Tourists and travellers around these parts don’t usually know just how peculiar a place it is in which they are vacationing. However, even with all the Seuss trees and the ear-ringing quiet of nighttime, a peculiar place I would never deem this, if it lacked the characters whose stories, philosophies, and demeanors enrich the town so. As the valley downriver is made fertile by the highland silts, so too are the towns on this bay made fertile by the folks who make here their homes, many of whom are natives, destined for peculiarity, and many more are expats like myself, seeking the right solution of misfits in which to make their impression. While the Salinas river seems of most aid to artichokes and wine grapes, Monterey’s sweeping currents do well supporting a lively music scene, even if artichokes get old after a while. It was for my weariness of these proverbial artichokes that I reached blindly into the sod and began groping about. Whatever I clutched effused with aromas of pine-blood and whiskey and was woodburnt onto a hunk of gnarly wood, salted by seawind. If you could not know my joy, reader, to have found this enchanting relic in my own town of residency, I should let you imagine my spinning about the heel, holding the plaque up high, until the quivering green of the wood behind me, the blending blue of the seasky after me, distorted into one. Even during my tenure here yet far, I have witnessed a few bands rise and a few fall. Bands do not last long around here, but recently I’ve begun to wonder if the youth of our scene’s constituents has let fester a lack a patience for a wound’s healing - and so we lose artists like Glass House, and The Shigs, for more recent examples. Four years is a very long time. Even so, all us locals have seen that the oldest of the pines about are covered in scars, their vicinity often littered with the carcasses of their kin. Natural selection, I suppose - it tends to favor the adaptable. This adaptability, however, did not truly manifest as a driftwood plaque, or a pine tree, but in a dilapidated package that contained the Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us.
“He is real,” says a man who looks the younger half-brother of Adam Sandler (and is apparently happier with his career path). Mike Scutari, is this one’s name. He plays rhythm on an acoustic guitar and sings most of the male vocals, and though has performed with his bandmates in other projects, is attributed as the harbinger of the Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us. Although, he did not create any of the songs played by the bluegrass ensemble. That was Hotbox Harry, who, according to legend, delivered this namesake in a paper package that appeared dug from the grave. “He was a sorta mystical old hobo-storyteller type. Ya know the kind. Walks around everywhere, talks a lot, sings to himself,” a sickle grin cut across his cheeks and drew low his brow, the bard still guitar-clad and onstage of the aptly named Barmel, in Carmel. Expressions can remain distinct even on the most distinct of faces, as Mike has been blessed with both, and this grin, juxtaposed to the toothy smirk I returned his way, assured me that I certainly knew the type. Peculiar people grow well in Monterey, but Mike instilled in me the desire to see what botany blossoms in societies such as Arcata, California, in Humboldt County. It was here, upon a seedy tavern barstool, that sat a man, “...with an enormous beer-belly, overalls, a big Santa beard - the whole getup. He n I sat at some bar in Arcata, shared stories, then started sharing songs. I was there listening to him and just couldn’t stop thinking, He’s damn good at writing those.” He sure was, but they parted away and left nothing to each other but addresses and fond memories. After three years, wherein the transient old friar was but his own memoriam, a parcel arrived in Mike’s mailbox, addressed from Hotbox Harry (presumably under a more official pseudonym, but this was not clarified), and it contained a mixtape of the mystic’s many tunes. Thus was Mike inspired to the creation of a new band, and none might receive their deserved justice if he had not bestowed upon his homage the apt name of Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us.
“Elliot’s playing bass tonight,” said Yvan on a humid dusk as I entered his lair. “I was gonna go check him out tonight, at Barmel, but I’ll come see Valley Soul real quick.” And with this I was rather content. I love Valley Soul. I had seen them on several previous occasions in environments more suitable to their energy, but for this performance, they dampened their attack and slowed their tempo and played a show more appropriate to a natural-history museum whiskey-tasting. Perhaps destiny thought it funny that I should go to a whiskey-tasting in Pacific Grove where played a band that seems to me of the sort who’d be more partial to a toke, while Hotbox Harry would have better befit the tone. Instead, I stole myself away, mind in a medley of a thousand-something taxidermied songbirds and wildflowers, and migrated to Barmel with Yvan. This joint is one to which I yearn I might return more often. No larger than a middle-school classroom, it is not scarcely packed like canned cream corn (I hope that shit died with Boston Market’s popularity) by a manifold of audiences, no matter the music present. The ambience is purposefully seedy, salvaged together with an eye keen to the candid, the stage small and sandwiching a dancefloor between itself and the dark seating area. Obscure vinyls line the ceiling, a mannequin leg is nailed to the gable by an inoperable jukebox. It is not exactly a remarkable feat to muster quite infectious a motion and emotion alike amongst the drunken patronage at Barmel, but I have never seen a crowd around here so brilliant with smiles and so diverse with its dancers. A decent indication that a band deserves its attention is when all the folks who don’t (or shouldn’t) dance, go on a-dancing anyway. Then I turned round the speakers and saw my friend Elliot deeply indentured to his groove, and he greeted his bandmate and I with a thrust of his chin and a bite of his lip.
