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Twang 'Em High 

The Hootenanny moves from barn to nightclub


Last fall, just as Josh Stithem was thinking about ending his series of North Bay Hootenanny concerts to focus on new projects, he received a call from Dave Daher. Daher had a surprising request: he wanted to bring the down-home hootenanny vibe to his Last Day Saloon nightclub, more commonly known for blues, metal and rock acts. Stithem, frontman for foot-stomping folk act the Crux, decided the opportunity to bring his beloved folk styles to a new audience was too tempting to pass up.

Stithem has helped to put old-timey, bluegrass and Americana music on the local map by organizing ambitious day-long events at venues across Santa Rosa, including the Boogie Room, a rural barn in the middle of a field; the Arlene Francis Theatre, in a packed 24-band festival last year; and an outdoor block party between Community Market and the Last Record Store. The event at the Last Day Saloon, co-sponsored by local radio station KRSH-FM, proved to be another hit.

"I felt really good the night of the show," says Stithem, on the phone during a return trip home from New York. "There is really a lot of support in this community for going to see local artists."

The North Bay Hootenanny continues its run at the Last Day Saloon with a lineup on Jan. 15 headlined by Brothers Comatose, 2010 NorBay Award winners for Best Country / Americana band. With the popularity of bands like the Devil Makes Three, a punk band gone string, who have played a series of sold-out shows at the Phoenix Theater over the past years, it isn't shocking that younger crowds are embracing the old-timey, mellower music of the past.

Gio Benedetti of Brothers Comatose says he's "totally" seen increased interest in roots and bluegrass music while teaching music lessons to teens at the Phoenix Theater. Benedetti also helped organize the first Hootenanny along with Stithem, and he likens the hootenanny energy to music that's played for fun, without the normal pretensions of rock music.

"It's about bringing that living-room energy to a larger venue," says Benedetti. "We've gotten to play with people whose names are big, and almost 100 percent of the time they are down-to-earth people who are really in love with the music."

John Courage, who recently moved back to Santa Rosa after living in New Mexico for a year and half, finds the return refreshing. "Coming back to see that old-timey music has such a following is mind-boggling," says Courage, giving credit to Stithem for providing a space for the scene to grow. "We're putting a new twist on it with being young and having modern influences. I think people are finally OK with liking music that's not cool. It used to be such a proliferation of screamo and indie rock. It boils down to everybody grew up a little bit."

With this latest set of performances, Stithem has renewed passion for the project that he once thought of giving up. He's in the early stages of planning a two-day festival, and he'd like to take the Hootenanny back into the streets when the weather warms up a bit.

"I'm going to find some partner out there who can help have a free public event that people can stumble into," he says. " I want to keep an edge to the event. I have a real community mission, but for the Last Day Saloon, I try to think seasonally. This is a winter show and it's going to be a loud and hot show for the season. It's a big spark, that's what this show is."

Brothers Comatose, Arann Harris and the Farm Band, John Courage, Brian Fitzpatrick and Mr. December play Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa. 7:30pm. $10. 707.545.5876.

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