Photos by Pete Henze (PeteHenze@gmail.com)
What was billed as a casual 30th reunion of country musicians and friends from the former Sweetwater Café, blossomed Saturday night into a four-and-a-half hour long, time-warping concert that invited comparisons to the legendary Sweetwater shows of the mid-1970s.
On any given night, the stage of the Redondo Triangle Center club might have Willie Nelson singing back up for Rodney Crowell, and Vince Gill performing with the Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Bonnie Rait and Rosanne Cash. One night Bob Dylan got turned away at the door because he refused to pay the cover charge (until Sweetwater co-owner Richard Stacey recognized him).
The club in the old Redondo Triangle Center across from King Harbor opened in January 1976 and fell to the redevelopment wrecking ball in 1983.
Headlining Saturday’s sold out evening at the Hermosa Beach Community Theater was 20-time Grammy winner Vince Gill, who got his start at Sweetwater when he was 18 years old. Gill also met his first wife Janis Oliver at the club. Oliver and her sister Kristine were Mira Costa high school students when they began performing at the Straw Hat Pizza in Manhattan Beach. Their harmonies inspired itinerant spiritual teacher John Campbell to found Sweetwater.
“After one of their shows at the Straw Hat, I said to one of the sisters – I can’t remember which one – if I open a music club, will you perform there? She looked at me like I was a nut,” Campbell recalled before bringing the Sweethearts out on stage Saturday night.
Two years after his bold proposal, the Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Their Handsome Band headlined Sweetwater’s opening night in January 1976.
Kristine Oliver greeted her friends in the audience Saturday night with a “howdy y’all.” But she quickly corrected herself, saying, “I mean, you guys.”
The audience welcomed the sisters home with a standing ovation.
She said success didn’t come easy in Nashville because the sisters had to overcome the stigma of growing up in Southern California.
The Sweethearts were joined by Al Perkins, whom Gibson Guitar called “the world’s most influential Dobro player.” They performed their top-10 country hit “Midnight Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and several songs from their new CD, including the title song “Restless.”
The highlight of their set was their harmonic yodeling on “Muleskinner’s Blues,” which they followed with a sing-along of the Youngbloods “Get together.” Joining them on the closing song was drummer Rys Clark and bass player John Fowler from the Sweethearts’ original Handsome Band.
The evening began with an acoustic set by former Sweetwater waitress Laura Sinclair Carlson, who was backed by the Hot Mamas, including fellow Sweetwater waitresses Ramona Ault, Mellissa Collard and Linda Wenzel. Also performing with Carlson, and remaining on stage for most of the evening were Sundance guitarist Alan Wald, Rich Wenzel on Hammond B3 organ and two-time Grammy bass player Gene Libbea of the Nashville Blue Grass Band. Gene and his brother Steve performed at Sweetwater and later Shenanigans in Hermosa Beach as the Tarzan String Band.
Later in the evening Gill would play a guitar formerly owned by Steve Libbea, who died in a 1985 private plane crash in West Virginia just as his musical star was ascending.
Carlson was followed by Seattle musician Michael Schular, a Sweetwater regular and former member of Lt. Elmo and Radio Bandits.
Then former Sweetwater manager, performer and the evening’s organizer Jimmy Conroy took the stage to sing Rodney Crowell’s 1977 hit “Song for the Life,” which Conroy said is his favorite song.
But first Conroy recounted the evening Crowell was performing “Song for the Life” and Willie Nelson walked into Sweetwater with his entourage.
“Rodney didn’t see Willie until Willie snuck up behind him on stage and joined in the song at the exact spot he did on the record,” Conroy recalled.
After Conroy began singing, Vince Gill snuck up behind him and joined in on the mandolin. Also backing up Conroy was the Sons of the South Bay with Todd Robinson on guitar, Gary Ferguson on drums and Bobby Tsukamoto on bass.
Gill stayed on the stage to perform “Let Me Love You Tonight,” his 1980 cross-over hit with Pure Prairie League.
Joining Gill was the song’s co-writer and fellow Pure Prairie League guitarist Jeff Wilson and Hoyt Axton’s fiddler Dennis Fetchett, who said, “The best part of tonight’s show, aside from the audience, is I walked from my house on Fourth Street.”
Gill’s daughter Jenny read the lyrics to the song for her dad on her iPhone.
“I haven’t sung this song in 30 years,” he explained.
Sweetwater founder John Campbell noted that Gill has the reputation as the “nicest man in Nashville.” He lived up to that reputation on his return to Hermosa.
“I just wish the Hilltop Café was still on Pier Avenue,” Gill said as he recalled his beach city years, living at “Chateau DeBris.”
Then he invited his daughter Jenny, now about the same age as her mother was when she launched her career at Sweetwater, to perform his early hit “Whenever you come around.”
The evening ended shortly after midnight with all of the evening’s performers inviting the standing room only audience to join in singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.
Twisters open the weekend.
The Sweetwater Café reunion weekend began Friday night with one of the Sweetwater most popular house band The Twisters packing Keenan’s Irish Pub in downtown Torrance. Singer Mike Wainwright’s approach to familiar and many not so familiar cover songs was as powerful, if not more powerful then when his band packed Sweetwater and the Lighthouse during the late 1970s and early 1980s. ER