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Lentils are a staple in the Caribbean

Lentils are a Caribbean-wide phenomenon, especially in the English-speaking countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Dominica. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

By Ari LeVaux

The tiny island nation of Dominica, population 70,000, isn’t blessed with the blinding white sand beaches of many of its Caribbean neighbors. This has spared it from the tourist hordes and deprived it of the income they would have brought in. The narrow roads are potholed and unmarked. Old men pass their evenings playing banjo on dimly lit street corners.

With its stunted tourist economy, and few exports, Dominica is a living laboratory for how a Caribbean culture might evolve with minimal outside influence. Subsistence farms dot the steep volcanic hillsides. While the supermarket shelves of neighboring islands are stocked with imports, Dominica is a place where local food isn’t a buzzword. By and large, it’s the only option, which makes it something of a locavore’s paradise.

One noteworthy exception to the local foods rule-of-thumb is the widespread use, and love, of lentils. It’s actually a Caribbean-wide phenomenon, especially in the English-speaking countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and of course, Dominica. A legacy of the British and African involvement in the Caribbean, lentils have hung on, in part, because they are one of the cheapest forms of protein on Earth. Being dried and shelf-stable, they can be shipped with a minimum of expense, as there is no rush, and no refrigeration required. They could be imported by sailboat, as they once were, for a virtually carbon-free import, making them about as environmentally friendly as they would be if grown on-site. And being legumes, they require no fertilization. If farmed properly, they can leave the soil better than it was before they were planted.

Tapa, who runs an Airbnb in the tiny village of Castle Bruce, gave me a lentil recipe. He learned it from a Jamaican woman who once rented him a room in London. The recipe calls for two specialty ingredients which can be purchased online, or easily substituted for.

“When she cook,” Tapa reminisced about the Jamaican woman, “you leek ya fingas.”

Recipe:
The recipe calls for two specialty ingredients which can be purchased online, or easily substituted for: Jamaican jerk paste and adobo seasoning powder. The jerk paste is made from thyme, ginger, green onions, garlic and Scotch Bonnet (aka habanero) peppers. But all of these ingredients except the ginger and pepper are already in Tapa’s recipe, so if you don’t have jerk paste, simply add crushed ginger, and as much minced hot pepper as you wish. But note: The Scotch Bonnet pepper, in addition to having legendary heat (it was once widely considered the world’s hottest), also has exceptional and unique flavor. So it can’t properly be replaced by any other type of chile.
A homemade adobo seasoning can be fabricated from: 1/4 cup sweet paprika, 3 tablespoons ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican), 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 1 tablespoon chile powder and 2 tablespoon garlic powder.
Tapa’s recipe isn’t identical to that of his esteemed Jamaican mentor’s, he explained. “My cooking have a touch of Jamaican cuisine, but it’s my own initiative, what I do. I use my own discretion, adding and changing things according to how the food tastes.” You should feel free to do the same, as lentils are as forgiving a dish as they are healthy and cheap.
Tapa’s Lentils
Ingredients: 
2 pounds lentils
¼ cup olive oil
1 t adobo seasoning
10 whole cloves
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 t jerk sauce
1 t black pepper
1 t curry
½ t paprika
4 turns ground allspice
3  drops Angustura bitters
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1  stalk celery, minced
3  green onions, chopped
5  sprigs parsley, chopped
Cover the lentils with water. Add all of the ingredients except the thyme, green onion and parsley. Bring to a simmer and keep it there for about 45 minutes with the lid on, adding water as necessary to keep the lentils covered, until they are cooked but not mushy.
“You don’t really want your lentil falling apart. You want a little body in it. As it’s cooking you can take your spoon and turn it over and see what it’s like. When it’s cook, you take all your final seasoning.”
Which is to say, add the green onion, celery and parsley, cook for another 15 minutes. Season with salt and serve.

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Author Lisa Steele on chickens in the garden

Author Lisa Steele says that ‘pampered, healthy chickens make hardworking gardeners.’ Photo courtesy of Lisa Steele.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

Fifth-generation chicken keeper Lisa Steele released her latest book, Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens, this past November. The voice behind the wildly popular gardening blog, “Fresh Eggs Daily,” she directs her nitrogen-rich scrappy flock to gangbuster results in her New England garden.

“This is where the magic begins,” Steele says. “Combining gardening with chickens is a yin-yang practice. A happy and healthy chicken not only supports tastier eggs, but a bountiful veggie harvest as well.”

At her Maine kitchen garden, there are often leafy greens growing as big as salad plates, sunflowers that reach the second story and herbs so rich they sprout a woody stem. The nitrogen-rich fertilizer that only chickens can provide brings big results to a backyard garden. I can attest to this magic. My good friend, Sue, brings me a large bag of chicken crap from her hens, on my birthday each year. Yes, only a gardener could appreciate this gift … anyone else would de-friend her.

