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CESAREO GARASA: Musicians, venues found a way to thrive in 2021

I find myself at the end of 2021 feeling a solemn sense of exhaustion, bewilderment, gratitude and confusion. It all went by so fast and also took forever to get here, but I'm glad to still be here given the weight of all we've lost.

The stalwart venues — such as The Bellvedere, Old River Monte Carlo, Lone Oak Lounge, The Trap and O'Hennings — are housing the usual suspects of quality cover bands around town.

But where can original bands that don't have four sets of covers to fill up a night go and play, build an audience, and, preferably, get compensated for it? Upon reflection, it's really no different a question than where we were 30 years ago, except we find ourselves looking down from the top of a slide and seeing less water in the pool than before.

In 2021, Heresy Rock and Roll Grill closed its doors right as it was starting to establish itself as a live original music venue and Sandrini's Public House, which for years was the most prolific and popular live music venue in Bakersfield, dedicated itself to going the local pub route with much less live music.

This has left local breweries such as Temblor Brewing Co., 2nd Phase Brewing, Great Change Brewing and the wine bars Wine Me Up, Imbibe Wine & Spirits Merchant, Tlo Wines and Bottleshock Wine & Brew to pick up the slack. They've been employing live music — usually Americana-style acts in an acoustic setting — in a fairly consistent manner.

But while some doors have closed, this has led to some unexpected doors opening. Those doors happen to be in Tehachapi where businesses like Local Craft Beer and Tehachapi Winery have been employing Bakersfield bands — cover and otherwise — rather consistently. This gives live music fans from Bakersfield an outlet to get out of town, breathe in some fresh mountain air and still find themselves back home before bedtime.

The Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame had a steady roster of tribute bands slated all the way through 2022 as well as their quarterly Local Country Music Artist series of concerts, and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace has reopened and is looking to regain its previous momentum. For those wanting to catch bands whose amps go to 11, we still have Jerry's Pizza, upstart The BackStage Bakersfield and the eastside Rock & Wings location for your consideration.

So, regardless if it's due to the COVID-19 pandemic or not, we find ourselves at a slight ebb for live music right now. It's still happening, just not at its previous intensity. We're seeing the calm during the storm.

The rise of The Well

Maybe because of all of the uncertainty around us — or maybe in spite of it — local comedy has seen a boost with the rise of The Well as a viable option for quality stand-up comedy events.

Under the direction of comedian Daniel Betts, The Well is a "two item-minimum purchase" away from becoming a full-on comedy joint. The venue's intimate aesthetic — dim interiors, darkened windows, an open kitchen with table seating and a full bar — lends itself perfectly to hosting comedy. From its weekly comedy open-mics on Thursdays to performances by such comedy luminaries like "SNL" alum Darrell Hammond, the fiery Sam Tripoli and the superb Lara Beitz, who delivered my favorite comedy show of 2021, The Well has risen.

It's not the only one. Great Change Brewing recently began its Simply Saturday Comedy series of monthly shows and Temblor Brewing Co., for years, has been providing its own weekly comedy open-mics on Wednesdays as well as its own high-quality stand-up comedy shows. This year saw Temblor hosting the incredibly funny Zoltan Kaszas and in a demonstration of coincidental comedy-booking synchronicity, Temblor hosted a show with an "SNL" alum as — ahem — well: Kevin Nealon, a week after Hammond played The Well. I wonder if they all crossed paths and had lunch at Zingo's?

My favorite event

I was blown away by the female mariachi trio Las Caliope who opened up for Mento Buru at Temblor on Dec. 11. Their playing was exquisite and precise and they had the audience enraptured, enchanted and involved. Keep an eye out for them.

I also enjoyed the Bakersfield Music Awards. We have vibrant and talented rap, R&B, pop and gospel artists in Bakersfield, and the BMA was a welcome celebration of and for them. I especially appreciate their acknowledgement of young talent with its Youth "Super Nova" Award. BMA founder Rosalyn Stevens' passion and ambition is admirable, and a deserved congratulations goes out to singer-songwriter Crimson Skye, who also had a heck of a year with her latest release "The Far Side" (which I performed on), for winning BMA artist of the year.

The Bakersfield Jazz Workshop, held Tuesdays at its new home at The Petroleum Club at Sundale, is still the best way to catch some of Bakersfield's best and brightest up-and-coming jazz musicians finding their voices (and hopefully some scholarships). Plus the hang with the people there is soul-affirming. The BJW motto of "Hear it. Learn it. Play it ... It's all about the music" is alive and well and in very good hands.

My favorite event of the last year however, was the 3 Days in Space event held by Killer Kern Records at The Empty Space at the end of July. (Disclosure: I performed at this event on its third day (Sunday) with the band Make Mine Yours and singer-songwriter Joey Romley.)

Put together and coordinated by Killer Kern Records owner Dylan Geurtsen and wife Cory Geurtsen, the theater's artistic director, 3 Days in Space was a three-day music festival that featured almost 20 bands from in and out of town with affiliation to the record label including Modern Wives, If It Kills You and Geurtsen's own groups Niner Niner and The Binges.

