.Locals Only Music Festival Showcases the Santa Cruz Scene

Unique festival Aug. 20-21 at Santa Cruz Fairgrounds is swan song for longtime local promoter ‘Sleepy’ John Sandidge

I was at a KPIG Humbug Hoedown at the Catalyst in December of 2000 when I first realized that Robert Earl Keen’s “I’m Coming Home” had become Santa Cruz’s signature song. The album it was on, Gringo Honeymoon, had come out several years before, so I’d heard the Texas singer-songwriter—who already had a big following here, and was blowing up nationally throughout the late ’90s—play it several times at the Kuumbwa, and also at the 1997 KPIG Fat Fry.

But this was different. By the time he got to “I’m Coming Home” late in the set, just before his traditional closer, “The Road Goes on Forever,” the fans at this sold-out show were ready. They’d been waiting for it. When he sang the line, “Life is good out in Santa Cruz,” they made a noise unlike any I have heard at the Catalyst, before or since.

But there’s another line in that song that always got a gigantic whoop from a local crowd, and at this show it was nearly as loud as the Santa Cruz line: “They threw a party there from dusk ’til dawn/Seems like everybody knows ol’ Sleepy John.” The cheer was so loud, in fact, that longtime local music promoter “Sleepy” John Sandidge, the lyric’s namesake, actually stood up from where he was sitting on the corner of the balcony above the stage and waved in acknowledgement.

I was sitting at the table with him when it happened, and I remember actually laughing out loud, partially because of the semi-stunned look on his face, and partially because I was thinking, “This is the kind of weird shit that happens when you hang around with Sleepy John.”

Sandidge, I can tell you, is full of surprises. He throws pies at some of his longtime friends on their birthdays, and knows full well that he is going to get a pieing on his own—a tradition that goes back to his young hippie days in Malibu, before he moved to Santa Cruz 45 years ago. When he and his partner Bette Mathieson travel, they usually drive to remote spots in Mexico in a vintage trailer (one of those trailers, nicknamed Humphrey, was immortalized in a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith—who, like Keen, got hugely popular here because Sandidge brought him to Santa Cruz over a number of years). For fun, Sandidge takes his friends on miles-long hikes up and down the Northern California coast. He just doesn’t do anything normally.

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So while his recent announcement that, after four decades, he’s going to be retiring from putting on shows is also a surprise—and for local music fans, not the good kind—it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s going out in a typically unexpected way: by throwing a two-day blowout show, the Locals Only Music Festival, Aug. 20-21 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, featuring top acts from the local music scene.

The festival’s roster is a who’s who of the most popular Santa Cruz County musicians, most of whom fit roughly into the Americana genre that Sandidge has proselytized as a DJ on KPIG and for the entire existence of his promotion company, Snazzy Productions, which he started in 1983. But like the KPIG Fat Frys he was the driving force behind for many years, there is definitely an eclectic quality to the line-up.

Vocal powerhouse Sharon Allen, who has been singing folk, country and blues here for nearly as long as Sandidge has been promoting music, headlines on Saturday, Aug. 20, with her band Dusty Boots; also performing that day are Bonny June and Bonfire, Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band, Mira Goto and Band, the Te Hau Nui School of Hula and Tahitian Dance, Patti Maxine and Christie McCarthy, and Bean Creek. On Sunday, iconic Santa Cruz folk musician Keith Greeninger headlines with frequent collaborator Dayan Kai; the bill also includes bluegrass songstress AJ Lee and her band Blue Summit, who have found a new level of success after a whirlwind of national touring; Carolyn Sills Combo; Michael Gaither; Coffis Brothers; Space Heater; Rosa Azul; and Alex Lucero and the Live Again Band. The Pleasure Point Brass Band and Ginny Mitchell will perform both days.

The idea originally came to Sandidge when he was trying to get PPP money from the government to local artists who were struggling during Covid.

“The local scene is so good and so connected that I thought this would be a good way to get this government money through me to the bands,” says Sandidge. “That’s what the whole idea of it was, to help support the music.”

