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Erudite: Singer-songwriter Danny Sorentino picks up a few quick tips before heading out.

On the Town

Danny Sorentino chases the vibe on an all-night tour of his favorite local spots

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"No loitering--sidewalk closes at night," reads the large red sign outside of A'Roma Roasters in Santa Rosa. Scurrying up the sidewalk on a recent warm Saturday night, I try not to look loiter-like as I hurtle toward A'Roma's front entrance. It's about 8:30pm, and Danny Sorentino leans out from the light-filled doorway to greet me. "Hey. Not a bad crowd for so early in the evening," he pronounces, ushering me in.

The place is indeed reasonably well-occupied, with a mix of coffee-sipping young people of the teens-and-20s variety, many with meticulous bleached-blond Mohawks or dangly-twinkly piercings, and a lot of colorful over-20s running the gamut from balding chess players and laptop cowboys to pony-tailed hipsters here to be hypnotized by the music of the live band. Tonight, the featured act is the Alexis Harte Band, a tight Americana-folk foursome from Berkeley playing in a cramped corner of the coffeehouse.

"So, have you heard of these guys?" I ask Sorentino.

He shakes his head.

"They have a nice Dave Matthews thing going," he observes, "with the fiddle and the guitar and drums, and their drummer's using a cocktail drum set. Very cool. Let's grab some drinks, then we'll find a table."

With that, we get in line for a cup of coffee.

We'll need the caffeine, because A'Roma's is just the first of five live music establishments Sorentino and I will be visiting between now and midnight, just a small sampling, selected by Sorentino, of the diverse music and dancing scene that exists, mostly without cover charge, in the North Bay.

A longtime fixture of the Bay Area music scene, Danny Sorentino is practically my relative, his wife being the sister of the wife of my wife's brother. He's also co-host with Doug Smith of KRSH 95.9-FM's Friday morning show DS Squared, a funny, thrust-and-parry preweekend sneak peek at live musical events around the Bay Area.

But more to the point, his enduringly popular roots-rock band the Sorentinos have performed hundreds of shows in this area, recorded boxloads of CDs and been featured in numerous movies and television shows (90210, anybody?). Having appeared all over Northern California and beyond, the Sorentinos have opened for acts like Peter Frampton, Chicago, Bob Dylan and Hootie and the Blowfish, and will be touring Europe this fall in support of their new CD, Love and Haight (Jackalope).

In short, Sorentino knows his musical way around the county. Over the years, he has accumulated a stunning wealth of knowledge about what it takes to have a good time when searching for live music, mostly for free. From the perspective of a performer and a consumer, Sorentino has developed an expert's eye as to what's cool--and what isn't.

He likes the vibe at A'Roma, the one local venue where his teenage kids can actually come hear him play. "This is a very user-friendly place," he says. And from a musician's perspective, it's evidently a good place to try out new material. "For one thing, there are no TVs with the sports channel on," he says, waiting to speak until the band is between songs. "That's my one pet peeve-- TVs turned on when the band is trying to play. Bugs the hell out of me."

We listen to the next three tunes, after which Sorentino, noticing that the band's tip jar has only one $5 bill in it, scopes out a more rominent location for the jar and boldly relocates it to a spot closer to the band.

"No one's making a lot of money in this business," he remarks, signaling that it's time to head out to our next spot. "Most musical artists in this area all work on spec; they work for nothing or next to nothing, hoping something big will happen someday. These guys are good, they're way above average, but if they're going to work in this area, they'll need all the help they can get."

Out in the parking lot, we stop to plot out the plan for the rest of our night. The good news, Sorentino explains, is that it's never hard to find great live music somewhere in the North Bay on your average Saturday night.

"There are a lot of people out there who play," he says, "and a lot of it is pretty high quality. It's not like it was back in the '70s and late '80s, but it's good."

The local scene in the '70s is now the stuff of legend, drawing people from San Francisco every weekend who were thrilled to soak up some of the energy generated by John Lee Hooker and Kate Wolf and Van Morrison; by Terry Garthwaite and Commander Cody and Jesse Colin Young and Perfect Crime; by Eddie B. Barlow and Lazy Bones and all the various member of the Grateful Dead. While today's local music scene may no longer shake the world the way it did 30 years ago, Sorentino believes that those legendary days are still having a positive impact on the North Bay.