It reminded me a lot of the old Bam Bams days where bands of all styles would frequently perform after one another, usually cheering each other on. Of the bands I did see, Still Missing knocked me out with its bold, dramatic wall of sound. The band was truly powerful. I also enjoyed the fun power pop of The Binges, the lilting melancholy of Delphinium and the breezy introspection — in tropical shirts no less — of Lou Beauty.

The event was well attended by an enthusiastic audience — who even sung along! To local bands! — and it gave me continued hope for original music in Bakersfield.

Quiet return of KSVG

When KSVG went off the air a few years ago, there was a feeling of defeat that lingered with it. For a while, the scrappy little station provided an injection of life into our local FM airwaves. Listening to Sisters of Mercy's "This Corrosion" on FM radio during rush hour and — this one is really cool — randomly hearing them play the song "Angel's Call" by my band The Iron Outlaws at 4 a.m. were special moments for me.

When they quietly popped up again on 103.5 FM, I was shocked. They're back! I found myself listening to FM radio again instead of just mainlining content from my phone. Due to the ridiculous amount of quality content being broadcast, I've made it a habit to turn my Shazam auto-function on before I turn on the radio. I am of the firm opinion that KSVG 103.5 FM is easily the greatest radio station in the country and its eclectic, vital power is appropriately, totally, completely Bakersfield.

Best song of 2021

There were many, many quality singles released over the last year including the witty and dreamy "Sentinel" by Cara Rain, Blue Mountain Tribe's ardent rallying call for understanding and awareness "Pray For Our Planet" (and its Robert Reed Altman-directed video), the beautifully sad "Heartbeat" by Delphinium, the bonkers "The Fonk" by Art and the Resistance, the naughty-and-nice Christmas song "Glow" by NineFingers and the driving, percolating "Center Positive" by Contranistas.

But my choice for the best song of 2021 is "Ready to Die," Adema's glorious return to form and beyond. The band — infused with a newfound, earned stability since the inclusion of new frontman Ryan Shuck — has released what could arguably be its best single since their 2001 breakthrough "Giving In." As I wrote back in August, the song is "chilling, impressive and intoxicating. An affirmation of fighting for life after being ready to die. ... It took the band two decades and fighting through one challenge after another to create what could possibly be its strongest song."

Also recommended: "Creature Spell" by Indigo Hush, "Habits" by Band of Family, "Shadows" and "Cold Within" by BabyHateFood, "Ghost Dance" and "The Situation" by Gadfly, "Moonless Mississippi Night" by Foster Campbell and Deep Water, and "Resistor" by Contranistas.

Best albums of 2021

There were so many quality releases over the last year that I'll be writing about them into 2022, but a few of them really stood out to me.

Modern Wives' "You Are My Everything/Everything Falls Apart" is a thoughtful, well-made artifact of indie rock elegance and power and no small amount of thoughtfulness. Especially in the way the EP's closer, "Slow Death (The Dancer From Huntington)," bridges time by being the sequel to a song ("Sometime Someday") by the early aughts band Farewell Spacecadet. A band that Modern Wives bandmates Raul Gallardo and Dan Thompson were both in and a song that Gallardo himself wrote.

Tim Stonelake's "Moonlight Mountain" is a literal dream come true. The title of the album came to the 67-year-old guitarist in a dream and led him to create his long-time-coming debut album. The release is a heartfelt call for consideration with a soulful sense of gratitude and hope. The heartbreaking "Blues Come Home for Christmas" is bookended by the optimistic "Happy Song," featuring Stonelake's 7-year-old grandson, Jase, speaking at the end of it, "we can all be free." The music, co-produced by Monty Byrom and Chris Neufeld, has a great sound and a great feel thanks to the juggernaut rhythm section of drummer Tanner Byrom and bassist Gary Rink. Many of the songs were co-written by Stonelake's wife, Amy Richardson, making the release a true family affair.

Lastly, Burning Image's "Arrival," (appropriately released on Halloween) the latest album by the long-running (since 1982!) death rock, goth-punk outfit, is gloriously dense, beautifully dark and, at times, soaring. This is most evident on the two-minute track “Wait," where singer Moe Adame's vocals grow with each pass, gaining intensity and clarity until, suddenly the song extinguishes right at its ascent like a suffocated flame taking all the air with it.

As I wrote about "Arrival" in October, "the songs are glorious. The bass growls, the drums gallop and thump powerfully. The razor-toned guitars glisten and cut like beams of lasers through thick fog while Adame's distorting vocals consume and volley the beautiful, chaotic gloom right back at the listener." Yup. It's my favorite album of 2021.

Also recommended: the improv-metal duet "Transmissions of the Unearthly" by Nothing Is Real that's conceptually more "The Matrix" than the latest "Matrix" film sequel; the improv-jazz duet "Evening Hawks" by TIN/BAG whose existence here gives some credence to Nothing is Real's fundamental theme of the intersectionality of dualities (or maybe improv duets will be a thing no matter the genre); "West Coast Vibes" by Kali Sol and Ron Steven Houston's solo album "A Long Road Home," which has a killer version of "Truck Drivin' Man" and is a potent reminder of the evergreen dichotomy (uh-oh, "The Matrix" again) between Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.

Contributing columnist Cesareo Garasa brings you The Lowdown on local music and entertainment every other Thursday.