It was a rainy night in Santa Barbara and the audience of the Piano Kitchen had a big decision to make. "It's getting kind of warm in here, and there are quite a few people standing outside," Jim Connolly, the host of this intimate music and performance space off Haley Street, told the twenty or so people sitting plastic lawn chairs inside listening to Irish songs. "I'd like to open the garage door and let them see in, but that means it might get cold, are you going to be OK with that?" he continued. The night had stoked the appetites of the audience, on both sides of the garage door, with half a dozen great songs, a couple of poems, and wild stories. So when general assent led to the loud metallic rattle of the chain that controls the door, a hearty cheer rose from the people outside. Finally, they could get a taste of the excitement served up at the Piano Kitchen.
The Piano Kitchen earned its name from its floor. It's a black and white linoleum checkerboard that conjures up classic diners or 1950s kitchens. But instead of waitresses tearing across the floor, slinging milkshakes and cheeseburgers, this checkerboard was home to hot rods in this space's previous life as a custom car showroom. Today, the space is a piano repair shop and studio space. Pianos are black and white, like that checkerboard floor, and the place bristles with their innards. By day, we hear the sounds of pianos being fixed and practiced, but at night, jazz, Americana, classical, and folk--and even the occasional siren call of the unmistakable sound of a musical saw-- can be heard by the musicians who congregate here.
The "Live from the Piano Kitchen" show serves as a kind of "Urban Home Companion" for Southern Californians. Imagine what Garrison Keillor might be like if he had grown up on Mountain Drive listening to the Blasters and X. On one side, there's the crafty clowning of Mills, a natural vaudevillian and a professor of, among other things, stage combat. On the other, there's the dark humor of Michael Bernard, a version of David Sedaris that's a lot closer to Charles Bukowski than the real thing. And finally, wrapping the whole thing a in a wild and wooly sonic blanket of banjo, percussion, and ambient noise, there is Jim Connolly, live soundtracker extraordinaire.
Connolly is Santa Barbara's busiest piano tuner. When he's not fixing ivories, or hosting shows at the Piano Kitchen, he travels the world as chief sound artist, songwriter, and resident sonic alchemist for Lit Moon Theater and The Gove County String Quartet. Large matching paintings of bright, largely empty blue skies cover the walls of the Kitchen. They were once the set of a Lit Moon production about a boy who flies with the ducks, and they fit here, giving the room an airy, spacious feeling that stops just short of flight.
This inconspicuous workshop does not operate as a proper commercial theater or nightclub, but rather as a place where Connolly and his friends can pursue their art, and as such, it has been home to some of the best music, theater, and radio drama to happen in Santa Barbara in the last few years. Santa Barbara has a shared black box theater, Center Stage, that's reasonable and accessible. It also has a few small theater groups, rather than one "alternative" theater, and, after years of bubbling up together through one production crossover or another, a critical mass has been achieved around this new spot.
Jeff Mills, a leader of the Boxtales group who provided the Irish tunes that cold night at the Piano Kitchen, has known Jim Connolly for years, but it wasn't until Mills started acting with Lit Moon that he and Connolly discovered a mutual fascination with unconventional locations. For his part, Connolly had already had one such venue, another piano-dominated space, only a few blocks away in the large room behind an antiques shop. When that closed, he found the Piano Kitchen.
For Mills, the dream was to do a live radio program from one of his favorite places, a bookstore that used to be on State Street, a place called Earthling. "Live from Earthling," Mills says, "it sounded great to me. I have always loved radio and vaudeville, and I just wanted to find the right space to launch from." The lapse of Earthling lead to another promised deal, this one with a wine bar and café in the Paseo Nuevo called Live Culture. "Perfect name, right?" Mills says, "so I had everything set to go there, as 'Live from Live Culture,' and the proprietor wanted to do it, but then one day I went by there, and it was suddenly just gone." These venue disappearances disrupted the creation of a "main drag."
The radio dream lived on long enough for Mills to find Connolly, and for their downtown Santa Barbara game of venue hopscotch to land them both on the same square. Another catalyst for the radio show, and for much of what happens at Piano Kitchen in the way of storytelling, is Michael Bernard. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Bernard has worked in New York doing theater and television and writes macabre comedy for a variety of outlets. When his wife, the actress and professor Anne Torsiglieri, took a job at UCSB teaching acting, Bernard found himself wandering the mean streets of a place where he knew next to no one. Fortunately, Mills was also teaching at UCSB, and, through a series of conversations, the idea of doing radio from the Piano Kitchen once a month on Friday nights at 10pm was born. "We thought it was important to do it late like that" Bernard says, "because we felt more badass that way."
Now that they have settled in and found a groove, the show has become a classic embodiment of a certain intellectual goofiness that infects all the great underground products of Santa Barbara, from the twisted eclecticism of musician Spencer the Gardener to the Sex Wax surf mysticism of fine art painter Hank Pitcher. At any given moment, about half the audience of the Piano Kitchen would have its nose in a book, trying to hunt down just the right Yeats poem to read aloud. Mills, who is a prodigious classically trained actor, is in the habit of memorizing anything that comes his way, and routinely reels off the lyrics to intricate ballads and fantastic obscure Dylan songs as if it were no big thing.
Around the corner, the Muddy Waters Cafe on Haley ought to be in the indie rock hall of fame by now. This tiny space, with barely room for 75 people after a band has set up on the "stage" portion of the floor in the main room, has played host to virtually every Pitchfork Media darling you can name, from Bon Iver to Girls, just to name two. In contrast, Piano Kitchen is typically less a venue to be booked for out of towners, no matter how hip. It's more a place for an organic scene of like-minded locals, their families, and their friends to create together. But, this does not mean this is amateur hour. Most of the folks involved are professionals in either music or theater, or both, and not a few are connected in some way to the nearby University of California, Santa Barbara.
What friends they have, too. Start with Anna Abbey, the pianist, singer, and songwriter who is Jim Connolly's partner in life and art. She brings an amazing ear for the unorthodox arrangement and a wonderful voice to the proceedings. Connolly's main axe is the acoustic bass, and together, he and Abbey perform an uncanny version of the Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." The show itself contains multitudes from the most collegiate-style varsity show satirical skits to some psychedelic storytelling a la Joe Frank. What keeps it all together is Mills's steady hand on the wheel and Connolly's banjo, which some nights is so prevalent that Mills jokes that "we could call it the banjo kitchen." This is Santa Barbara eclecticism, served.
Top Image: Photo by Michael Bernard.
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