Over the years, huge numbers of fans have seen Monty Byrom and Big House perform live at venues from Bakersfield to Baton Rouge, Nashville to New York.
But watching the band work on songs in the modest comfort of Byrom's east Bakersfield living room last weekend provided an intimate glimpse into the pure, unadulterated joy these musicians feel through the act of making music together.
No egos or tensions were in evidence as drummer Tanner Byrom's train beat chugged beneath "Girl Can't Help It (Girl can't help what she's done to me)."
Lead singer Byrom leaned into the mic as he played with his vocal control like a cat toying with a ball of yarn: making it look effortless — and fun.
You'd be sure to smile when a three-part harmony reached some sort of magical axis. And when an echo of their missing harmonica player, the late Sonny California, found its way into the music — crying, bended notes and all — you might wonder if anything on a Saturday afternoon in Bakersfield could feel this good.
"We've never had the harmonies sound so good," Tanner said.
The Bakersfield-bred band, known for its “soul country” brand of Americana-flavored rhythm and rock, will perform Saturday at the Fox Theater in a one-time show. Truxton Mile will open.
"This is not a reunion show," said guitarist-vocalist Chuck Seaton, who played on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1997 and most of the later recordings.
It's more a tribute.
Keyboard player-vocalist Chris Neufeld, Seaton said, is channeling Sonny California's unique sounds through his keys.
"It's no easy feat," Seaton said. "But some of it is remarkable."
"When Sonny passed a few years ago," Monty Byrom said of the band's original harmonica player, "they held a memorial for him, but we couldn't be there."
The band members always wanted to do something to honor Sonny, who wrote and co-wrote some of the group's best songs. So the idea of the Fox Theater show was born.
Headlining at Bakersfield's historic downtown theater has always been a must, Byrom said. And there's already talk of expanding the show to other Fox Theaters in California.
"We did our reunion (in 2015) at the (Buck Owens' Crystal) Palace. But we always wanted to do the Fox," he said. "We love Buck's place, and we've had lots of success there, but the Fox, that's been on our bucket list for a long time."
Also important to members of the band is that a portion of the proceeds will benefit Inclusion Films' Bakersfield Workshop. Started by veteran filmmaker Joey Travolta, Inclusion Films teaches filmmaking to children and adults with developmental disabilities, including autism.
"You can't meet these kids and not be inspired," Byrom said.
Saturday afternoon's rehearsal included Byrom’s brother, Tanner, on drums, Seaton on guitar and vocals, Wil Anderson on bass, Neufeld on keys and vocals and Paul South on vocals, percussion and keyboard. Kyle Appleton, who will contribute his much-admired guitar and lap-slide work at Saturday's concert, could not make it to last weekend's rehearsal.
A tribute to Sonny will be included in Saturday's show.
Indeed, as Neufeld played harp fills throughout the rehearsal, it brought smiles to the faces of the other players.
"It took a lot of experimentation. And finding the right harp patch," Neufeld said of the work it took to get it right, and the synthesizer sample patch that produced the harmonica sound he needed.
No one expects it to sound just like Sonny California. That's impossible.
But what Neufeld is doing, Byrom said, is extraordinary.
"Nobody else can do that but Chris," he said.