Are you from New York City and too chicken to have chickens, like yours truly? No problem. Steele will walk you through step-by-step. She grew up on a small farm right across the street from her grandparents’ chicken farm in central Massachusetts, where she raised chickens and rabbits.

“Chickens and gardening go hand-in-hand,” she says. “Both play an important part in being more self-sufficient and helping feed your family with what you can produce on your land. A garden can provide your chickens with lots of nutritious, inexpensive treats to supplement their regular feed, and save you money, while their activities in the yard can help it thrive.”

The book covers topics such as growing in raised beds, gardens for optimal egg production, gardening for healthy baby chicks (aww!), growing edible plants for you and your flock and creating a chicken-safe yard.

“I find sitting outside in my garden, pulling weeds, trimming herbs or gathering bouquets of flowers so much more enjoyable when my chickens are roaming,” says the author. “Pampered, healthy chickens make hardworking gardeners.”

Just what do chickens do all day? They are natural tillers and aerators. They scratch for bugs, loosen dirt, eat weeds and provide free fertilizer. Free fertilizer? Tell me more! Chickens are master compost spreaders—they love to scratch and turn soil all day long. Steele calls them her own personal team of compact mobile composters, and describes three ways in which they can help. You can integrate chickens with a compost pile, let chickens act as the go-between when it comes to food waste and the garden or help them along to create compost right inside the coop over winter. (Did I mention that you need a chicken coop and a fenced-in chicken run? Well, yes you do. Breathe deeply, New Yorkers. You can do this.)

If you choose to compost right in your chicken coop, this sounds like a win-win plan. All winter long, you barely lift a finger, and then in the spring you clean the whole coop out and have beautiful compost for your garden.The droppings decompose and create heat to keep the coop warm.

“As it decomposes, beneficial microbes grow that actually help control pathogens and keep parasite eggs from developing, making your chickens less susceptible to disease,” writes Steele.

And, for you fellow fertilizer fanatics, Steele shares her recipe for making chicken manure tea. This homemade concoction adds nutrients, enzymes, microorganisms and other good things to plants that might need a bit of a boost or for new transplants. You’ll never need to buy commercial fertilizer again.

Combining chickens and plants may sound like a lot of planning and integration, but Steele’s optimistic tone may just convince you to give it a try. “If you are just getting started with herbs and natural chicken keeping, I would suggest starting small, maybe with just a small patio planter with a few herbs planted in it that can be used for various applications in your chicken keeping.”

I agree. If you are new to gardening, herbs are the simplest way to go, especially if you have lots of sun in your growing space. In high school, I successfully grew basil and parsley on my 11th floor fire escape (adjacent to my big sister’s pot plant, which the neighbors eventually reported to our mom) before I became a California Master Gardener. Besides being the easiest plants to grow, herbs boost a chicken’s immune system, keeping them naturally healthy. Steele recommends specific herbs to boost egg production, improve the circulation or act as a stimulant or a relaxer.

Whether you dash out and get yourself a flock of chicks or not, you’ll find the coexistence of chickens and gardens detailed in this delightful book fascinating.

Learn more at lisasteeleauthor.com.

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Photo by Sasha Gulish/courtesy of Viva Diva Boutique.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Fashion-Forward,’  highlights some of Marin’s favorite boutiques, and introduces some new ones. On top of that, we’ve got a piece on Richard Blum and the downfall of ITT Educational Services, an interview with the woman who makes Baked Blooms, a review of ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and a piece on the album that pays tribute to the late Dan Hicks. All that and more on stands and online today!

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Feinstein’s hubby, and pension system, take hit in downfall of ITT Educational Services

The demise of Richard Blum-backed ITT Educational Services follows sanctions from state attorneys general for financial and educational improprieties.

By Peter Byrne

The U.S. Department of Education’s decision in August to ban a troubled for-profit college corporation from taking federal student aid funds made national headlines.

But what went largely unnoticed was the damage the move did to the family fortune of a powerful senator, as well as California’s pension system.

The federal action was a fatal blow to ITT Educational Services, Inc. (ITT); left investment banker Richard Blum, husband of Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, reeling; hurt the Golden State public pension system; and stuck U.S. taxpayers with a half-billion-dollar bill. The dominoes began to fall when the department determined that the Indiana-based chain had not met accreditation standards, prompting ITT to shut down 129 campuses in 38 states and file for bankruptcy.

Thousands of students were cast adrift without the degrees for which they had paid tens of thousands of dollars.