On his left flank hunched his father in much the same posture as junior renders his instruments. Tracy Cheseborough, is this mountainman. A weathered, houndish face sits on shoulders bony and broad, his arms and legs long, his torso clad with the attire John Muir would have worn to track cinnamon-haired bears in the Sierras with nothing but a dog as his weapon. Tracy “climbs a lotta trees,” as Elliot says - in other words, he’s a forester, with a fortuitous fervor of nature from where he doubtlessly adopts much musical influence. Tracy is also a divinely talented multi-instrumentalist, boasting proficiency on three primary instruments: cello, as I had first witnessed him play with another ensemble - electric guitar which he tickles and strokes in more the manner of flow that a piano player might exhibit, as his long fingers slid up, down, and side-to-side of his guitar neck, letting wail his instrument like a Missouri bluesman does his voice upon arrival in the Harlem Avenue Lounge - and mandolin, which I’ve not had the pleasure to witness as a fellow mandolinist. A distinct, delicate style of bluegrass he renders of his guitar, heavy with country influence and a hint of folksy melancholy - likely a derivative of his time in an Irish folk band. Upon meeting Tracy, I was graced to a simple introduction. The firmest handshake I could give was squandered by his grip. Sensible, for I suppose the man had spent many miserable hours holding onto cypress roots as the mud fell from beneath his Big Sur home. Or he climbs a shitton o trees. His words were few, his voice was worn and rickety, his glare was indecipherable, and I loved it, and was almost sated of the need to converse with him.
To Elliot’s right was one of an uncounted collection of temporary drummers. Stevie Hegger, on my first visit, who is regarded as one of Monterey’s most technically talented musicians, and indeed he was shrewd among a jam session just as well. Then there was their lapsteel player named Nick, who, though not the usual pedalsteel player (named Howe), meditated over his instrument as he found empathy in its strings with which he flowed carelessly through each song. There too was a second electrical guitarist on my first visit, named Jaimason, whose style bordered more along the bluesy jurisdictions of rock and roll. Defiant, one might think, but, despite the warmness with which Hotbox receives its audience, they are a definitively defiant band, by my account. By Tara’s, however, the band’s female singer, they’ve remained quite loyal in their musical stylings. To what? To whom? Why, to Hotbox Harry, of course, granted, as Tara said, “Now that Hotbox has been together so long, I think we take more poetic justice with songs and our style to them.” Although, “Everything on our album is Hotbox Harry’s.”
Tara is another story worthy of some recount. I needed not the chance to converse with her to know this, for a woman so reminiscent of my mother (who herself was an estranged eclectic that sang like a cement-sea siren for an old-fashioned blues band in Chicago) ought to bear some wisdom, something else that deserves expression to those whom are graced to hear her voice. I saw a comfort lining the earnest in her eyes, and that earnest was only byproduct to the sounds she sang. Amidst her direction, executed with flicking wrists, finger gestures, mouthing phrases and reinforcing them by her brow and her gaze, all mid-verse, she is rife with emotive power. Despite their repertoire of original work comprised by Harry’s fun-filled Americana, both performances I saw by Hotbox were littered with impromptu and unpracticed jams, some blues, some Irish traditional, some surf, some rock and roll, and all the while that this eccentricity was weaved into a drunken crowd, Tara enunciated her lyrics not only by tone of her robust and silky voice, but by the bend in her brow, the grade of her grin, the whimsy in her swaying waist, and the ample employment of her arms to communicate with the onlookers and performers, even when the hollers of the intoxicated masses drowned the monitor’s aid. As with any wonderful voice, I obligatorily approached Tara after their performance without greeting, only asking, “What music were you trained in singing first?” It seemed fitting, for I could truly not discern from where her influence was most heavily derived.
A sharp, Irish looking face cradled in curly red hair and freckles around two emerald eyes, which peeled wide at me with clarification. “Well, I don’t have any training.”
In that moment it occurred to me that her eclecticism was most likely the byproduct of as much. All technical aspects of her singing were solid as brick, but the emotions, even if not of her own lyrics, were the mortar she laid between these bricks. “Self-trained, then?”
“If you can call it that,” she said, looking back at the band. “Well, I was in a choir for a bit, like a church choir, but that’s an ancient story.” Those eyes rolled around and she swatted this history away and off her breath.
