June 20--On a warm, sunny evening last July, the Mil-Tones, a 10-piece New Orleans-style brass band, assembled on the Plaza bandstand, started getting funky playing gospel and jazz tunes powered by the oompah of the tuba and sousaphone and the bass drumbeat of its leader, Milton J. Villarrubia III. The band looked out over a crowd of dancers and concert-goers dozens deep, standing and clapping to the music. The park benches were filled. Some people sat on the grass; others had brought their own chairs. The end of the number was greeted with whoops and applause. "It was such an honor, being up on the stage in front of a sea of people enjoying the music -- getting down," Villarrubia said, recalling the event. "The idea of our group is to bring our style of music to the people, so it's great to see a crowd get into it."
Villarrubia's Mil-Tones are back on the Plaza on Monday, June 23, when the Santa Fe Bandstand kicks off this year's free summer concert series. (They promise to cover a Led Zeppelin tune arranged for brass band.) What started in 2002 as a handful of weeknight concerts has grown to roughly 100 shows. Although most are held on the Plaza, some take place at the Southside Bandstand location at 3466 Zafarano Drive, near Lowe's Home Improvement. Mayor Javier Gonzales, who has focused attention on the Plaza with traffic and other proposals, sees the music series as a means of keeping the Plaza vital. "The Plaza is the heartbeat of the city. What allows that beat to be healthy are the people that gather there. Music is the one sure thing that will continue to bring people to that historic area, where for over 400 years our community has come together." Who does the mayor plan to see? Latin rock-and-soul band Sol Fire, he said. "I was mostly brought up on their music with the Abeyta family."
The style of music featured since the series began has broadened. The emphasis on Americana during the Bandstand's first seasons has shifted to include salsa, zydeco, alternative rock, world music, big band and combo jazz, ranchera, rhythm and blues, and even opera. "In the past we used to be a local talent showcase," said Michael Dellheim, executive director of Outside In, the nonprofit that presents the concerts in conjunction with the City of Santa Fe. "If you were local, we made room for you. Over the years, we've tried to raise the quality level. It's no longer for just the mediocre bar band. You have to do something special. People have come to trust the Bandstand brand. They know the people playing here are of good quality. That means that people who don't normally prefer a certain kind of music will come to hear it on the Bandstand." Also new at some of this year's concerts are food trucks serving dishes tied to the evening's musical theme.
This year the series offers a number of nationally known names -- not the monster-arena performers of pop-rock and country but respected, recognized leaders in their particular genre. These include roots-rock band the Wheeler Brothers (Tuesday, June 24), Americana duo Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis (?July 23), Grammy-winning bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan (?July 29), country-dance band The Derailers (Aug. 6), Americana and progressive bluegrass band the Greencards (Aug. 12), and former Johnny Cash keyboardist Earl "Poole" Ball (Aug. 25). Add these to a number of New Mexico musicians and that quality Dellheim spoke of seems less a promise and more a guarantee.
Local bands are chosen through auditions. "We look for YouTube clips of live performance rather than ask for CDs," Dellheim said. "When I'm listening to a CD, I don't know if I'm hearing you or your producer. Video clips are live currency and an accurate gauge of talent. Even the quality of the video speaks to the band's professionalism. It doesn't take a lot of money to make a quality video. And the technology is available to everyone. The quality of the video reflects how much you care about your music. It tells me you're serious."
Outside In maintains an active schedule, producing some 500 events a year, including workshops. It presents live music in nursing homes, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and hospital wards. It places a special emphasis on providing programs for incarcerated juveniles and conducts weekly music lessons at the Children's Treatment Center in Albuquerque.
When Outside In founder David Lescht died in 2012, Dellheim wanted to see the organization stay active. "I didn't know anything about the local arts scene, and David's death came as something of a shock. I just wanted to offer some triage until something longer-term could happen. Turned out I was the longer term."
Dellheim admitted that other than getting seasonal help when selling sponsorships, he's pretty much a "one-man show." At first he was a little uncomfortable with the relationship of Outside In to the Bandstand series. "Outside In's first mission is to bring music to people who can't otherwise get out. What does that have to do with bringing The Derailers to the Plaza? But then I'm up there on the stage and can see the community out in front, feeling safe, dancing -- people who couldn't afford anything else or who couldn't come anywhere else because of who they are. They wouldn't go to a club or a bar, but they feel entirely comfortable at the Bandstand. At the end of the night, in the afterglow of a great performance, the feeling that's produced is the same one we take to nursing homes, homeless shelters, and detention centers. It's the same joy that we try to bring to places that are pretty grim."
The Bandstand program's relationship with the city is important but not guaranteed. Outside In must complete a request for proposal every three years. (It will reapply in 2015.) Acceptance awards Outside In a contract with the city to produce the events. "The contract is worth $50,000, much less than a third of our total budget," Dellheim said. "We then go out and sell sponsorships ranging anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 for our events that in large part pay for our programming. We put our schedule together, then present it to local businesses. Certain musical genres appeal to certain sponsors, so we try to provide synergy between the sponsor and the genre."
Dellheim said he sometimes wonders if the Bandstand series might outgrow the Plaza. "There's some concern that if we became too big, if we became Austin City Limits or something, it would become untenable, and we'd have to go to the Railyard or somewhere else. But we're the Santa Fe Bandstand. That's our name. We don't want to turn it into Bonnaroo or Coachella. I'm kind of biased, but that's the way it is."
--Santa Fe Bandstand opening night, Monday, June 23: 6 p.m.The Mil-Tones Brass Band; 7:15 p.m.Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience; concerts through Aug. 28
--Santa Fe Plaza
--No charge; visit www.santafebandstand.org for schedule
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