Taxpayers are reportedly on the hook for $500 million to cover the government-backed loans that ITT banked before it became insolvent in the wake of the ban. ITT stock is trading at 4 cents, and the company reports that it is unable to make Securities and Exchange Commission filings due to “lack of resources and personnel.”

The demise of ITT followed years of governmental and media investigations that began after the FBI raided its corporate offices in 2004. Several state attorneys general have sanctioned ITT for financial and educational improprieties. The ban on federal funding came out of a 2012 U.S. Senate investigation. The SEC filed a complaint in the Southern District Court of Indiana in 2015, charging ITT and its chief executive officer with fraud. The company claims that it has done nothing wrong and is being persecuted for political reasons.

Despite the scrutiny, ITT thrived for years, and reaped big profits for Blum Capital Partners, a private investment bank owned and operated by Blum. The firm bought low on large amounts of ITT stock following the FBI raid. When federal regulators allowed ITT to continue accessing federal student aid money, despite its well-documented troubles, the share price boomed, reaching $122 in 2009.

Blum Capital has been ITT’s dominant shareholder for more than 10 years, owning 15 percent of its stock in 2012. Blum Capital was generally bullish on for-profit educational colleges, which composed more than a third of the value of Blum Capital’s 2010 holdings in public companies.

With a fortune estimated at $94 million, Feinstein is the ninth richest member of Congress. Under California law, Feinstein, 83, is entitled to 50 percent of her husband’s assets, including his stake in Blum Capital Partners and its investments. Her 2012 financial disclosure report takes 137 pages to list her family’s assets; by contrast, Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s disclosure runs eight pages.

Blum has a history of investing heavily in companies funded by the federal government. He has operated firms that constructed multibillion-dollar public works projects in the United States; sold U.S. Post Offices to his business partners at low prices; built military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world; and sold prosthetic limbs to wounded veterans. Feinstein has a history of not recusing herself from congressional actions that affect her husband’s businesses.

In 2007, Feinstein co-authored student loan legislation that benefited the for-profit education industry at a time when Blum Capital Partners was buying stock in ITT. Feinstein’s bill enabled ITT to triple its federal student aid revenue; ITT specifically applauded the profitable impact of Feinstein’s legislation in its annual report.

The department’s ban against ITT was taken “to protect students and taxpayers” who paid $1.1 billion to ITT in 2010. Following the 2012 Senate investigation, the Department of Education determined that ITT was failing to teach the trade skills necessary to be hired for jobs that recruiters promised. Pressured by its private equity investors, ITT managers were more concerned with generating profits than in educating its student body of mostly lower income workers and veterans, investigators found.

Investor profit came at the price of student pain. The Senate investigation reported that ITT used a recruiting technique known as the “pain funnel.”

“Recruiters are instructed to ‘poke the pain and remind [prospective students] what things will be like if they do not [enroll],’” the report stated.

Military veterans testified that ITT recruiters had told them that “the military was going to pay for everything,” which was not true; many veterans also had to take out private loans, which are still owed even though ITT is out of business.

In 2010, more than 40 percent of the value of the publically disclosed assets of Blum Capital Partners was invested in two for-profit college corporations, ITT and Career Education Corporation, also a target of the Senate investigation. Blum Capital Partners liquidated its for-profit college holdings during the past year. The publically disclosed value of the firm’s portfolio, worth more than $3 billion a decade ago, has sunk by 98 percent to $52 million, according to SEC filings in late October 2016.

Neither Blum nor Blum Capital Partners responded to multiple telephone calls and emails requesting comment for this story.

Taxpayers and students are not the only losers in the ITT debacle. During the past decade, CalPERS, the California public employees’ pension fund, paid Blum Capital Partners several million dollars a year in investment-management fees, and directly invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the firm. Through Blum Capital Partners, CalPERS maintained investments in ITT and the Career Education Corporation which have largely tanked in value.

Last year, CalPERS reported a $9 million investment in ITT—now worthless. Such a loss may be chump change for the multibillion-dollar CalPERS, but it would buy a lot of senior meals and eyeglasses.

New album pays tribute to the late Dan Hicks

Despite having admirers like Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, the late Dan Hicks, says Surfdog Records owner Dave Kaplan, was criminally underheard in his time.

By Charlie Swanson

A Bay Area institution for more than 50 years, Dan Hicks was a songwriter of rare caliber. The frontman of the ever-impressive Dan Hick & the Hot Licks was beloved for his catchy, swinging Americana music and renowned for his bawdy, brawling personality. In a career of highs and lows, Hicks did it his way, up until his passing last February at age 74 in his Mill Valley home.

