Boulder Creek band releases album from the ashes of 2020, Watsonville Film Festival ready for its closeup

Santa Cruz Mountains blues/folk band Wolf Jett has released its self-titled debut album.
(Courtesy Wolf Jett)

THE HERE & NOW: Besides the latest in music and movies, columnist Wallace Baine catches up with the Santa Cruz Mountains band Wolf Jett, winners of last year’s Clam Chowder Cook-Off, which went drive-up this weekend.

For musicians, a recording is always a time capsule, a snapshot of their creative lives from the moment the recording was made. By the time it’s released to the public, that context might be entirely different.

To cite an extreme example, let’s turn to the Santa Cruz Mountains blues/folk band Wolf Jett, which this month has released its debut album, also titled “Wolf Jett.” The songs on the new album were written long before anyone had heard of COVID. And they were recorded in the home of Wolf Jett drummer Jon Payne in Boulder Creek.

It’s a home that doesn’t exist anymore.

Payne’s home and Wolf Jett’s recording studio were destroyed in last August’s CZU fires, and the losses were immense. Not only was Payne’s home lost but so was most of the equipment and instruments from which the recording was made. The recordings themselves were stored on the hard drive of the recording engineer in another location. Thus, Wolf Jett is able to release their debut album.

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The new album is an appealing mix of midtempo blues numbers, gospel-flavored anthems, and soul ballads, a blend the band likes to call “Cosmic Street Gospel,” featuring Payne, lead singer and songwriter Chris Jones, bassist Jeff Kissell and guitarist/dobro player Will Fourt.

“To me, it’s like a beautiful memory,” said Payne of the new album, reflecting on the place where it was recorded. “It’s not something that I’m going to think negatively about. It’s just special to me that we have this documentation of a really beautiful moment in the life of our band.”

The living room of the Boulder Creek home where the album was recorded, said Payne, had uncommonly fine acoustics. “It was originally built by an opera singer,” he said. In another part of the house, Payne and Jones had only weeks before realized a childhood dream, building their own professional recording studio. From the new mixing board to the reel-to-reel recording machine, the studio was lost to the fire as well.

The release of Wolf Jett’s first album was already going to be somewhat bittersweet before the devastating fires. “We had three tours planned,” said Payne, “including going to the East Coast for the first time. And we never got to do any of that.”

The pandemic derailed the band’s plans for the release of the album. The idea was to release it when it could be supported by touring. Right now, there is no touring. “So we said, let’s just get it out there and move on.”

It’s a really fine recording with songwriter Jones’s eclectic impulses held together by the band’s great mountain-music instrumentation. Jones traces his family roots to Tennessee, with Memphis, Nashville, and the eastern Appalachian Mountains, perhaps the most musical state in the union. “When you play music there,” said Jones, “it just sounds different.”

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The Southern influences are most strongly felt in songs like the ominous bluesy piece “Mean Ol’ River” and the sweetly transcendent gospel song “One Sweet Day.”

Jones is particularly proud of Wolf Jett’s new album. But, he said, it’s only the beginning. He and Payne are going about the process of re-acquiring much of what was lost in the fire and building a new recording studio. “Hopefully by the end of the summer, we’ll be deep in recording to put something new out in the fall.”

Check out Wolf Jett’s debut album wherever you stream music, or at the band’s website.

WFF ready to roll

Last March, at the beginning of the pandemic shutdown, the Watsonville Film Festival was one of the first local events to cancel. Meeting her board in emergency session, WFF artistic director Consuelo Alba made the painful call to cancel the festival only two days before opening night.

Fast forward a year, and this time Alba and her crew at WFF are prepared for the pandemic. This year’s festival takes place March 5-13, and everything is virtual.

Better yet, it’s all free.

Beginning March 5, the WFF will be streaming a series of films on demand, most of them released in the last year. Highlights include “El Sembrador,” a moving documentary about a heroic indigenous teacher in Chiapis, Mexico; “El Guardián de la Memoria,” a doc that won the Ariel, the Mexican equivalent to the Oscar; and “Fandango at the Wall,” a celebratory film about the annual concert that takes place right against the border wall in Tijuana, produced by Carlos Santana and Quincy Jones.