“I see. That’s actually why I approached ya, cause, just like yer singin, that’s similar to what my Ma did,” and I explained, in brief, my familiar affinity for her style. My mother was too in a church choir for much of her life, despite her musical passions residing as comfortably in Iron Maiden as they did in Nichiren Buddhist chants.
The kicker came, however, when she said, “I’ve sung Irish folk music for a while, too,” and I crossed my arms in satisfaction and smiled, because folk music from the British Isles and Scandinavia is the SHIT and you can fuck off if that’s funny.
“Oh yeah, I can hear it, I can! That’s fantastic.” A moment’s exhaustion of nerdisms.
Tara later recounted to me a journey that, a decade before, took her from the choir in a town called Plainfield (I know it supposedly was near a field, or a plain, as in a prairie, or a meadow, but what kind of bored asshole names a town Plainfield?) in New Jersey, to New York City where she attended grad school. Harbored in Brooklyn, she often daydreamt on a National Geographic spread that depicted Big Sur, where her roommate was eventually sent for work. Tara came to visit, fell in love with Big Sur for the second time (firstly in the magazine spread), and decided she would return. Upon finishing her education, she came out west in a manner thankfully much unlike what Tom Waits claimed it, settling with her boyfriend, now husband, ultimately at Notley’s Landing by Palo Colorado Canyon. No, I don’t know where she got the money to do this, but I seethe with jealousy anyway. A decade has passed since, and in that time, she joined Tracy to sing for the Big Sur Family Band (of whom there seems to be paltry memoriam on the internet), and they two moved onto Irish traditional music with Mike, followed by Hotbox Harry upon its inception by Harry and Mike’s graciousness. I still often see Tara and her retinue of equally Irish-looking husband and child indulging their freetime throughout Pacific Grove.
The second guest drummer I saw on the stool was a man from New Zealand named Sean. He looked like many New Zealander’s I’ve met, with a prominent nose and an unconquerable smile peeking from between rich curls that jiggled all over his head and off of his chin as he played with such infatuation that it seemed second-nature. Watching him drum even on the same repetition was immensely pleasurable and made materialize many a grin over my cheeks. The drummer featured on Hotbox Harry’s album, I should note, is Tara’s husband David, who left the band so their child could watch the shows. Then of course is Elliot, who is a personal friend of mine and all around great guy, with an apparently hereditary comprehension of musical instruments that harnesses all the expressions of himself he may ever need make - though he is insistent that he sucks. The bassist for whom he often substitutes I’ve not seen nor met, but his name is Chris, and in his regard, Elliot says, “I’m shit. Their normal bassist is way better. I suck.” (Yeah, that’s an actual quote). I’ve talked about Elliot in a previous article or two, but here’s some things you might not have known about him: Elliot has a sitar with which he has no training but still managed to jam on it with beside my mandolin and Vucina’s guitar; Elliot was often called ‘Cheese-bro’ in school; Elliot has a fuckin sexy collection of guns, including an 1860 Colt Army revolver; also Elliot works at Julia’s restaurant in Pacific Grove, an artistic and reasonably-priced vegetarian joint that uses mostly local and wild ingredients, and where, among a host of other performers on other days, Yvan Vucina performs in his solo project every Saturday at 1 PM.
However, what you will not find at Julia’s Restaurant, or anywhere else where Mike and friends do not minstrel, or even across most of California, is bluegrass, and much less so bluegrass that harnesses the spirit that many bluegrass bands attempt until their tone is more generic than the wiry, redneck characters most of my youth would imagine upon mentioning of the genre. This is because Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us does not operate in the bounds of bluegrass, and as far as I can tell, has no tethers to the genre beyond the fact that it was how Harry wrote his songs. They are not necessarily trying to play bluegrass, but they are trying to play music that moves them, and move they do - especially Mike and Tara and Elliot - with a fervor for the moment that appears in the countless smiles cast between each other and into the crowd like glow-rings and blunt wraps, the usual gifts thrown out at a modern show. Speaking of which, I know not if the band is truly partial to hotboxing anything, or even if they burn. What I can say surely, however, is that their soul is as strong as the aromatic vistas in the town from which they hail, and those vistas host better smells of which to be reminded than a stale dankness and bongwater, and is equally as intoxicating, so I’ve no complaints.
Thanks again for giving my piece a read, and let’s all go to a Hotbox Harry show next time we’re craving something purely Monterey, but not the same as the other shit in Monterey. You can like Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us on Facebook, listen to a few of their tunes on Soundcloud, and buy their album on iTunes. And if you’ve any reason to get in touch with me, Y8, the author, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.