NO LAWN CHAIRS, EVER

Snazzy Productions is probably most famous for fostering the careers of KPIG-fave Americana artists who would go on to be stars of the genre like Keen and Eaglesmith, as well as Greg Brown, Iris DeMent, Todd Snider and more. But Sandidge’s idea when he started it was actually to get away from big shows. Since moving to Santa Cruz in 1977, he had been working for the promotion company Northern Stage on what would turn out to be some of Santa Cruz County’s most legendary concerts.

“We had done all these big shows—Bob Marley; the Grateful Dead; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Bonnie Raitt; Jackson Browne. Rick Springfield!” he says with a laugh. “Really big acts. And there was so much paranoia around it, it just wasn’t fun. And I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want it to be fun. And I want to work with people I can talk to. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t talk to Bonnie or these people, they were all nice—except David Crosby. But it’s just a different scene when it gets to that level. There’s so much money involved, and the egos get out of control. So we decided we would do smaller shows. Kuumbwa, Rio and even smaller.”

Though the Snazzy slogan “Never too late, never too loud” would come later, the sense of humor and casual culture around the whole thing was part of it from the beginning.

Bonny June (center) and Bonfire (Snail’s Ken Kraft, left, and Craig Owen) have earned a reputation for “Americana meets Vaudeville.” They play the Locals Only festival on Saturday, Aug. 20. Right photo: Santa Cruz’s most successful folk artist Keith Greeninger (right) headlines the festival with longtime collaborator and Santa Cruz expat Dayan Kai, who got his start in the Moe’s Alley house band the Blues Houndz, on Sunday, Aug. 21.

“We started out that way,” says Sandidge. “Our logo is a joke. It was a play on Bill Graham, and his big outdoors shows with the posters that said, ‘No bottles, cans or lawn furniture, please.’ We took the lawn furniture part, and John Johnson drew that chair with the red circle and the line through it. It didn’t say anything, just the drawing. I had everybody asking me about that.”

The first Snazzy show Sandidge ever did featured a Santa Cruz musician who would go on to be a local legend in his own way, William Strickland—perhaps best-known as the voice who sings “I got a hog call for you baby, here on 107-oink-five.” He’s done other songs for KPIG, as well, including the theme to Sandidge’s own Sunday morning live show, “Please Stand By.”

“How I met William Strickland is I bought a house in Pleasure Point,” says Sandidge. “When the paperwork was all done, I went over and William was squatting there.”

It turned out someone had told Strickland he could stay there, and subsequently he ended up living with Sandidge and Sandidge’s son.

“He lived with Ernie and I for about six months. And we’re still really, really close friends,” he says.

In fact, Sandidge says his proudest moment as a promoter came in 2019, when he did a benefit for Strickland, who had lost his house in a fire. The benefit featured local musicians performing the songs of John Prine; the twist was that Prine himself heard about the show, and his wife Fiona Whelan called Snazzy to say that the Prine family would match the money raised at the show dollar-for-dollar. Sandidge ended up presenting Strickland with a check for $10,000.

“William was overwhelmed,” he remembers.

PROMOTING THE SCENE

Sandidge also got well-known among local musicians for helping Santa Cruz’s beloved Americana band the Devil Makes Three achieve national success—a rare instance where he actually managed a band rather than just booking them at his shows.

Meghan Leslie, who plays bass in Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band, who perform at the Locals Only Festival on Saturday, remembers the impression that made.

“Maybe a year or two after we started, I would always hear these advertisements on the radio, like, ‘This week, Snazzy Productions presents this band or that band,’” she says. “I said, ‘Okay, we need to get that gig, so they can say our name on the radio.’” Soon after, they were invited to play on Sandidge’s radio show. “It was at that time that Hank [Warde] said, ‘John, you know, you were one of the people that made the Devil Makes Three famous. You got them their start, help us get our start,’” says Leslie.