'Fandango at the Wall'
‘Fandango at the Wall,’ a documentary about an annual concert at the U.S.-Mexico border, headlines this year’s Watsonville Film Festival
(Courtesy WFF)

“These are important stories to know,” said Alba, “because they are not in the mainstream media. We always make a point to present stories that people are not necessarily hearing about.”

Even with the limitations of a virtual-only format, Alba said that the festival will also integrate live Q&A sessions with filmmakers and even a closing-night dance performance to celebrate “Fandango.”

Also in danger of pandemic cancellation — though no one realized it in March — was the WFF’s annual fall celebration of Dia de los Muertos in the fall at the Watsonville Plaza. The event started in 2018 and was building momentum as an annual celebration when the pandemic shelved it for 2020, though the WFF designed activities around the holiday anyway.

As for the future, Alba said, “Next year, the way I see it, we need to have a hybrid model (between in-person and virtual programming). We need to continue with our virtual programming, even when we can all be together again. It provides a space to connect with our community.”

You can learn more about the film festival here through its partnership with Lookout.

How to chowder

The Beach Boardwalk’s annual celebration of la almeja — the Clam Chowder Cook-Off — takes place this weekend, albeit in a form reflecting the pandemic (I really look forward to not using that word in every story).

The Clam Chowder Cook-Off REIMAGINED, as it’s being branded, coincides with the event’s 40th anniversary. It’s a drive-up event this year, not the destination day at the beach it’s been in the past. But it’s still popular; tickets for Saturday’s event are officially sold out.

Still, I wanted to talk to the team behind last year’s winning chowder. They are Roddy Diaz and Albert Richards who run a catering business with kitchens in Scotts Valley and San Jose called Latin Asian Fusion. As the name implies, they do everything from street tacos to pot stickers, all combing the best of Asian and Latin American flavors.

They don’t, however, generally do a lot of clam chowder.

Diaz and Richards participated in the 2020 event as first-timers, winning the competition against teams that have been making chowder, in some cases, for decades. How did they do it? Diaz isn’t quite certain.

“We just made the most flavorable pots that we could,” he said. The winning chowder (Boston style) was created with ingredients as fresh as possible, a mix of different kinds of clams, and sauteeing the clams in French wine, as well as just a pinch of Tapatio hot sauce.

Because of the pandemic, the Latin Asian Fusion team decided not to participate in this year’s cook-off. But, said Diaz, they’re aiming to get back at it in 2022 to get back in the winner’s circle, and to learn from their only mistake — they only made three pots of chowder and ran out too quickly.

“I will definitely be there next year, only with more pots.”

Cool thinking by Jacob's Heart.
(Courtesy Jacob’s Heart)

Be On The Lookout For

Baine's #BOLO Box

➤ Cool virtual concert in store for Friday, live from the Quarry Amphitheater at UC Santa Cruz. Mexican pop singer Carla Morrison will perform live, in English and Spanish. It’s free

➤ Lookout is reporting that a new REI store is set to open in Santa Cruz in the fall. Not great news at Outdoor World, I’m guessing.

➤ Many of the greats of Santa Cruz County’s theater subculture gathered on Zoom Thursday to celebrate the magnificent life of the bouyant spirit of dancer/performer Tommy Marquez on what would have been his 60th birthday. Sometimes Zoom is the exact right platform.

Lori Butterworth of Jacob’s Heart is marketing what could be the next gotta-have accessory: vaccine T-shirts. Some say “Get It!” while others say “Got It!” Proceeds go to Jacob’s Heart. Let’s hope demand for the latter skyrockets, making the former unnecessary.

Updates:

6:43 PM, Feb. 22, 2021: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that a dance performance would be part of opening night celebrations of the movie “Fandango at the Wall.” It has since been updated.