Now, longtime admirer and Surfdog Records owner Dave Kaplan is releasing a new compilation album of Hicks’ best work, titled Greatest Licks—I Feel Like Singin’ and featuring 11 tracks from his extensive catalogue. The album includes classic songs like 1969’s “I Scare Myself,” recent tunes like 2009’s “Tangled Tales” and live versions of songs that showcase Hicks’ funny and freewheeling charisma.

Kaplan first saw Hicks perform on The Tonight Show in the early ’70s. “Even though it wasn’t traditional hard rock, it was as badass and edgy as anything I’d ever seen,” Kaplan says. The next day, he bought Hicks’ 1971 album, Where’s the Money?, which he still loves today. “In 44 years, it’s never failed me.”

Kaplan formed Surfdog Records in 1992, and enjoyed success after signing bands like Sublime. In 2000, he tracked down the reclusive Hicks and signed him to the label, thus restarting Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks after a lengthy hiatus, and leading to a prolific period of songwriting for the veteran musician.

“This was a labor of love,” says album co-producer and Hicks’ longtime engineer Dave Darling, who personally combed through archives for the better part of 2016 to find recordings that perfectly reflected Hicks’ breadth of wit and talent. “I listened to everything, and it was hard to pick out what would go on the record just because there was so much great material.”

With Americana music more popular than ever, Darling also says that it’s a great time for people to rediscover Hicks’ pioneering work in the genre, defined by blending folk, swing, rock and jazz elements in his signature sound.

“He really was a treasure of an artist,” Kaplan says. “There’s not many like him in terms of the pure authenticity of what he did. I really hope more than anything that more people just hear his music.”

Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks’ ‘Greatest Licks—I Feel Like Singin’’ is out on vinyl, CD and digital download on Friday, February 24. For more info., visit surfdog.com.

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Photo courtesy of The Klipptones.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, Marry Bunch,’ profiles an eclectic group of Bay Area wedding singers. On top of that, we’ve got a roundup of Valentine’s Day events for foodies, an interview with the artists behind Oscar-nominated ‘La La Land,’ a piece on Shana Morrison, daughter of Van Morrison, and a review of Aurora Theatre Company’s ‘The Real Thing.’ All that and more on stands and online today!

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A disappearing breed in the age of robots, Bay Area wedding singers share their secrets on how to turn a party out

Bay Area wedding band The Klipptones can handle all styles of music, from R&B to rock to New Orleans jazz. Photo courtesy of The Klipptones.

By John Flynn and David Templeton

Singing at weddings has not yet gone the way of paid funeral mourners, hospital leech collectors, and the people who shot peas at the windows of factory workers to wake them up in the morning.

But the profession definitely has been hurting of late. With the rise of iPods, smartphones and laptop technology that can turn anyone’s kid sister into a passable DJ, some people find the use of actual human beings exercising their vocal chords to be too cumbersome and, in some cases, too expensive.

Here in the Bay Area, the art of wedding singing is hardly over and done.

Though gigs may be fewer than just a few years ago, today’s professional wedding singers are nothing like Adam Sandler’s crass burnout in The Wedding Singer. They vary from traditionalists, to award-winning singer-songwriters to gaudy ’80s cover bands, but the very best perform a range that rivals any DJ—with more oomph than could ever be extracted from a canned set. They are finding ways to accommodate the hopes and dreams of brides and grooms in increasingly creative ways, and the industry has shifted from local to national in scale, taking performers from barns to skyscrapers, from Hawaii to Chicago.

We interviewed some of the finest wedding singers on the Bay Area nuptials circuit to see what they bring to the table while combatting the rise of the machines. With only one shot at crafting the perfect moment, these men and women persevere through noise ordinances, impromptu song requests outside of their set, windstorms that carry away song sheets and drunk uncles who keep calling for “Free Bird.”

With Valentine’s Day approaching, these artists stress that it’s well worth any unforeseen technical difficulties to serenade a couple that’s just finished pledging their eternal love for one another. So, meet the artists who eschew the spotlight for someone else’s special day.

Juli Christi

“People often ask for wedding songs that are not really appropriate for a wedding,” says singer Juli Christi. A Sonoma County-based pastry chef and private-hire hospice caregiver, Christi has built a steady side business singing for weddings and funerals. Remarkably, she does not advertise or have a Facebook page, getting bookings solely by word-of-mouth, or by making connections through gigs at places like Graffiti Restaurant on the river in Petaluma, where she performs on the last Saturday of every month.

She also works at Graffiti, baking desserts and pastries. In other words, Christi has a number of sweet gigs.

Over the years, she’s noticed that people often want to be married to a song that contains elements that are silly, unexpected, creepy or jarring—anything but romantic.

“Still, I get it,” Christi says. “Songs hold memories of special times in our lives. We fall in love while songs are playing, and they might not be the most appropriate songs, but it doesn’t matter. We love who we love, we love when we love, and we like what we like.”

