Building a great band is part psychology, part musicology and a dash of inexplicable alchemy. It's an art form at which Oakland bluegrass star Kathy Kallick excels.
"I've been playing music for a long while, and I've come to notice there's a mysterious magic that keeps a band interesting and evolving," says Kallick, who plays a series of gigs around the region in the coming days, including today at the USS Potomac in Oakland, Friday at Mighty Fine Guitars in Lafayette, and Saturday at the Sunnyvale Theatre.
"You can start a new band that looks great on paper, and everyone likes each other's music. You give it a year and a half, and if it's not taking off, it's just not a thing."
Kallick's five-piece West Coast band is definitely a thing. With personnel drawn from Anchorage, Alaska, Seattle and Portland, Ore., as well as the Bay Area, serious commitment is required to keep it a going concern. In many ways, the band is built upon Kallick's near two-decade musical relationship with mandolin expert Tom Bekeny.
A bluegrass player who's also steeped in jazz, he toured and recorded with the first incarnation of Kallick's band back in the 1990s and then was the only holdover in her previous band Rustler's Moon. When that band didn't gel the way Kallick hoped, she kept him in the fold and started assembling her current combo, featuring rising fiddler Annie Staninec.
Kallick met Staninec when she was 9 years old at a singing workshop at her house and followed her progress intermittently. Staninec plays in Cajun and Gypsy swing contexts, too, and when Kallick ran into her at a New Year's Eve jam a few years ago "my head spun around," she says. "She's really turned into a fantastic fiddler."
Before Dan Booth left the band and was replaced by Seattle bassist Cary Black, Booth suggested his father might be a good fit for the band. Booth had pointed Kallick at Staninec, but she was still skeptical about the familial recruitment, particularly since Greg Booth lives in Alaska.
"I like my parents, too, but I don't want to be in a band with them," Kallick says. "But Tom went home and looked up Booth on YouTube, and came back to report that we'd be really lucky to play with him. He was the final ingredient."
For the upcoming run of Bay Area gigs, Kallick is celebrating the release of her new album "Cut to the Chase" (Live Oak Records). While the band is featured on five of the album's 13 tracks, "Chase" is not a bluegrass album. Rather, every decade or so, Kallick releases a project showcasing her other musical interests. Drawing on folk and country idioms, her original songs tell vivid stories, like the startling police presence she experienced while traveling abroad as a young woman in "Franco's Spain."
Bekeny first met Kallick in the mid-1970s when they were starting out on the San Francisco bluegrass scene. Even before he joined her band in the mid-1990s, he watched her develop from a bassist "into a great bluegrass rhythm guitarist," he says.
"She was writing songs early on, too, and she's just blossomed over the years. It's so cool, when she writes outside her musical roots as a contemporary bluegrass songwriter, you can tell where she's coming from. The whole scene here was all about reverence for tradition and doing your homework."
Each show on the band's Bay Area run takes place in a venue with a very particular vibe, starting with tonight's gig at the USS Potomac, Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Floating White House." Friday's concert at Stevie Coyle's Mighty Fine Guitars in Lafayette features the band in "a little jewel box of a concert room," Kallick says. "I've never played it, but I've seen many shows there, and it's a great place to watch. At the intermission you can go out to the store and feast your eyes on those instruments. It's a musician's paradise."
Saturday afternoon the band plays a brief free in-store concert at Down Home Music in El Cerrito before heading down to the evening show at the Sunnyvale Theatre. And looking down the road, she reteams with her Good Ol' Persons bandmate Laurie Lewis for an April 26 gig at San Francisco's St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church, as part of the California Bluegrass Association's Bluegrass Spring Jubilee. They'll be paying a tribute to mandolinist Vern Williams and fiddler Ray Park, who brought bluegrass to California in the 1950s, performing as Vern and Ray.
Lewis and Kallick don't often share the same stage, but they're still close.
"Laurie and I get together as often as we can to play music for fun," Kallick says. "She rides her bike over from Berkeley with a fiddle on her back."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When & Where: 7:30 p.m. today at USS Potomac, Oakland ($25, 510-627-1215, www.usspotomac.org); 8 p.m. Friday at Mighty Fine Guitars, Lafayette ($15-$20 suggested donation, www.mightyfineguitars.com); 8 p.m. Saturday at Sunnyvale Theatre, Sunnyvale ($28; 408-0733-6611, www.kathykallick.com)