In the wake of BottleRock and as May rolled into the first weekend of June, I found myself facing a musical quandary.
On Saturday night, the Uptown Theatre presented Canadian singer/songwriters, the Wailin’ Jennys, who I adore. The following afternoon the Lincoln Theater was hosting a Napa Valley debut by Canadian banjoist, composer and producer Jayme Stone.
Also on Sunday, a free musical crawl, “Napa Live: Inside and Out,” flaunted 40 local bands performing six hours of eclectic styles in and around downtown locations.
So many choices, so little time!
As Stone was a “newbie” to me, and his program promised songs collected from field recordings by noted ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, I chose that option. From seats placed on stage, the audience was rewarded with an afternoon of stellar musicianship, innovative renditions of now-historic folksongs and, for a few familiar tunes, we were invited to sing along.
We’ve come to enjoy and anticipate the musical smorgasbord of live entertainment now offered annually throughout the Napa Valley. From tasting rooms to bars, outdoor festivals to indoor venues, classrooms to studios, in parks and on porches, Napa’s growing musical foothold has been woven into the fabric of our community.
Within this musical landscape resides a kinship of singers, songwriters and musicians with impressive “street cred” and fascinating backstories.
Take self-taught veteran guitarist Larry Otis, who grew up in Marin, moved east and has called Napa home for the past 40 years.
He began his musical journey in the eighth grade when, Otis remembered, “I heard Elvis sing ‘Hound Dog.’ I joined a talent contest and one of the prizes was stick-on side burns. I mimed Elvis for the show and won. All of a sudden, I was Mr. Popular. It was a love of music but also a love of attention.”
Otis played in his first band, pre-Beatles, after mustering three basic chords, “But after being involved in a car wreck, my dad bought me a really good guitar, and it was quite challenging,” he reminisced. “When the Beatles came along, we had to learn to play, and it wasn’t three chords any longer.”
During a stint in the Coast Guard, Otis served as a lighthouse keeper on the Farallon Islands where time allowed him the luxury of furthering his musical and composing chops. Today, he plays various configurations, including mandolin, steel and slide guitar in both the Second Street Band and for Coffin Hunter, a heavy-metal band he describes as “bluegrass on steroids.”
Otis can boast of a varied musical history having played as a band member in numerous recording sessions as well as in gigs with Ike and Tina Turner, Bobby Womack, Billy C. Farlow of Commander Cody fame and in Motown sessions with Barry Gordy’s sister Gwen’s production company. Otis has also recorded two of his own instrumental CDs.
“I’ve been playing longer than I would like to admit,” Otis said, and although retired from his day job, he admits looking forward to becoming more involved in the local music scene.
“I’m not terribly ambitious these days,” he added. “I just enjoy playing. The music scene here is the best I’ve ever seen with a million tasting room gigs, event gigs, and you can play originals. There are now events going on all the time.”