Sandidge began doing regular shows with the band, which had already honed its stylish, catchy take on the vintage country sound. Last year, their song “Good at Being Lonely” got all the way to number three on the Roots Music Report’s Americana-Country chart.

Mira Goto, who will play with her band at the Locals Only festival on Saturday, credits Sandidge with helping her get her first national radio exposure.

“He’s awesome,” she says. “He’s been a champion of me since I met him. I remember our first meeting; a friend said, ‘Hey, you should do Sleepy John’s show on KPIG.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to get on KPIG, I’ve never done anything on the radio before.’ And I was so nervous. I showed up to his show and I played the cat song [“Crazy Cat Lady”]. And he told me afterwards, ‘Hey, you’ve got to give me a copy of that.’ And of course, he played it on air, and it got picked up at stations across the country.”

In that first KPIG appearance, Goto got a taste of Sandidge’s unconventional streak. “I remember being so nervous, and we were about to go on air, and he held up a sign. He said, ‘Hey, this is really important,’ and he lifted up a little sign. The sign said ‘Don’t eff this up.’”

Goto is being polite; the sign really says “Don’t fuck this up,” and as she notes, “Everybody knows that sign. It was just enough to make me laugh and go, ‘Okay, don’t take yourself so seriously, and have fun, and have a real conversation with somebody who loves music.’ He was genuinely there to support me and encourage me; his love for independent music and independent artists and great songwriting is not seen as much today as I wish it was.”

“You know, the first one I did that to was [singer-songwriter and Santa Cruz native] Tess Dunn,” says Sandidge. “She was nervous, and I said, ‘Tess, don’t fuck this up,’ and she started laughing. And we open the mic, and the show is on, and she’s laughing. It works for pretty much everybody.”

Personally, my favorite memory of being in the studio for “Please Stand By” (which, full disclosure, I have guest hosted on several occasions) is when popular Austin newgrass band the Greencards were on, and after one song, Sandidge told fiddler Eamon McLaughlin that he had particularly liked his part, and asked him to do it solo, without the rest of the band. Well, McLauglin’s part in that song had just been to make the sound “boop, boop, boop” over and over again in the background. So the rest of the band stood around laughing (with everyone else in the studio) while McLaughlin sheepishly chanted “boop, boop, boop” until Sandidge let him off the hook.

“Another time, I had the Austin Lounge Lizards on,” Sandidge remembers, “and they’d just done a song, and we were talking back and forth, and I said, ‘Hey guys, you know, I’ve had a number of people who wanted me to ask you this question: how many of you were circumcised?’ And there was this long silence. And then Hank said something funny, I can’t remember what. Those kinds of things really make it fun.”

MEET UNCLE LARRY

Some of the musicians at the Locals Only festival go even further back with Sandidge—and have even weirder stories. Like Mike Spooner of Space Heater, the funky Santa Cruz rock band that plays at the festival Sunday.

“My parents were friends with John since like, I don’t know, the ’60s,” says Spooner. “I was born in ’79. So I’ve known him my entire life as a family member, essentially. Our families are super tight.”

This bond, however, did not exempt Spooner or the other kids around on Santa Cruz visits from Sandidge’s pranks, which earned him a special love/hate nickname.

“Our name for him was Uncle Larry,” says Spooner. “I don’t know how many people know that name, or call him that. But the reason we call him Uncle Larry is because when we were little kids, when there was, like, multiple kids around, he would always call us by the wrong name. And you know, when you’re like 4, 6, 8 or whatever, you’re just like, ‘That’s not my name!’ You get really worked up about it. And so my mom said, ‘Well, you guys should just start calling him Uncle Larry to get back at him.’ Ever since, as long as I can remember, I’ve been calling him Uncle Larry. So it’s kind of weird to even call him John.”

Despite this family “feud,” Spooner remembers being rather in awe of Sandidge growing up, especially when his family would take him to Snazzy shows.

“Things seem larger than life when you’re young—you know, I’d see all the stage lights and I’d see John on stage,” he says. “Or, like, we’re driving in from out of town, and he’s on the radio. It just seems like there’s this larger-than-life thing that he always maintained, every time we came to see him.”

