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The Palm’s Playhouse in Winters always has a great list of performers. I remember the original Palm’s back when they were in Davis. I must confess, however, I have never made the effort to drive from wherever I happen to be in California to check out a show at their “new” location until recently, when I saw that Marshall Crenshaw was on the bill.
Many of my friends and family who either live nearby or have visited the small town of Winters had recommended, if ever I happen to pass thru the area (geographically speaking, like Mendocino or Timbuktu, nobody just happens to “pass thru” Winters), besides the Palm’s, I should also check out the famous Buckhorn Restaurant located across the street from the Playhouse.
So, that is what I did and found Crenshaw and some of the members of his band for this tour,” The Bottle Rockets”, also enjoying the Buckhorn’s fare. Taking liberty, I introduced myself to Mr. Crenshaw and the band, told them I was looking forward to seeing the concert, taking a few photos, and would love to talk to them afterwards. I took my seat at the bar and placed my order for some courage.
Across the street, there is a glass door etched with “Palm’s” and a chalkboard displaying “Marshall Crenshaw 8pm.” Down a hall, there is a choice of stairs or elevator to the second floor. A short hallway displays posters of the past and future concerts that have or will grace the stage and leads into the intimate theater.
I strolled over to make my acquaintance with a small bar located in the far corner, and I recognized the server from her performance years before as a dancer at the Whole Earth Festival with Norton Buffalo, another famous musician who used to play the Palm’s and who had passed a little more than a year ago.
Alternative-country pioneers the Bottle Rockets, a St. Louis-based band, has 10 albums under their belt. To describe the Rockets’ music is like defining our current economy, but with a hopeful upswing. It starts in the heart of America and works its way down through every hard-luck circumstance that could possibly consume the human soul and simply but powerfully strums its way back up to the same sort of excitement you may have felt as a child upon first discovering a shiny penny on the ground. And that is exactly how I felt as I watched their set unfold.
(Image by: Holly S. Howard)
Front man Brian Henneman has a Missouri twang in his voice, with a combination of country Merle Haggard and rocker Neil Young style on guitar. He is joined by bassist Keith Voegele, guitarist John Horton and drummer Mark Ortmann. I could not help but fall in love with their music and authentic down-to-earth style. I could easily relate to their personal stories the band shared between songs, such as when Henneman described a conversation he had with his wife that day with a smile on his face and pride in his voice that, with the help of a contract with Sirius Radio, how his wife was able to buy a dishwasher today.
After a brief intermission, the band stepped backed and Crenshaw took lead
What a truly music-of-my-life set it was. His set included subtely updated arrangements of his own classics “Someday, Someway,” “My Favorite Waste of Time,” “There She Goes Again,” “What Do You Dream Of?” and his very first hit single from, even I can’t believe it, 30 years ago, “Something’s Gonna Happen.” He also delved back with the help of the Bottle Rockets to his idols, such as Buddy Holly, who Crenshaw portrayed in the 1987 film “La Bamba,” and then ended the evening with a great rockin’ version of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.”
The beauty, the variety, the craftsmanship and artistry of the blending of voices and instruments of Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets was, as one fan described it, “like witnessing ‘a wall of sound.’”
Mathew Wills, a student at UCDavis who attended the show with his father, came up to Crenshaw after the show and also commented on the set.
“Good to see you go electric,” he said. “Great variety. I loved the new stuff, but I liked you went back, ‘Way Back.’”
That put a smile on Crenshaw’s face, an admitted audiophile; I could tell he was pleased to see someone from a younger generation who can appreciate music that was created even before the young man's own parents’ were.
Crenshaw, who is also a big Beatles fan, started out in a band back in 1968 called Astigafa (an acronym for "a splendid time is guaranteed for all", a lyric from The Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"). He got his big break in show business when he took the part as John Lennon in “Beatlemania.”
Another fan, who saw Beatlemania back in ’79-’80, told Crenshaw he was disappointed he did not bring the original program from the San Francisco show. “That would have been great to have Crenshaw autograph that original program.”
(Image by: Holly S. Howard)
Currently, besides touring with the Bottle Rockets, Crenshaw has several projects on the fire, including hosting a radio show, "Bottomless Pit."
"I don't think that it's quite like anything else you'll hear,” he said.
For starters, all the music comes from Crenshaw’s personal collection, which runs the range from 78s to MP3s and Mozart to the MC5.
Scheduled to run in August, the Detroit-based show will not simply retell the Motown or Bob Seger stories. Instead, they will pay tribute to the likes of soul singer Bettye LaVette and guitarists Wayne Kramer of the MC5 and Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, among others.
Crenshaw says he got the idea for a radio show from guesting with Steve Earle on Earle's defunct Air America show.
"I played some records and talked and I really enjoyed it," he says.
So he went and found himself a gig on WKZE in the Hudson Valley, launching the "Bottomless Pit" show there in 2005- 2006. A couple of years later, he came to WFUV, a station that has kept playing his music, even when it has fallen outside the pop-radio mainstream.
“I’m also working on a project of singles, I plan on recording something new every four months or so.”
Another project he just wrapped up is the movie “Loser Takes All,” which should open by the end of this year.
“I served as executive music producer, and my brother, John, wrote three of the songs for the movie,” he said.
But for now, Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets are heading for the next big gig in Portland, Seattle and beyond.
The Palm’s Playhouse is well worth the drive for some hot music with some cool people!