Christi, who is waiting for butter to soften this afternoon, sipping a glass of water at the bar at Graffiti, admits that some songs just won’t work for a wedding.

“Sometimes I do suggest changing a line or two to make it fit better,” she says with a smile.

Among her favorites are Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” and John Legend’s “All of You.” The restaurant being lightly occupied this afternoon, Christi demonstrates, singing the chorus of the Legend song.

“’Cause all of me loves all of you,” she sings, “love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.”

Christi stops and smiles again.

“I love that song, but it’s a whole lot of words coming really fast,” she says with a laugh.

Christi notes that her word-of-mouth policy might not bring as many potential clients as other approaches, but it works for her. And since people often approach her after a performance, she doesn’t have to work as hard to prove she’s got the chops.

“They’ll come up to me after a wedding or a show at the restaurant, and they’ll say, ‘I know someone who needs a wedding singer,’ Christi says. “I’ll text them on the spot with my number. That’s how I roll.”

Her hospice clients sometime reap the benefits of her musicality as well. Christi does do funerals, after all, often at the request of her clients who she’s helped through the final moments of their lives.

“I sing for my clients, sometimes,” she says, “when it’s just me and them. It’s kind of neat.”

Though situations vary, during weddings and funerals, Christi usually sings to a pre-recorded music track, rather than with a live band or accompanist. It’s simple, and allows her to sing along with a very full, rich orchestration.

Ironically enough, she did not sing at her own wedding a few years ago. It was a nerve thing.

“My dad was really disappointed,” she says. “But I couldn’t have done it. Seriously. I was a blubbering baby all day.”—D.T.

Anthony Martinez

“I don’t know what’s happened, but iPods and DJs have definitely been trending up, while live bands are trending down,” says Anthony Martinez, keyboardist and back-up vocalist of the North Bay band The CORE. “Last year,” he says, “we were performing a wedding a weekend. The next year, almost nothing. Fortunately, we do a lot of casino gigs and corporate events, so we’re still pretty busy, but we love doing weddings, and it seems like a lot of brides are going to digital recordings of music.”

The CORE began in 2010, originally with just three musicians, doing all acoustic music. Today, the band has five members, and a full repertoire of songs ranging through a number of musical genres.

“We do classic rock, Motown, pop songs, country songs, all kinds of dance tunes,” he says. “Our job is to play the songs the bride wants to walk down the aisle to, then play the songs that make everyone want to get up and dance.”

Martinez says the band’s repertoire grows every time a particular song is requested.

“If we don’t know it, we’ll learn it,” he says. “We’ll do up to three new songs —and then we add those songs to our repertoire. We have to make adjustments, obviously. If you want us to sound like Lady Gaga, we can’t do that. But we can take one of Lady Gaga’s songs and still make it sound really good.”

There are, not surprisingly, a number of songs they are asked to play fairly frequently.

“We get a lot of calls for ‘Always and Forever,’ by Luther Vandross,” Martinez says. “We get asked to do ‘Faithfully,’ by Journey. And we have a pretty energetic dance set, where our big favorites seem to be ‘Play

The CORE, a five-member band with a large repertoire, learns new songs all of the time to please their clients (Martinez is second from right). Photo courtesy of The CORE.
The CORE, a five-member band with a large repertoire, learns new songs all of the time to please their clients (Martinez is second from right). Photo courtesy of The CORE.

that Funky Music, White Boy,’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Something about those two songs always gets people up and dancing.”

For Martinez, who is also an actor—and will be appearing this month in 1776 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park—there is a level of drama and performance in every wedding that he finds very appealing.

“We did a wedding in Olema,” Martinez recalls. “They wanted a lot of country songs at the reception. So we were playing this one song—I can’t even remember which one—and all of a sudden, the whole wedding party jumped up and started doing this really intricate line dance, all together. They were so coordinated and in sync, it almost looked like a professional dance group. It was obviously some sort of family tradition.

“It was awesome,” he continues with a laugh. “Moments like that make doing weddings a lot of fun for us. We may sing the same songs over and over, but somehow, it never gets old.” Thecore-music.com.D.T.

Joe Sharino

Working since the mid-80s, Joe Sharino reckons that he and his band have probably played more weddings than any other band in Northern California. He clocks the tally at more than 620, and nobody plays that many without having a strategy.

“If you get the bride and groom and their family involved, you’ve won the ballgame,” Sharino says. “It gets everybody going.”

Sharino calls himself an “observer” of crowds, and he and his band don’t form setlists. Rather, they quiz the bride and groom on the music they like, then read the room to determine how each cover track goes over. Since weddings bring all ages together, it can be tricky to find communal tastes. Well, sometimes.

