Mystery guests: You never know who will show up at a Sonic Temple Live show.
Sonic Temple Live concerts are unique musical blind dates with a community consciousness
By Gretchen Giles
LAST YEAR in the tiny Humboldt County town of Ferndale, population 1,390, a series of concerts sold out at their only venues six times. Residents filled Ferndale's small 1920s-era theater to hear live music produced with millions of dollars' worth of equipment, including a full light show and elaborately dressed stage. They paid $25 to $40 a ticket every other month, absolutely rabid to hear this music. And at each and every single concert, the audience had absolutely no idea who was going to play until they arrived.
Called Lost Coast Live, the series was an experiment, and it was a hit. Now redubbed Sonic Temple Live, this same experiment is poised to rock the North Bay, with three concerts planned for November in Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Napa, and a Nov. 20 gig in Santa Clara—all featuring unnamed musicians performing in the highest-end concert conditions possible. The audience will not know until it is seated—and a short documentary film introduces the artist—who it is that will come onto the stage and perform for the next two hours.
The idea is to take away the preconcert hype and spin and to return intelligent appreciation to the work of a musical artist. As the promoters could never begin to realize a return on their investment, the idea is also to funnel 100 percent of the ticket sales to the community. And furthermore, according to Jon Phelps, the genius behind the project, the idea is to "see artistic music find its way sanely to much larger audiences. Lots of artists don't have any way to build; if the audience knew of them, they'd love them, but they'd never heard of them. And they're not going to find their way onto radio. There's great art out there that no one's aware of."
Performers who participated in Ferndale's Lost Coast Live slate included slide guitar master Sonny Landreth, former Frank Zappa "stunt" guitarist Mike Keneally and singer/songwriter Mindy Smith, who Phelps says might ordinarily spend her nights "fighting with blenders at the bar and espresso machines" in order to make herself heard to an audience.
Framed by the velvet curtains that are part of the series' traveling show, Smith was instead resonant in a full-blown sound system and bathed in lighting designed by professional engineers flown in from New York and Los Angeles just for her.
Phelps founded Full Sail College in Orlando, Fla., in 1979. A fully accredited media production school and college, Full Sail allows students the opportunity to receive a college degree in such subjects as producing a traveling rock show.
"I didn't like education," Phelps says by phone from his Seattle office, explaining the impetus to start Full Sail. "I wasn't good at it, and when I wanted to get into sound and production and music and film, I felt like most things I experienced were very detached from reality, very theory-based. If you wanted to study media education, for example, you'd get a communications degree. Full Sail was like a positive rebellion.
"That's kind of the same passion and mentality, looking at great sonic art and thinking what nobody else is thinking: How would you do this so that musicians have sane careers that are composed of a life and a career at the same time? If you look at the world of classical music, they do that. They build halls and sponsor it and endow it. But if you look at singer/ songwriters or jazz musicians, they're just kind of troubadours hanging out there."
Phelps and his team pick the musicians themselves. Explaining his deep roots in the music business, he says, "We have a lot of inroads to that. Most of the artists have established their own world, but their world could and should be 10 times its size."
Sonic Temple Live tour director Azurae Willis brings the concept back to community. "In Ferndale," she emphasizes, "we really saw people take a risk with us. Every time they went, they were taking a risk. The interesting thing was to watch this eclectic group of people—different in age range and income and interest; the thing they had in common is that they live there—responding to something. And we want to create a platform where these artists have a chance to excel. The artist gets a brand new audience and the audience gets a brand new experience."
Full Sail has allowed Phelps, who is based in Seattle but with his wife keeps a home in Ferndale, the opportunity to do exactly as he wishes with his life and his money.
A co-owner of Paste magazine as well as the entertainment company DC3, what Phelps wishes to do at the moment is to launch a coffee company. Which curiously enough ties back into the Sonic Temple Live series. Looking at the way that Red Bull has aligned itself with aviation and Formula One racing, and Coca-Cola has aligned itself with everything else, Phelps aims to launch a subscription-based line of Storyville Coffee products in conjunction with Sonic Temple Live's mystery concert series.
"Instead of being the typical type of startup that needs to make a profit right away, we're looking at it as an investment," Phelps explains.
"It's a beautifully done vision of a company," he says with evident satisfaction. The Storyville brand and the Sonic Temple Live brand will grow at the same time, allowing the coffee company to offer a positive interface with the community and support the singer/songwriters that Phelps likens to small businesses.
"The idea for us, when we looked at all the economics of it, is that since it's not going to live or die based on ticket sales, what a great idea to have a new brand that's being built and give to every town that it visits," he says. "I watched that Wal-Mart movie and it was all about taking from towns. How about giving to every town and leave it better than it was when we got there?"
Willis explains that the organization contacted 10 communities in the Bay Area to see who might support the idea of the anonymous concerts. Three cities in the North Bay as well as Santa Clara in the South Bay responded. Receipts in Ferndale totaled some $30,000, all of which was given away, most significantly to the school music program. "We're like, why not stir it up a little?" Willis says. "Why not give something back to your community? Buy a ticket and give it back. It's something in your community that has an impact."
Reflecting on the series, Phelps says, "I love music, I love art, I have found myself wildly frustrated at how dark and dysfunctional the music business can be. I love the idea of the positive rebellion approach, where rather than bitching about it, we actually do something about it. I get a big thrill out of where this could go."
He chuckles. "I'm one of those people who wakes up every day with ideas and you've just got to go carry some of them out."
Sonic Temple Live comes to the South Bay Nov. 20 at 7:30pm at the Performing Arts Center, Santa Clara High School, 3000 Benton St., Santa Clara. Tickets are $25. (See www.sonictemplelive.com or call 888.323.3349.)
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