For locals, it’s a Healdsburg tradition: head on down to the Plaza on a Tuesday afternoon with a picnic basket, a couple bottles of wine and snacks to share with your friends, lay out a blanket and listen to the music.
From 6 to 8 p.m., the Healdsburg Plaza turns into a mini-Woodstock for the brie-and-chardonnay generation, from the end of May to the end of August every year.
But it doesn’t just happen, like the blooming of plum trees and budding of the grape. It all started 24 years ago as a Sunday evening “picnic”, sponsored by the to get visitors to come to Healdsburg.
It grew slowly at first, rarely drawing more than 500 people to the Plaza. The Chamber of Commerce produced the event for awhile, then the Healdsburg Arts Council, but it never really caught on.
But in 2003 it moved to Tuesdays, to synch up with the Tuesday , and was reconceived as an event not for tourists but for locals.
And that’s made all the difference: Now attendance is reliably above 1,000, sometimes as many as twice that for just the right combination of music, weather and community turn-out.
"It speaks to Healdsburg," added the city’s recreation supervisor Elizabeth Haskell. "It's a town picnic every Tuesday."
Dan Zastrow, a familiar face and pony tail to film fans in both Healdsburg and elsewhere from his time as theater manager at the Raven during its mid-1980s glory days, was brought in to book the acts, a challenge he found surprising easy.
“It’s on a Tuesday night, nobody has any gigs on Tuesdays,” Zastrow said.
He made sure the sound system was professional, and with the improved acts and sound, the event quickly found its way into the weekly routine of locals.
“And every band who plays here, and I mean everybody," Zastrow emphasized, "loves it, and wants to do it again.”
Sure, sometimes people complain that the music is too loud, or the park too crowded, but Zastrow has an answer.
“It’s like a campfire," he said. "If you want to get warm you move closer – but if it’s too hot you move farther away.”
“Warm” is an apt if inadequate way to describe the oft-frenzied dancing swirl that fronts a particularly driving band.
Farther away you find friends and families on their blankets, and at the edge of the park – just this side of the trees that line Healdsburg Ave. – you find families with their lawn chairs and kids running about.
Zastrow and Haskell have pulled out all the stops this year to present a line-up that would draw crowds to Golden Gate Park, let alone the Healdsburg Plaza.
Haskell, who came to her current position in Healdsburg from Santa Rosa in 2006, focused her energy on lining up the key sponsors for this year’s series, which include the , and as well as the city’s . "We're using no city funds at all this year," she said.
Their support pays most of the operating budget, while a set of concert sponsors donate in kind or in cash for the weekly shows. All bands for this year’s series, with the concert sponsors for each, are listed on the Concert Poster (available as a PDF with this story or ).
“We look for music to fill the Plaza,” said Zastrow. “A solo guitarist wouldn’t work.”
Zastrow and Haskell have pretty much free rein in deciding the acts, which as often as not depends on Zastrow’s friendships in the local music industry – he grew up in Penngrove, and seems to know more secrets about the region’s musicians than he lets on.
This year’s concerts start out on May 31 – right after the tourists go home from the Memorial Day weekend – with the return of Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings. Tellingly, it was the Sonoma-grown slide guitarist who closed out last year’s Tuesdays in the Plaza series with an exceptional show that had a “full house” begging for more. He's just released a collaboration with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarak, "Translucent Blues."
The 6 – 8 p.m.time limit is strictly enforced, not only for the musicians but also for the presence of open bottles in the crowd. Although no alcohol is sold, music fans can (and do) bring their own, often turning the evening into a wide-ranging tasting session of Sonoma County’s finest.
Come 8 p.m., the bottles are corked and put away, and once the concert buzz and glow has subsided, the Plaza slowly empties.
Yet, there has never been an public drunkenness problem at these events.
“It speaks to the people of Healdsburg,” Haskell said. “It’s a harmonious, well-behaved group of people from all walks of life who come to these concerts. Besides, we do have a lovely police presence…”
As well as the stellar line-up of musicians – which we’ll get to in a minute – this year marks the first time "street food" will be served at the Tuesday events. Six food vendors applied and received the privilege of selling at the Plaza, including the , , , , and the , the last two primarily caterers.
While they will serve a variety of characteristic specialties, they will not serve beer or wine: it’s still a no-alcohol-served event.
Back to the music: The only exception to Zastrow’s booking process comes on the second Tuesday, June 7, this year. Since that date falls in the middle of the , Zastrow usually turns it over to Jessica Felix, the festival's artistic director, to come up with an act.
This year, it’s the SFJazz High School All-Stars, an act that might not sound destined for stardom. But check it out: these are the top teenage jazz musicians in the state, including Healdsburg’s own Kai Devitt-Lee on guitar.
On June 14, the Pulsators bring their rock back to Healdsburg for the Tuesday concert. The long-storied Sonoma County band has released four CDs since 1989, and the five-man group still wins Best Band in local newspaper readers’ polls. As New Orleans legend Art Neville so aptly put it, “I always knew they were cold blooded and throwing bricks. Check these dudes out!”
A number of other dates bear highlighting – again, the full schedule is included in the gallery – including June 28, when Patsy and the Bobcats take the stage. Who? “Patsy” is Sebastopol actress Mary Gannon Graham, in her popular portrayal of the C&W legend in “Always, Patsy Cline.” The show played to sold-out audiences in Santa Rosa and Petaluma last year, and has since gone on national tour. Seeing Patsy and the Bobcats (the original stage musicians) in the Healdsburg Plaza should be a real treat.
July 5: Celebrate the day after the 4th with jam-band favorites Vinyl, a big hit at last year’s Tuesday concert, along with legendary Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. Ranglin has played and recorded ska and reggae since the 1950s with the usual suspects – Jimmy Cliff, the Skatalites and Lee “Scratch” Perry. But he’s also a proficient jazz guitarist whose styles range from pre-bop to Latin. His presence on the Plaza stage is a rare opportunity to hear a musician of international stature up close.
August 30: The 2011 concert series concludes with Geyserville’s own, Charlie Musselwhite. The blues-harp legend, whose to the rowdy heyday of Chicago Blues in the 1960s, has often been in the Plaza audience on a Tuesday, but this marks his first appearance as a performer.
“He was on tour with Cindy Lauper in Australia,” said Zastrow. “On a whim I emailed and asked if he’d like to play the last date this year. The answer came right back: 'Sure!'”
Other concerts include:
June 21: Frobeck (funk/rock)
July 12: Rich Estrin and the Nightcats (blues/roots)
July 19: The Brothers Comatose (bluegrass)
July 26: Culann’s Hounds (Punk Irish hoe-down)
Aug. 2: The Sorentinos (Alt-Americana)
Aug 9: Tom Rigney and Flambeau (Zydeco)
Aug. 16: Ron Thompson & the Resisters (blues)
Aug. 23 Stompy Jones (jumpin’ jazz)
Notes from the Parks and Recreation: Concert attendees are asked to please set up their chairs and blankets after 4 p.m. and to leave their pets at home.
For more information, call the at 707-431-3303 or the at 707-433-6935 or 800-648-9922 (CA only).