“People getting married now love the ’80s,” he says. “Good lord, you play ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and the roof blows off the place.”

Unable to find a satisfying answer for why that is, Sharino admits that the wedding circuit brings along its own brand of oddities. On his list of top 10 strangest gigs, there’s the mother of the bride who cajoled the band to fire up the party while a guest laid on the ground, suffering from a heart attack. At another, police shut down a reception in Carmel because the band lacked a permit to play musical instruments. Sharino and company beatboxed, mimicked guitar riffs and bass lines and sang a capella—for TWO hours.

But the strangest story came in Sun Valley, Idaho, when the best man and groomsman disappeared. After 20 minutes, they descended a staircase, completely nude, except for orange condoms. Without any apparent plan, the two men bounced back onto the packed dance floor. The stunt did not go over well.

“They ended up getting arrested,” Sharino says. “The bride did not think it was funny.”

And though Sharino just celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary, he mostly lets the ceremony take care of the romance. He figures that by the time he comes on, everyone’s gotten the mushiness out of their system. They just want to get down.

“Two weeks after your wedding is over, none of the people will remember the vows, the flowers, the dresses, the food,” Sharino says. “They remember one thing: Did I have fun? And that’s where we come in.” Jsband.com.J.F.

Ben Mallare

Viewed through the lens of modern cynicism, Ben Mallare admits that he might be a bit hokey. Clad in a white dinner jacket, Mallare continues the legacy of the old-school wedding singers by gently embarrassing himself as a gregarious master of ceremonies.

“I’m cheesy,” he says. “I used to sing at weddings with more traditional band leaders. I was really attracted to the elegance they were able to create, everybody looking super sharp. I like adding on that, really laying it on thick with making sure the bride and groom and parents feel super special.”

Though he and his band started out as a rustic group, playing mostly in barns on farms, Mallare broadened his band’s repertoire to perform just about anything, so they can shape-shift to a guest’s desires. He acknowledges that some parties may want to hear familiar music, but he prides himself on his eclectic players’ ability to match the variety of a DJ while allowing him to respond to the crowd.

“Sometimes a dance circle will break out,” Mallare says. “Then I’m going to have the band loop or continue the chorus or play softer or louder or make it funky. But the point being, I’ve got unlimited flexibility as to what I can do to match the moment.

“It’s all very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants,” Mallare continues. “But once you get used to that, you just trust your instincts and expertise and you know you’ll make it great, regardless of the situation.”

Mallare works the West Coast and can customize his band from three pieces to 10, depending upon a customer’s desires and budget. He wants to ensure that anyone can afford the group that he started four years ago after a foray into writing and recording original songs left him unsatisfied.

“It was all about me,” he says. “There was no fulfillment. Maybe somebody enjoys the music, but it didn’t really mean anything to them. So doing this, and being the accompaniment for a bride’s processional, or for a first dance, or a parent’s dance, to create that special moment for somebody else, it’s very rewarding.” Benmallareacoustic.com.J.F.

Bobby Jo Valentine

Bobby Jo Valentine didn’t want his rising star to be clouded by assumptions spawned by Adam Sandler’s mullet-coiffed character in The Wedding Singer. After positive reviews of his burgeoning career, the acoustic guitarist/singer-songwriter had done a few friends’ weddings but shied away from the gigs, fearing that they might be a sell-out move.

“I resisted it for a long time” he says. “But I really love feeling like part of someone’s really special moment, and I discovered the music that I already play naturally falls into that romantic, sincere style. It just was a perfect fit.”

Bobby Jo Valentine, who travels nationally to perform at weddings, originally shied away from being a ‘wedding singer.’ Photo courtesy of Bobby Jo Valentine.
Bobby Jo Valentine, who travels nationally to perform at weddings, originally shied away from being a ‘wedding singer.’ Photo courtesy of Valentine.

Now, Valentine travels nationally, doing about 45 weddings a year in addition to touring for his original music, which has been recognized by the West Coast Songwriters association. As opposed to shows where he’s alone in a spotlight, Valentine enjoys the collaborative aspect of a wedding where he’s on a team with the couple, the caterers, the florists and, after he’s set the mood, the DJ.

“After everyone has had their wine, the DJ is great,” he says. “But for the first couple hours, let’s stay in the romantic mode. A live musician can bring people into the present moment. The DJ will just take you away to the last time you were at a club. And that’s the key, celebrating what role either artist has to play.”

Valentine usually plays the ceremony, dinner and cocktails, then the first couple dances, but not always. Last year, a couple had their officiant drop out and asked him to do the honors. On a windy day in Half Moon Bay, Valentine sang them down the aisle, set down his guitar and led them through their vows. After the kiss, he started singing the recessional, when his music stand toppled over. So he made up lyrics on the spot.