"Those guys set the bar," he says, "and to this day, the basic level of musicianship in these counties is very, very high overall."

On the other hand . . .

"For musicians, back in those days," Sorentino continues, "there were just a lot more places to play, so you could actually make a living in this area, just playing in the Bay Area. There were places all over, and a lot of them continued until the late '80s. But now, forget it. Most of those places are gone. Most people can't make a living doing music in this area any more."

On the other other hand . . .

"The good thing," he says, "is that with fewer spots for bands to play, and a higher grade of local talent than you'd get in a lot of other places, you can almost always open up the paper and be able to find a good show somewhere close by."

With that, Sorentino suggests the Twin Oaks, on Redwood Highway near Petaluma, for our next stop.

"Who's playing tonight?" I ask.

"I have no idea," he laughs.

The parking lot of the Twin Oaks is jammed with semis, dozens of pickups and countless motorcycles. Led Zeppelin music oozes from the building's walls. The police sobriety checkpoint just up the road (thanks to which I am now the proud owner of a pamphlet entitled, "We Thank the Sober Driver--We Arrest the Rest") has apparently done little to discourage tonight's attendance.

"Now, if you've never been here before," Sorentino says, "you should know that the Twin Oaks is not a place you go for meaningful conversation. This is a bit of old Sonoma County, a place for country and rhythm and blues music, hard-drinking, have-some-fun music. A'Roma's, now that's a place where you might listen to the lyrics and actually entertain some intellectual notion about them. Here at the Twin Oaks, there's no such thing. People who come in here want to drink hard and they want to have some fun--fast. They want music that fits that vibe. I guarantee that whatever this band turns out to be, they're going to be very, uh, primal."

Clearly enjoying his tour-guide role, he holds the door open. "Welcome to the classic American blue-collar bar! Notice that the pool table is the primary decorative centerpiece, and that there is not one but several television sets, all tuned to sports stations. That one has rodeo!" he marvels. Our fellow patrons are a blend of bikers and dairy farmers, muscle-shirted youths and white-haired old-timers, livestock wranglers and beefy truck drivers. Not a Mohawk in the bunch.

The bartender informs us that tonight's band, currently on break after their first set, are a local group known as Road Hog and the Rippers. Sounds pretty primal to me.

Fifteen minutes later, the band are back from their break.

"Oh God, look at this!" Sorentino says in a low voice. "These guys are perfect!" Road Hogg and the Rippers look exactly like a motorcycle gang. Maybe they are a motorcycle gang, who knows--they're certainly jolly.

"Glad you all made it through the checkpoint," grins lead singer Bob Cuozzo, adding, "Hey! Can someone cut the jukebox, please?"

The Rippers' first tune is a cover of an old Rolling Stones song, and Sorentino hollers, "These guys are great!" After playing an original tune with the refrain "Let's burn it down! Let's burn it down!" they slide into an excellent cover of George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." A couple of songs later, Sorentino gives me the thumbs up; it's time to move on.

Once outside, he says, "Man! These guys were good. But hey, look at 'em. If they're not good, who's gonna tell them? Not me!"

"So what's next?" I ask.

"Now, for something completely different," he says. "Next stop, the Black Cat."

The Black Cat, in downtown Penngrove, used to be called Kelly's Bar, another old Sonoma County saloon for serious drinkers, but the place changed hands a few years ago and was soon transformed into something a little different--and a lot more entertaining.

"The Black Cat is basically a very cool lesbian bar," Sorentino explains, outside the establishment's back door, "but it's a really laid-back, open lesbian bar. I hosted an open mic night here last month. Great vibe. The crowd was totally, totally fun, totally cool, a lot of couples. I love it here."

It's about 10:30pm now, but the place isn't very full, only about 10 or so people, in all three of the basic gender-coupling combinations. There are two TVs, one that seems to play only commercials and the other tuned to the Food Channel. Iron Chef is on.

Unfortunately, we've arrived on a night when no live music is offered; we should have been here Friday. Tonight, the Black Cat is featuring an '80s-oriented DJ from Santa Rosa's weekly Rock 'n' Roll Sunday School gig spinning a dance-heavy groove officially titled Saturday Service. As we find seats at the bar, a strobe light hits the dance floor, and the invisible DJ cranks up the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl," followed by Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug."

