The Eclectic Music Festival and Arts Crawl will again brighten South Pasadena with live music and art displays this Saturday afternoon and evening. The Gin Blossoms will inject a note of hopeful nostalgia and chiming ’90s pop into the proceedings with their headlining set on the Eclectic West Stage at Fairview and Mission, following performances on that same stage by crowd-pleasing ensembles Dustbowl Revival, Incendio, and South Pasadena Transit Authority. The free, nonprofit community celebration will also host over four dozen other acts of varied genres and generations on a dozen stages around the core festival area along Mission Street.
Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps will be rocking the Eclectic East Stage on Mission near Fair Oaks. It’s been a jubilant year for James, songwriting bassist hubby Terry Wilson and their deeply road-seasoned band; James’ 10th album, 2018’s “Here in Babylon,” was nominated for a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy Award.
“We were just blown away,” she says, describing the bleary-eyed morning when her cellphone erupted at 6:30 a.m. with texts from friends congratulating her nomination. “We honestly didn’t have any anticipation of winning, because we were such a dark horse candidate.” (Fantastic Negrito won for “Please Don’t Be Dead.”) She laughs delightedly while recalling the February awards ceremony and “really fun” nominees pre-party.
A Grammy nomination means their booking agent gets better responses now, but as they’ve habitually done throughout their well-respected career, James and Wilson remain focused on their family and music; the Texas natives define success by their ability to have raised their son and daughter the way they wanted in Canyon Country while making the music they want to make. That’s where they’ve found their truest validation, and now they’re pleased to see more new faces in their audience.
“Festivals have a whole other thing going for ’em because it’s exciting with so many people, and you’re feeling that energy. Every kind of gig has its own reward, and its own vibe. Honestly, I just like to play,” James says. “I don’t care where it is.”
They’ve developed formidable chops over decades of playing bars and concerts; they have a live album ready that they hope to release this summer. Wilson matter-of-factly says they take a blue-collar approach to their craft.
“You work on it until you finish it, then you move on to the next thing, like you would build a kitchen cabinet,” he says. “It comes from a different inspiration point but you’re still putting something together; you work on it, rehearse until you get it right — and then you try to not overdo it when you do it live.”
Veteran Austin-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gurf Morlix is similarly reveling in his finely honed craft. Morlix will perform a solo set Saturday, drawing material from his new blues-based album “Impossible Blue.”
Songs like the lively “Turpentine,” with which he’s been opening shows, the quietly uplifting “2 Hearts Beating in Time,” and “Sliver of Light,” Morlix’s sly philosophy about the working artist’s life, encapsulate his lean style and sound: sly, mordant wit pulsing with intelligence over an undeniable groove and smoldering guitar solos. As a songwriter, he sets his standard bar mighty high after five decades working as sideman and/or producer with the likes of Peter Case, Slaid Cleaves, Blaze Foley, Mary Gauthier, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, and Lucinda Williams. He says he’s been writing songs since he was 17 or 18, and genially acknowledges it took “about 200 songs before I ever wrote a good one, that people responded to.”
“I’ve been extremely lucky to work with all those great songwriters, and I would talk to them about songwriting, and the stuff that they had to tell me, they were all kind of saying the same thing but I wasn’t ready to hear it until suddenly I was. It was basically about not giving up on a song. … If a song takes me 10 years to write, if I finally get it the way I want it, then it was worth all of that time. I used to just make them rhyme and just hope for the best, you know; ‘a day’s work, that’s good enough.’ But it’s not good enough. It’s got to be as good as it can be.” He estimates “Backbeat of the Dispossessed,” his elegy to longtime friend and drummer Michael Bannister, took nine to 10 years to “get beaten into shape.”
“It might be only one line that’s causing the blockage but once I figure it out, then I’ll record it and it’ll feel right to me. That’s the lesson I’ve learned.”
Just turned 26, Raye Zaragoza’s never known a world without cellphones or YouTube, so she shrugs if fans post videos of her performing still-raw songs. “I’ve only been an artist with an online presence,” she allows. “But in this new world, the more transparent we can be, the more loyal our followers are because they feel [connected].”
An LA resident, Zaragoza’s been touring steadily for two years, sharing a socially conscious message through her music. She’s currently preparing to record her second full-length album (with some songs selected by fans), following 2017’s “Fight for You,” which included the song that pushed her onto the national stage: “In the River,” a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Growing up in Manhattan, music was Zaragoza’s way to escape bullying and confusion about her Japanese-Taiwanese-Native American-Mexican heritage. She laughs when recalling her uninspiring first songs, about “boys and angsty teenage stuff … they didn’t feel like art.” When Standing Rock happened, she says, she realized she had her own stories to tell as a person of color. When she let those flow through her music, people responded — and she began to believe in herself.
“I wanted to be self-expressive but also wanted what I write to be bigger than me, and I wanted to be doing something that’s bigger than myself. So I had to dig deeper within myself.”
Surprisingly, her writing is seriously influenced by musical theatre. Her father portrayed Chief Sitting Bull in “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway, and Zaragoza excitedly recalls watching him and star Bernadette Peters perform eight shows a week.
“It’s a huge part of how I tell stories,” she says. “There’s a message to every musical. You would never write a musical without some kind of lesson. I’ve always felt that if one of my songs doesn’t have an underlying lesson or message, that it’s not finished or something I really want to release, because I want my songs to be mini novels; I want them to be mini musicals; I want them to be crafted in a very thoughtful way, just like musical theatre.”
“People are looking for music to be a mirror to them,” she continues. “They’re looking to feel that they’re not alone. As a singer-songwriter, I’m most articulate through song. The deeper we go within ourselves and figure out what things we want mirrored back … those are the things to lean into. I think we’re all looking for some inspiration and comfort.”
South Pasadena’s Eclectic Music Festival and Arts Crawl takes place Saturday, April 27, with live music from 3 to 10 p.m. at various venues; free admission, except to the VIP Zone at the corner of Mission Street and Fairview Street, which requires wristbands. For wristband details and to see the full lineup and other information, visit theeclectic.rocks.