News Column

The Idaho Statesman Michael Deeds column

November 17, 2013


Nov. 17--When dozens of musicians who performed at Idaho- and Oregon-based Sandpiper restaurants reunite next weekend, there will be no more swinging from the bar rafters. No slurred singalongs of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Pissin' in the Wind" or Jimmy Buffett's "Why Don't We Get Drunk." No topless women gyrating happily.

"Well, you never know," singer-songwriter Steve Eaton says with a laugh.

But there will be plenty of entertaining live music. Even more gray hair. And best of all, priceless local nostalgia.

The first-ever Sandpiper Circuit Reunion concerts, being held Friday and Saturday at the Sapphire Room in Boise's Riverside Hotel, are a get-together for an extended good-times family that experienced a unique part of Gem State history. Presented by the Idaho Songwriters Association, the shows will reunite musicians and fans with three decades of Sandpiper memories.

"The Sandpipers were so much fun to play," Eaton says affectionately. "It was really amazing on a lot of levels."

Started in 1971, the regional Sandpiper steak and seafood chain expanded until there were restaurants in Boise, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Medford, Ore., Roseburg, Ore., and even Phoenix. Only the Sandpipers in Pocatello and Idaho Falls remain open. The Sandpiper at 1100 W. Jefferson St. in Downtown Boise closed at the end of 2000.

Eaton, who had the idea for this reunion, got his first Sandpiper gig in 1975. He was 29. He'd quit Paul Revere and the Raiders in '71. He'd been through a couple of record deals. Pop duo The Carpenters had decided to record a song he'd written, which eventually made him a sizable chunk of money.

But landing a spot on the Sandpiper circuit was a lucrative opportunity, he says, which is why he stayed at it for nearly 25 years. The Sandpiper would book musicians for consecutive nights, then rotate them between restaurants.

"They'd give you at least five nights, and the starting pay back then was really significant," Eaton says. "It was like $100 at least, $125 a night. You could walk home with 600, 700, 800 bucks a week.

"It made a whole lot of house payments for a (ton) of musicians in this state."

Everyone looked forward to going to work at the Sandpiper, Eaton says -- singers, waitstaff, bartenders. That's probably why the Friday reunion show has sold out in advance, and the Saturday performance is on the brink.

In its heyday, the Sandpiper offered a perfect combination of dining, socializing and entertainment.

"It was a big deal," Eaton says. "It was a central location for politics, for music, for fun.

"They just hit the sweet spot, man. The concept of having somebody up there with an acoustic guitar, singing. And I'd just tap my foot on a Coke crate and sit up there and sing."

Coke crate?

"An old antique Coke crate! I still have it," Eaton says. "I'm gonna bring it."

Some diners blissfully recollect the macadamia nut-crusted halibut or the house salad with cashews and shrimp. But plenty of others cherished that bar, where it wasn't just the musicians who were tuned up.

The party was the same in every place, Eaton remembers: Twin, Poky, Idaho Falls, Boise ...

"Every one of them," Eaton says.

He would set up his equipment around 5 p.m., when workers from the Boise Cascade building across the street were showing up for happy hour. He'd sneak home for a nap and return at 8 p.m. to play. They'd still be there. He'd perform until midnight. They'd still be there.

"And they'd close the bar. I made a whole lot of friends when I was playing," he says with a laugh.

Chuckling, Eaton goes off the record when describing some of the zanier antics during the "wild and crazy days at the Sandpiper."

Crowds and performers just loved letting loose.

"Billy Braun was the king of that stuff," Eaton reminisces. "Everybody kind of took his lead because he kind of set the precedent ... Billy was just always a supreme entertainer."

Needless to say, the nautical-themed eatery transformed during the evenings -- sometimes into a mini-Mardi Gras: "I managed to coax people into taking their tops off in the Sandpiper," Eaton acknowledges.

Musicians from that free-spirited era will travel to the Sapphire Room from across the country. With so many on hand, most will get to play only a couple of songs. Cowboy singer Ernie Sites is flying from New York. Multi-instrumentalist JRobert Houghtaling plans to make the trip from Florida.

Along with musical partner Jan Skurzynski, Boise singer Gayle Chapman played the Sandpiper circuit in the 1990s in their "folk chick" duo Black Diamond. She remembers four-hour gigs that paid fairly well.

"We'd get lots of tips and do as many dumb bar-drinking songs as we could," Chapman says. "Once you built a following in the Sandpipers at these different locations, people would just buy you drinks all night. And buy you food.

"It was interesting," she adds with a laugh. "As much as you could remember, it was interesting."

Chapman looks back fondly on a packed, standing-room-only CD release party for Black Diamond at the Boise Sandpiper: "I've got photographs tucked away somewhere," she says.

Because of its popularity, the Sandpiper was a place that introduced lots of musicians to one another, she says -- meaning that next weekend probably will feel like a high school reunion: "Wow, you look old! But you still sound like you do!" Chapman says, chuckling.

Fortunately, with everyone older and wiser -- and the concerts happening in the 160-seat Sapphire Room -- there's no way things will be as rowdy as the good ol' days of the Sandpiper.

"Oh, I don't know," Chapman says. "Homecomings like this bring out the best of the worst. It'll be fun. I'm looking forward to it."

--Shows are 7:30 p.m. at the Boise Riverside Hotel, 2900 W. Chinden Blvd. Both performances are sold out, but a few walk-up or standing-room-only tickets might be available. Call 343-1871 for information.


Join Tim Johnstone and me as we spin new music from local acts (Jupiter Holiday, Jeff Crosby, a.k.a. Belle) and national acts (Brett Dennen, Broken Bells, Heidecker & Wood). "The Other Studio" airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.


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