Psychedelic rock and roll has never really gone away since the sounds of the late 1960s introduced rhythmic melodies with unconventional sonic properties into the mainstream.
Bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin paved the way early, tearing down and rebuilding classic blues standards into the drawn out and deep tracks cherished by millions today. A resurgence of this style of dirty blues reared its head in the mainstream again with the likes of G. Love and Special Sauce or The White Stripes, whose sound circles around pushing the limitations of minimalist resources.
The Redlight District, a revitalized Santa Cruz, CA based quartet follows in the same search for a low-fi grit they can rub some dirt onto. But unlike most of their contemporaries, they regularly attempt to reach through the sounds and into the energetic psyche of their audience, unabashedly vibing off of the intellectually sublime nuances of predecessors Jim Morrison and The Doors.
The Redlight District is fronted by the captivating stage presence of Stephan Sams on vox duties, and features Hawaiian natives Ravi Lamb and Keoki Thompson on guitar and drum duties with East Coast transplant Dan Leitner on keys.
“We’re not going for a sound as much as we are going for a raw energy,” said Leitner. “It’s very easy to compare us to The Doors. It’s not what we’re going for, but it embodies that raw rock n roll spirit that we want to emanate.”
Together, the foursome has been drawing crowds everywhere that they can get on stage between SF and Monterey. They have already garnered a strong and dedicated fan base in and around Santa Cruz despite having been through a number of different iterations.
Sams, native to Salinas, CA, remains the lone constant in the group’s existence. One of the most drastic changes being a genuine paradigm shift in approaching the band as an actual, valuable entity rather than a cheap party trick; the realization that this vision could be something more grand.
But there were pieces missing, and Sams was stretching himself thin, fighting to keep the flame alive. Completely immersing himself into the storied arts scene on the streets of Santa Cruz and running out of fuel, opportunity need to knock but only once.
Leitner, carrying the second longest tenure, was introduced to Sams in 2013 after moving to Santa Cruz from Atlantic City, NJ. When the band he had moved with began to fall apart and lost the drive they had in Jersey, Leitner and Sams combined forces to save The Redlight District.
The duo, along with original guitarist Galdino Guijosa and drummer Tyler Walicek, got as far as releasing a two-track single on The Redlight District’s BandCamp page in January 2014 before commitment issues and a lack of forward progress tried to put a stop on their progress.
Things looked bleak, but through a classic case of the right pieces being present at the right time, Thompson took on the role of drummer at the same time he agreed to move in with Sams and Leitner. Lamb was a well-known and respected guitarist in his own right, and a mutual appreciation drew him and The Redlight District together.
“The chemistry is just, it’s all there, we have all the right elements,” Leitner said. “Victor Wooten likes to refer to it as the Three A’s. The three big things every band needs in order to even start to succeed: the musicianship, or the ability; the affability, we get along really well and would be friends without our instruments; and availability, we’re all in it and ready to take this as far as we can together. I think those three elements are some of the most important and hard to find combinations in a band.”
They have even taken to working with a well-connected Santa Cruz personality as their manager in George Davison. Davison has recognized and thus taken upon himself to encourage a potential and a level of seriousness that each of the boys bring to the project, and then bring that to the next level, almost singlehandedly. In the summer of 2015 the group recorded Dirty Magazine, a four song EP and they have been in and out of a local Santa Cruz home studio through the first half of 2016 working on a follow up.
In the last 12 months, on the strength of a well assembled lineup and the dedication of a focused management that truly believes in the potential of these musicians, The Redlight District has made a clear transition from a backyard mountain-town house-party band into a working band that draws a reliable crowd – a major perk for small club promoters.
The Redlight District averages about 4 or 5 shows a month, and in my first 3 months in Santa Cruz it was hard to avoid them. By March I had seen them three times, and was eagerly looking ahead to the next show – when they take the stage, they light it up.
“We took a year hiatus because things weren’t going where we wanted and the commitment wasn’t there,” said Leitner. “Now, we all hang out as a band, we party as a band, we play shows as a band. Honestly, before we had Ravi and Keoki join, we had maybe six or seven hundred fans, now we’ve doubled that, tripled our catalog and the types of music that we play, and we play probably three to four times as many shows, you know, we’re all putting in a huge collective effort to make this work well. We respect the business side of this and have really been utilizing George as our manager to make this happen and he’s been great.”
They are dynamic and morph to their surroundings like a cat in a sink. Whether they are performing at a grungy dive, the ritzy harbor bar, or a secret location warehouse where the shows don’t start until after midnight (as was the most recent show in celebration of Thompson’s birthday) they control the stage.
If they don’t have on stage dancers at one show, they might at the next. If there are rafters or stacks of anything to climb, Sams will channel his inner primate and often swing mid lyric, and hold on as long as he can hold the note. When he is on the ground, he could collapse to the floor in an instant.
Lamb, the second most mobile member of the group, is electric in his onstage chemistry. The stage becomes a frenzy, and it never takes long for the front row to become interactive with the band and the sensual stage nature a, even down to the tight and rhythmic beat poetry of Sams. Imagery evoking rabid dogs in the heat of the night, and suddenly words you never thought of as attractive have you hanging on every syllable in anticipation that the next noise is that inevitable edge.
But at practice, they are a different band.
Living examples of the mantra “Work Hard, Play Harder,” these boys have proved they know how to play. The challenge lies retaining that focus, that level of commitment, even after the house lights are on and the gear is hauled back into a sweaty practice attic. I had the opportunity to sit in on one of those practice sessions in April.
Upon arrival, they greet each other like brothers, even though three of the four live in the giant three-story Victorian era band house near Laurel and California Street. Dubbed the “Jersey House” after the high number of Jersey transplants that also share the house, they arrive separately and, most importantly, are genuinely happy to see each other.
They spend time both listening to themselves, what they want to play, and each other. Working on new covers and putting off solidifying a set list in hopes that the song might be ready by the next practice, and therefore included.
Switching between keys and calling out various chord changes, it is clear that these guys have studied music with a passion. They identify their weak points, be it a transition in a song, or an over saturated filter, and then they address them collectively. Everything they do, they are striving to do better than they have before.
“We definitely have our critics,” Leitner said. “But that gives us a point to focus on and things to strive for.”
The heat of the attic can’t be beat by a cold beer, so at the designated break the boys step away from their instruments and retreat down from the attic to listen to their last show at The Milk Bar off Haight.
When I walk in, eerie distorted chords and soft cymbal rides lead into a piece of spoken word poetry by Sams, and they begin analyzing the cadence to music and vice versa as if they were annotating a poem for class. The four of them are sprawled across a single twin bed in a corner of the small room, the hour or so long set playing on an old X-Box. They radiate seriousness but the smiles on their faces throughout the entire process shows an undeniable amount of honesty and integrity in their search for the right feeling.
The Redlight District will be playing shows in and around the Bay Area all summer long, and they are definitely worth the $5 cover. Pay attention to their Facebook page for show announcements. Their next scheduled show tonight (May 5th) at The Crow’s Nest in the Santa Cruz Harbor, a Cinco de Mayo celebration.