“No one blinked an eye,” he says. “After that I was like, ‘OK, most things won’t be as bad as this, and this went fine.’ Part of it is leaning into whatever chaotic thing happens. Like, ‘This was meant to happen. This is OK.’” Bobbyjovalentine.com.J.F.

Lori Carsillo

The wedding had already ended when the bride scrambled up to Lori Carsillo and asked her to play the father-daughter dance—a request she had neglected to mention during months of planning. Carsillo racked her head for a song and came up with one of her favorites: “Fly Me to the Moon.” As she started to sing, Carsillo noticed a twinkle in the eye of the old man who held his daughter. Turned out, that was the song he’d danced to with his wife on their wedding night.

“That couldn’t have gone any better,” Carsillo says with a little laugh.

Known around the Bay Area for her jazz singing, Carsillo excels in smoky lounge stylings. She never over-affects her natural singing voice, opting for an unpretentious style that lets lyrics drip slow, steady and smooth, like warm caramel from a spoon. She’s equally happy as the focal point of a room or a pleasing bit of ambience.

Carsillo mostly sticks to swing, ballads and bossa nova, throwback styles that compliment slow dancing and the tinkling of champagne flutes. But she prides herself on her adaptability—able to switch from Sinatra to, per one guest’s request, Incubus.

“It was such a neat moment,” she says. “They were so happy. A lot of bands are very versatile. Even if it’s out of your style, sometimes, you can create a really unique moment that no one else will have.”

Still, Carsillo recognizes that as the evening wears on, some guests prefer to bust moves that aren’t necessarily conducive to her mellow melodies. After dinner and cocktails, she gladly hands the mic to the DJ who can spark the shift to party time.

“Then everybody can dance to the ’80s music that they love. I’m not going to tackle ‘Love Shack’ or anything,” she says, before adding that a slow-jazz rendition of the pop hit might just work. Loricarsillo.com.J.F.

Josh Klipp

Josh Klipp’s parents met while singing at a wedding. His father tickled the ivories of the church organ, while his mother sang for the bride, her best friend. They connected during the reception, got married, then played weddings for the next 26 years.

“It was perfectly normal for me to have couples sitting in the living room on weekends, talking about what they were going to be doing for their wedding,” Klipp says.

After aiding the family business for a few years, Klipp struck out on his own, forming a six-piece band, The Klipptones, with a guitar, drums, upright bass and saxophone along with co-lead-singer, Mayra Swatt. They can handle everything from swing to rock to R&B to New Orleans jazz. Mostly clad in black, but with modern accents like skinny ties and tattoos, they give off the vibe of one of those hip, refurb barber shops.

The Klipptones play gigs around the Bay Area, but even after all of these years the frontman hasn’t become jaded watching couples pledge their everlasting love to one another. After some weddings, Klipp will text his own wife, letting her know that he just renewed their vows in his head.

“I keep thinking I’ll get tired of it,” he says. “But then when I’m sitting there and I’m watching it—this is what it’s about. This is what we want in life. To feel love and to give that love. It touches me everytime.” Klipptones.com.J.F.

Shana Morrison was born to sing

Singer and songwriter Shana Morrison, daughter of Van Morrison, toured with her father from 2010 to 2014. Photo by Amanda Rowan.

By Lily O’Brien

For some, music is a calling. But singer/songwriter Shana Morrison, daughter of iconic singer and composer Van Morrison, was simply born into it. “Everybody in my family was into music, so it was just a natural thing,” Morrison says. “I was a portable kid and went with [Van] wherever he went. I was at shows my entire life from the time I was a toddler.”

Morrison, who grew up in Marin County and Los Angeles, has called Marin home for more than 20 years. She will be performing with her band, Caledonia (also her middle name) on Valentine’s Day at Sweetwater in Mill Valley, a show that she says will include many love songs, of course, and even some penned by her father. “Nobody writes better love songs than Van,” she says.

Morrison’s mother was a backup singer and lyricist, and her grandparents moved from Ireland to Marin in the ’70s and opened Caledonia Records in Fairfax—fulfilling one of their longtime dreams. Her grandmother, also a singer, taught her many traditional Irish songs.

Although music was always prominent in her life, Morrison initially wanted to be a dancer. She even went to business school, because being exposed to life in the arts made her keenly aware of the difficulties and pitfalls. “I thought it was a very unstable life and my dream was to have a job where you would get a paycheck every Friday and you would know how much you were going to make,” she says with a laugh.

Morrison describes her musical style as an eclectic mix. “I like country, I like blues, R&B, soul music, pop music, rock music,” she says, adding that she enjoys incorporating all of those styles into her shows.

