acts, karaoke nights, deep conversations, not-so-deep-conversations, first dates, last dates, celebrations, farewell gatherings, impromptu wakes, cigarettes smoked, things-that-maybe-weren't-cigarettes-smoked, talented-musicians-who-also-worked-as-bartenders/doorpersons, band formations, band break ups, better-than-they-had-any-right-to-be Bloody Marys and various local music community shenanigans that will occupy an antique red wallpaper and band t-shirt decorated corner of our hearts for a long time to come.
As the well-loved space at the corner of 6th Street and Fourth Avenue prepares to close its doors for good (employees are reporting a tentative July 15 closing date) a chapter of local music history closes with it.
By this time next year, the space that houses the bar is set to be part of a planned multistory student housing project, one of three such projects underway in the Fourth Avenue Historic District. In the meantime, you've still got a couple of weeks to catch one last show or grab one last beer with friends. Maybe I'll see ya there.
Check your local listings...
Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of good venue and band event announcements and other resources, including local musician Chris Black's site www.whoplayswhere.com. If you've like your event listed in this space, or if your local band has major news or a new release, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, June 22
- Leila Lopez Band - 7 p.m. Crooked Tooth Brewing
- Greyhounds, Ivan Denis 7 p.m. Hotel Congress
- Santa Pachita - 7 p.m. Playground Bar and Lounge
- Katchafire - 7 p.m. 191 Toole
- TWGS, the Exbats, The Rebel Set - 8 p.m. Cans Deli
- Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston, Casey Golden - 8 p.m.Exo Bar
- Seanloui, Jaca Zulu and Taco Sauce - 8 p.m. Club Congress
- The Vibe - 8 p.m. House of Bards
- 9 p.m. Flycatcher
- Silver Cloud Express, The Psychedelephants, Tropical Beach - 9 p.m. Flycatcher
- Natty & The Sunset - 9 p.m. La Cocina
Saturday, June 23
- Joyce Luna album release show - 6:30 p.m. Water of Life Church
- Leila Lopez - 5:30 p.m. Flycatcher
- Slow Motion Cowboys, the Love-Birds - 7 p.m. Cans Deli
- Broken, Push, Drop D & Dead West - 7 p.m. House of Bards
- Miguel Reyes - 7 p.m. La Cocina
- The Metros - 7 p.m. Playground Bar and Lounge
- Jody Rush - 7 p.m. Stillhouse Grill and Bar
- Vox Urbana & Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
- Fools Like Me & M. Crane - 8 p.m. Bar Passé
- The Jits - 8 p.m. Fini's Landing
- Lando Chill, Lasso - 9 p.m. Flycatcher
- Hank Topless - 9 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
- Velocity - 9 p.m. The Edge Bar
- Birds and Arrows - 10 p.m. Che's Lounge
Sunday, June 24
- Mik and the Funky Brunch - 12:30 p.m. La Cocina
- Kevin Pakulis - 2:30 p.m. Borderlands
- Eulogy Project - 7 p.m. Che's Lounge
Monday, June 25
- Dawn & Dupree - 6 p.m. Cans Deli
- Miss Olivia and the Interlopers - 7 p.m. The Parish
- Upstart 33 - 8 p.m. House of Bards
- For Love Or Absinthe -9:30 p.m. Flycatcher
Tuesday, June 26
- Tom Walbank- 6:30 p.m. Sky Bar
- Street Dogs, Left Alone, the Last Gang, Thug Riot- 7:30 p.m. 191 Toole
- Fantastic Negrito - 7:30 p.m. Hotel Congress
- Songs With Steff Koeppen- 8:30 p.m. Sky Bar
Wednesday, June 27
- Miss Lana Rebel & Kevin Michael Mayfield - 6 p.m. La Cocina
- Quintron and Miss Pussycat, Sad Reptilian- 8 p.m. 191 Toole
- Puzzlehead, Her Mana, Dial Up and Cool Funeral - 8 p.m. Hotel Congress
- Charles Ellsworth - 8 p.m. Owls Club
- This Wilderness, Xambuca - 9 p.m. Flycatcher
Thursday, June 28
- Little Wings - 6 p.m. Cans Deli
- General Anxiety, Azfarat, Nullus, Butoh Sonics - 7 p.m. Cans Deli
- Beres Hammond, DJ Inferno - 8:30 p.m. The Rialto Theatre