Poet, essayist, journalist and translator Stephen Kessler is the 2023 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year.
(Chip Scheuer via County of Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

Weekender: A worthy artist of the year, praise for Cabrillo Fest’s departing director & a vibrant B9

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Weekender with Wallace Baine

Hi friends,

Psychologically if not literally, we’re all laying out in the thin winter sun like so many waterlogged throw rugs, trying to make sense of the bomb-cyclone cycle of 2023. Here’s hoping everyone is finding dry ground.

Now, on with the show.

This Just In!

Indie rock singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan, who performs under the name Snail Mail, drops into the Rio Theatre for a show on April 20 (yes, that’s 4/20, so what?). The fine duo Meg Baird & Chris Forsythe come to the Crepe Place — just across the street from the Rio — on March 2. And the Scottish folk band Dàimh — that’s pronounced “dive” — will play the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on May 26.

Check out my carefully curated and constantly updated planning guide, Down the Line, for the staggering riches and amazing choices awaiting Santa Cruz audiences. It’s our look ahead at the best shows, concerts and events through the rest of the year at clubs, stages and venues all over the county.

The logo for Baine's Nine


Here they are, nine necessary know-abouts for the week ahead. It’s the post-atmospheric-rivers B9:

  1. Can’t earn your Santa Cruz merit badge until you’ve experienced the amazing local jazz singer Tammi Brown, this weekend in her element with “The Lost American Songbook.”
  2. Nope, it’s not just for angels. The often overlooked harp, in all its manifestations, gets its moment in the sun with the Santa Cruz Harp Festival.
  3. Art, creativity, spirituality and the church — it’s all on the table in the inspiring story of artist Corita Kent, opening live on stage at Jewel Theatre next week.
  4. He’s not for everybody; in fact, maybe he’s not for anybody. But Neil Hamburger still somehow makes a living as the world’s worst stand-up comic.
  5. Not sure if he’s actually an ordained clergyman, but you can bet the Rev. Horton Heat can summon supernatural spirits.
  6. Can you believe one of the foundational rappers of Wu-Tang Clan is in town? Yep, GZA, aka “The Genius,” brings his firepower to the Catalyst.
  7. One of Santa Cruz’s greatest theatrical traditions continues with the return of the one-and-only “8 Tens @ 8.
  8. The life’s work of the remarkable Santa Cruz visual artist Bill Earle comes to life in a show curated by his son.
  9. The university isn’t really tiny, but Karl Denson’s immense talent makes it seem so.

Artist of the year

It’s a testament to the creative spirit of Santa Cruz that the county annually names an artist of the year and still has such accomplished people yet to honor. The 2023 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year was announced this week, and this year it’s poet, essayist, journalist and translator Stephen Kessler.

Stephen has been a colleague of mine in local journalism for many years, and is best known as a founder of not one but two legendary local weeklies, the Santa Cruz Express and The Sun, the latter extinguished by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

At the same time, he’s built a remarkable career as a poet dating back to the mid-1970s and continuing on in the Santa Cruz tradition of prose poetry in recent years. He’s also forged an international reputation for his work as a translator of Spanish-language works.

Congratulations to a fine writer, and keep an eye out for the artist of the year profile performance to take place in May.

A display ad for the Catalyst Club

Ellen Primack takes a bow

Its high-profile musical directors/conductors have gotten most of the spotlight and the attention, but the person who has really made the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music go over the past three decades is Ellen Primack. This week, the Cabrillo Festival announced that Primack is stepping down from her position as the festival’s executive director after 32 years. The 2023 festival will be her last.

Ellen Primack is stepping down as executive director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music after 32 years.

First alongside her festival partner Tom Fredericks and then for many years as the sole executive director, Ellen has been at the helm during the festival’s emergence as one of the country’s premier new music showcases, working in close partnership with the festival’s star conductors Marin Alsop and Cristian Macelaru. She has shepherded the Cabrillo Festival through more than 50 original commissions and several memorable multimedia events and performances, always allowing the creative artists in the festival room to bring their visions to reality.

What’s more, Ellen has for years championed ever-expanding improvements at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium to make it a more audience-friendly venue for the Cabrillo Festival. And I’ve seen her work tirelessly, also for years, in lending a helping hand to the larger arts community in Santa Cruz as well.

The Cabrillo Festival has yet to announce its 2023 season. But when it does, here’s hoping there’s a fitting acknowledgement of Ellen Primack’s primary role in shaping this unique event.

Revelation in the library

The Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz is hosting a one-off screening of a new film about the 8th-century Indian yogi known as Guru Rinpoche — and yes, there’s a Santa Cruz angle to it, thanks for asking.

“Precious Guru” is a documentary film about the life and times of the mystic who is credited with bringing Buddhism into Tibet more than 1,300 years ago. The film’s director and producer, Marc Wennberg, is a Vermont resident who lived in Santa Cruz for about a decade, beginning in the late 1990s.

Wennberg’s yearslong odyssey in creating his film — which has earned an endorsement from the current Dalai Lama — began in Santa Cruz. The germ of it, in fact, was planted at the Santa Cruz Public Library.

“I was just meandering through the stacks, looking at Eastern spirituality books,” said Wennberg in a phone interview, “and came across these different texts attributed to Padmasambhava, which is [Guru Rinpoche’s] other name.”

Tammi Brown / New music works ad

Making a film or following a rabbit hole that would consume years of his time was, he said, “the farthest thing from my mind.” During his time in Santa Cruz, working at the Davenport Resource Service Center, he made two trips to India and Tibet and began the work that resulted in “Precious Guru.”

So the next time someone expresses doubt about the power of public libraries to change lives, remind them of Marc Wennberg.

“Precious Guru” will screen on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Del Mar. Wennberg will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.

Earworm of the Week

Presented without commentary, because you and I, we deserve this.


Where in Santa Cruz County Am I?

So how well do you notice the little things when you’re out and about across Santa Cruz County? We’ll post images from places that are accessible to the public somewhere in Santa Cruz County. You tell us where it is, as specifically as you can … or, better yet, send us your own photo of the same thing.

A close-up of a sign saying "white"

Many locals get downright nostalgic when they see the above. Can you ID it?

Last week’s answer: How much art have you seen in Santa Cruz County inspired by agricultural crate labels?

close-up of an advertisement for apples

Here’s a great example of that fruit-crate art, but you probably haven’t seen it close up, unless you’ve taken a walk across the Pajaro River bridge in Watsonville (which I did several times during the recent storms). This is just one of half-melon-shaped art pieces on the bridge, most of which evoke fruit-crate labels.

an ad for apples on a bridge over the Pajaro River

That’s all I got, friends. Come at me with comments, ideas, complaints, or thundering insights. Thanks to all Lookout members for your faith and support, and please, spread the word on what we’re doing.