OUT WITH A BANG

To have a larger-than-life presence like Sandidge retire from promoting is a huge loss for the Santa Cruz scene. He’ll continue to host “Please Stand By,” and DJ at KPIG and other radio gigs, but when it comes to doing shows, he says he feels like the time is right to get out. It’s largely a matter of economics, and Covid has played a role in that.

“Our shows are at about 50%, 60% of what we were doing,” he says. “And the cost of the bands has gone up, the cost of the venues has gone up. You get squeezed out, and you’ve got to start charging $40, $50, $60 for a show. Not everybody can afford that, so you lose more audience there. It has just gotten out of the price range that I can deal with.”

Snazzy Productions will continue, led by his brother Ron Sandidge and son Ernie Sandidge, along with other partners. He says he plans to help them, and will support whatever direction they choose to go.

For him, the Locals Only festival is a fitting farewell because he has always enjoyed showcasing the local musicians that he himself is excited to see.

“Part of the joy of it is finding these people and giving them a place to play and getting them on the air. And I have to like the music before I jump in and want to help them,” he says. “So there was a selfish part of it, because it’s something I really liked.”

Sharon Allen, who will headline Saturday’s Locals Only roster with her band Dusty Boots, knows what it means to have Sandidge like your music—he has been promoting her work for decades. She got her start as a singer in the late ’70s in the San Lorenzo Valley, and in the ’80s performed with the Back Alley Band and Blind Alley, before eventually leading her longtime blues band Sharon Allen and the Firebirds.

“We were playing a lot of clubs, and you really needed to make people dance,” she says. 

But in the early 2000s, Allen changed up her style. “I started writing some of my own songs, and they weren’t bluesy,” she says. “They were more folky, Americana.”

She hooked up with local singer-songwriter Sherry Austin, performing in Henhouse for many years. At the same time, she was still singing the blues and also leading her Americana band Sharon Allen and Dusty Boots.

“It’s crazy when you have that much music going on,” says Allen, who has been moving between genres for more than 20 years now. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or what,” she says. “I really should pick a genre and go with it.”

But a much better option is to combine her many musical loves into one band, as she does when she brings the full Dusty Boots ensemble—what she calls “Dusty Boots and Blues”—to the stage, as she will at Locals Only. It’s fitting, as Sandidge and Snazzy have booked Allen through all of her projects and genre crossovers through the years. 

“I owe a lot to John,” says Allen. ““I told him, ‘If I didn’t have you in my court, I don’t know where I’d be.’”

PARTY TIME

Goto thinks the event is not only a great platform for the local music scene, but a perfect representation of it, as well.

“I love our community. I love it. I grew up here. I love living here,” she says. “And so what John is doing to kind of celebrate our community as his last hurrah, his retirement show—and not only is there going to be music, but the children’s activities and the food vendors, and at our local fairgrounds—I just think it’s a really great idea.”

AJ Lee, who performs on Sunday with her band Blue Summit, says Locals Only is not like any other music festival.

“There’s just a huge pool of incredible talent in this town,” says Lee. “Everyone on the list, we’re pretty much all friends. So it’s gonna be a really fun time for all of us locals here. It’s funny, because even if you play with one band that you’re friends with on a bill like that, it’s super fun. But then times that by, like, 10—what’s that going to be like? It’s just gonna be a huge party.”

“There’s no way that we could have possibly included all the amazing talent in this town, because you would need two weeks,” says Goto. “But these are some highlights. It’s a really good representation of what kind of music this town can create. And it’s also a really good representation of the careers and the lives and the people that Sleepy John has touched over the scope of his career.”

The Locals Only Music Festival will be presented Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 20-21 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, 2601 E. Lake Ave., Watsonville. Tickets are $40 one-day, $70 two-day for adults; $25 one-day, $35 two-day for teens age 13-17. Kids 12 and under are free with parent or guardian. For tickets, go to snazzyproductions.com or call 831-479-9421.

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