"You know, the Black Cat is less than a mile away from the Twin Oaks," Sorentino notes, "but it's a completely different world."

He orders us a couple of pints, for which we are charged a total of five bucks. "Five bucks for two Pabst Blue Ribbons," he toasts. "How can you beat that?"

Now we're listening to the Human League's "Don't You Want Me," which proves so exciting a lure that, a few seconds later, the bartender is out on the dance floor shaking it.

"Like I said, the Black Cat is very relaxed," shrugs Sorentino. "It's just an easygoing place to hang out and have a good time. Look, even the bartender is having a good time. You put another 20 people in this place, and it'd be a fuckin' scream."

The Cotati hub, a few miles north of Penngrove, is a kind of musical magic triangle, formed by Spancky's ("Mostly cover bands playing ZZ Top biker music," says Sorentino); Sweet Lou's Italian restaurant, featuring a small attached jazz club; and the landmark bar and music spot, the Tradewinds.

We head for the Tradewinds.

Holding court tonight is the Jody Counter Band, who pretty much own the fourth Saturday of the month at "the 'Winds," as it's known to regulars. A popular spot for live music, the 'Winds focuses on offering solid R&B music and good straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. Jody Counter is an exceptional guitarist whose monthly appearance here attracts a lot of appreciative fellow musicians.

"In my opinion, this is the best bar in the county for top-notch, original rock 'n' roll music," Sorentino says, shouting to be heard above the music. "The Tradewinds is one of my favorite spots in the county--maybe because I played some of my first gigs here."

The Counter band have just played a cover of Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing." On the final chord, the crowd explodes in approval.

"He just pulled off a perfect, note-for-note rendition of that guitar solo!" says Sorentino, pointing to Counter. "Look at all these people. They know they just heard something pretty great."

A number of dancers, maybe a dozen or so, have been showing their appreciation by rocking out wherever they can find the space to do so. One exuberant dancer is doing her thing so close to the band that she keeps coming within striking range of the bass player's swinging guitar.

As the band slides into the opening chords of AC/DC's "Live Wire," the Woman Who Dances Too Close again begins to leap and lurch her way up and around the band, punching her fist in the air, pulling so close that someone steps up to move her away, and when that fails, simply picks her gently up, draping her over his shoulder, and carries her to the back of the room, where she starts dancing again as if nothing happened.

"Wow!" Sorentino shouts, as the song comes its rousing rowdy conclusion. "How can someone not love this?"

At 11:30pm, we're back on the sidewalk, where loitering actually seems to be encouraged. The scene is electric and alive, with people talking, singing and hanging out. It's the natural environment created when you have three decent music spots within a few dozen yards of each other.

"Check it out now," says Sorentino. "We've been to four places in three hours, and we have yet to be asked to pay a cover charge. I wanted to show that, though there may be a lot fewer clubs than there used to be, you can still go out any weekend and hear some really great music--for free!"

We're about to break the cycle, because now Sorentino is curious about the scene over at Sweet Lou's, where a rap/funk/hip-hop/reggae band called Fish Out of Water are playing. For that we'll cough up five bucks apiece. But right now, Sorentino has one last point to make.

"Even though, earlier in the night, I was sounding like the voice of doom and gloom," he says, "even though I think it is true that there are not as many places to play as there once were in this area, I think we've proved that, as far as the music-loving audience is concerned, anyone has a pretty good shot at going out, just like we did, to see whoever's playing and falling into whatever kind of vibe you want to fall into.

"If you're a blue-collar guy, there's the Twin Oaks. You're a college kid from SSU, you can go to A'Roma's or come to Sweet Lou's. There are plenty of places to fall in and find some good music.

"And tonight," he grins, starting across the street to hear more music, "we've just scratched the surface."



Do It Like Danny

A'Roma Roasters and Coffeehouse
95 Fifth St., Railroad Square, Santa Rosa. 707.576.7765.

Black Cat Bar and Cafe
56 Main St., Penngrove. 707.793.9480.

Spancky's
8201 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. 707.664.0169.

Sweet Lou's Family Trattoria
8201 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. 707.793.0955.

Twin Oaks Tavern
5745 Old Redwood Hwy., Penngrove. 707.795.5118.


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From the July 14-20, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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