Forty Years in Paradise: Blues Duo Marks a Milestone

By Steven Libowitz   |   November 17, 2020
Tom & Kenny celebrate 40 years with a celebration show at the Lobero on Saturday, October 26 (photo by Anita Reyes)

Last Sunday afternoon, Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan played at the Cold Springs Tavern. November 3 will find the acoustic blues duo at the roadside bar in the woods below the San Marcos Pass again. So will three of the four Sundays after that. No surprise there – Santa Barbara’s “Good-Time Ambassadors of the Blues” have played Cold Springs nearly every Sunday they’re in town for almost 35 years.

But this weekend the duo – featuring Ball on harmonica and vocals and Sultan on acoustic guitar – will be doing something different downtown, namely performing a sold out concert marking their 40th anniversary, a musical milestone that makes them Santa Barbara’s longest-running band by a wide margin.

Tom & Kenny, as the duo is known, began their four-decade sojourn back in 1979 at the now-defunct Sojourner Restaurant, just a literal stone’s throw from the Lobero, a gig for which they were paid $15 and all the beer they could drink. That last part isn’t just a footnote: while the genre they ply originated down in the Mississippi Delta, beer plays a much big part in the duo’s oeuvre than, say, sharecropping.

“We’re white guys from Santa Barbara,” Ball said in a joint interview earlier this week. “We sing and write what we know about – pretty much beer, gambling and women, among other things.”

That formula has taken them to clubs, theaters, and festivals around the country and beyond, extended to a sizeable catalog of recordings plus more than a modicum of TV and film music placements, and seen them progress from covering blues and jugband songs to composing more than half of their material. “That’s what happens when you run out of stuff to steal,” Ball joked. And through it all their approach remains and lighthearted and fun-loving as ever. Good friends and good times set to 12-bar refrains.

“Tom and I are what you see is what you get,” Sultan said. “No schtick, or costumes or anything. We’re just being ourselves. It’s not an act.”

“We’d be pals even if we weren’t playing together,” Ball agreed. “Because we’ve got a lot in common.”

Good thing, though, that they both still love serving up their unique blend of acoustic blues with swing, ragtime, and jugband influences. Else we wouldn’t have such classic Tom & Kenny songs as “Perfect Woman,” Ball’s catchy, fun and clever as can be paean to a bar-owning, Dodger season-ticket holding, “She’s got smarts and never farts” fantasy girl. The 1996 track is a fan favorite just about everywhere they go, but even the duo doesn’t get tired of performing it.

“We never play the same song exactly the same way twice,” Sultan explained. “How we’re feeling that day is how the music comes out. Even though we might have played a song 1,000 times, it comes out different every time we play it.”

Need proof? If you can’t make the Lobero show on Saturday night, hop onto a Harley and head up to Cold Springs any ol’ Sunday where you can see Tom & Kenny ripping out the good time blues that seem to emanate from the musicians as easily as breathing. It’s a sign of chemistry and trust that’s being built for four decades.

“I know where Tom’s going to go (musically) sometimes even before he does,” Sultan said, with a laugh. “We have that kind of connection.”

Acoustic Alchemy

The Santa Barbara Acoustic Music Association’s new partnership with SOhO Restaurant and Music Club continues this week with a double dose of rarely heard acts in the new Listening Room series in which audience and staff are both cautioned to keep as quiet as possible. San Francisco Bay Area fingerstyle guitarists Teja Gerken and Doug Young, who perform Thursday, October 24, have played together for more than a decade, drawing material from their individual catalogs of original compositions, Celtic tunes, arrangements of jazz standards, and even classical pieces. The duo takes advantage of a wide tonal palette via employing a variety of guitars including baritone, metal-bodied resonator and 12-strings in addition to more standard instruments. Each of the artists has also released two CDs under their own names. Wednesday evening October 30 brings a solo appearance from fellow fingerstyle guitar player Kinloch Nelson, who delivers a synthesis of folk, jazz, classical, rock, American popular music and original compositions. His programs range even further than Gerken and Young’s, encompassing Bach to John Sebastian, with references to Miles Davis, Franz Schubert, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, The Ventures, Flatt and Scruggs and even occasional TV themes – an amalgam amassed over the course of a 50-year career.

Rant and Roll: 5Qs with Lewis Black

A few things have changed since Lewis Black last performed in Santa Barbara, not the least of which is the 2016 presidential election (more on that later), but also a new addition to his Grammy Award-winning anger-driven stand-up comedy show in which he shares the stage with members of the audience. Not literally, of course. That could be dangerous.

But Black now follows his hour-plus-long regular set with a live streaming show called “The Rant is Due” in which he performs rage-filled rants drawn from written comments solicited from his fans about what makes them angry on a local level.

Black also sometimes peruses the local papers to find something silly or outrageous about the townsfolk, and hinted that might happen when he performs at the Lobero Theatre on Sunday, October 27. But don’t expect to see him sidling up next to other funny folk in a weekend home in our Eden-by-the-Sea anytime soon.

“I couldn’t live in a place like that because when you wake up in the morning, you think ‘What can I do today that’s more impressive that what I’m looking at?’ That wouldn’t work for me.”

Black dished about his righteous rants and turning an avalanche of anger into comedy over the phone earlier this week. 

Q. How hard is it to do comedy when Washington itself is pretty insane and upside down, and the real news can be so outrageous it’s almost like a joke or punchline? How do you differentiate yourself? 

A. I look for another way to approach what we’re going through. A way that will widen things up. There’s a mass hysteria going on that makes it difficult. Including the news itself, the way they deliver it, which doesn’t help, trying to foment stuff. What happened to getting to the bottom of the story? They don’t do that anymore. I need information, not opinion! …

People are watching what goes on in politics as if it’s a reality show, and because we don’t teach civics anymore they don’t know what it means… It’s weird when everybody’s angry – because that’s my job! But I’ve found that a to talk about things differently. It took a year and a half to get there. But I’ve finally honed it and refined it.

Is the anger just your act or do you walk around pissed off all day?

I have to go to the bank tomorrow, and I know it’s going to be really irritating. So I’m already angry going in there. But I’ll let the anger sit there until I get to the next show and then there will be ten things I’ll go off on during my act. I get it out on stage. That’s why have perfect blood pressure. And also because to work at this level I have to take a nap every day. Otherwise I’d be dead.

Do you think that it’s also cathartic for the audience, that you’re channeling their anger?

From what I hear. I get two comments: kids will say, “You’re just like my father only you’re funny.” Or people tell me, “You get to say what I wish I could say.”

You’ve said you are funniest when you are angry. Why do you think that is, and why is the rant so enjoyable?

I don’t know why. Whoever it is I become when I’m angry on stage has a funny quality. Just playing anger is funny, how I get all flustered and stumble around looking for words, go through the full spectrum of the emotion. People can relate to that. And they know there’s something silly about the way I get angry, because it’s exactly the same about the weather as it is about politics. Which is nuts.

So do you sometimes forget you are on stage and lose it?

The fourth wall doesn’t exist for me, and I can actually get pretty worked up on stage. That’s when I say I’ve gone too far, and have to explain what happened. 

Ojai Storytelling Festival

Storytelling might still conjure images of caregivers reading a book to children to get them to sleep, but Ojai’s long weekend festival attracts an abundance of tellers who consider delivering stories in the oral tradition to be a performance art at the highest level. Among the on-stage acts this year at the 19th edition of the festival are Peter Cook, a deaf storyteller from Chicago, and Debra Ehrhardt, the now L.A.-based actress-teller whose prize-winning organic one-person show Jamaica Farewell (which played at the Lobero back in 2007) recounts her upbringing on the island nation. Also spinning yarns are Blind Boy Paxton of New York, Jennifer Munro from England, Kim Weitkamp from Ohio, and Oregon’s Anne Rutherford, plus The Moth’s Brian Finkelstein, who also is a regular performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and Ruby Cooper. Santa Barbara singer Kimberly Ford and her band will also offer a special performance of “Celebrating Joni Mitchell.” 

Most of the afternoon and evening sessions in the October 24-27 fest are themed, with such titles as Humor and Heart, Amazing Adventures, Song Stories and Naughty Tales, the latter a special late-night offering where the tales careen past the G rating of the rest of the fest. Budding storytellers can also partake of myriad morning workshops. Call (310) 890-1439 or for details.


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