Splitting her time between writing, performing and teaching Pilates, Morrison is penning songs for her upcoming CD, which will be mostly a blues album.

“We have a lot of people who have met at our shows and gotten married, and then we play at their weddings and they come to the shows for their ‘Shana-versaries.’ It’s really cute.”

Shana Morrison and Caledonia, Tuesday, Feb. 14, Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; 8pm; $20-$25; 415/388.3850.

‘La La Land’ artists on the film’s message

‘La La Land,’ a musical by Damien Chazelle, has been nominated for 14 Oscars.

By David Templeton

Last October, on opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF)—and months before La La Land was officially released in theaters—its writer-director, Damien Chazelle, was in Marin with his leading lady Emma Stone, and composer Justin Hurwitz. During a pre-screening press conference, Chazelle was asked about the Oscar potential for the film, a musical about artists in love in modern-day Los Angeles.

“Oh my god, I’m not even thinking about that!” he said with a laugh, sitting down for a few super-charged moments with his La La Land co-creators. Chazelle has been through the whole Oscar circus before, having seen his 2014 drama Whiplash earn five nominations (including a nod for his original screenplay), and winning three, including a trophy for supporting actor J.K. Simmons.

During his visit to the film festival, however, his primary hope was just that his new effort wouldn’t flop so enormously that he would never be allowed to make a movie again. After all, choosing a musical as his follow-up to Whiplash is exactly the kind of choice that often sidetracks careers in Hollywood, like Michael Cimino with Heaven’s Gate, or Francis Ford Coppola with One From the Heart, the latter of which was, after all, a musical.

“My heart has been pounding non-stop for weeks now,” Chazelle admitted. “I may not calm down till sometime next year.”

Well, it’s now officially “next year,” and it’s unlikely that he’s calmed down yet. Not only has La La Land turned out to be a box-office success, it’s received 14 Oscar nominations, tying Titanic and All About Eve for most noms ever given to a single film. All three of the artists seated at the table last October have been nominated as well. Clearly, La La Land has struck a mainstream nerve. Ironically, the first question tossed out to Chazelle, Stone and Hurwitz on opening night of the MVFF was to ask whether the film contained any subversive elements appropriate to such a highly politicized time in America.

“Well, I don’t know about ‘subversive,’” Chazelle said with a laugh, “but I do think that musicals are so fascinating because they have a way of sneaking up on you. A musical can slip things through that otherwise might not work in a different kind of movie. I think about the Jacques Demy movies, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and The Young Girls of Rochefort, movies that talked about the way things were in France at the time. They said things that other movies couldn’t have gotten away with.”

“I love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” added Stone. “Great movie.”

“Or movies like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!,” Chazelle continued, in reference to the pre-Code Al Jolson film about homeless people living in the shadow of extreme wealth. “There were some overtly proletariat musicals in the 1930s, during the Great Depression,” he says. “I love that tradition of slipping strong political subtext into movies people will still go to, because they want to hear the music and watch the dancing.

“In La La Land, I don’t think there is any intentional political subtext,” he mused, “which isn’t to say it isn’t there anyway.”

“Hope and love are political,” suggested Hurwitz, who has been nominated for his score, and for his contributions to the songs “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

“Absolutely,” agreed Chazelle. “I always think there’s a place for hopefulness and love, and for celebrating art for art’s sake. It’s the idea that art shouldn’t always have to have a ‘function,’ but should exist as an abstract thing, in the same way that love is an abstract thing, that beauty is an abstract thing. And there should be a place for love, and freedom, and hope, at all times—and there should be a place for art at all times. If La La Land contains any sort of message, I think that’s it, that there’s always a place for love, and for art, and for beauty, and that those things are worth noticing, and worth fighting for, whenever the world gets crazy.”

Stone interjected that musicals, and movies in general, have always been a source of calm and healing for her. As a girl, she had crippling anxiety attacks, but acting always saw her through.

“Yeah, I used to have very, very horrible anxiety,” Stone said. “It first hit me when I was seven years old. Fortunately, I’d already done a school play before that, and I always remembered what that felt like, how good it felt to be on stage.

“It’s like when a very shy kid joins the debate team, and all of a sudden, a very different kid emerges,” she continued. “That’s what acting did for me. It gave me a place to put all that anxiety and emotion. It gave my life a purpose, and that hopefulness—and the friends I made through theater—gave me something very therapeutic and healing.

“Now that it’s my job, now that it’s something I do all the time … my relationship to acting has deepened. It’s more than just a comfort thing, now. But it is that, too, even when it forces me into really uncomfortable places. There’s still always joy in it. And I think that joy is contagious.”

“I’m actually inspired by the future of musicals,” Hurwitz said. “I think musicals could be a very important part of whatever is coming.” Admitting that he was inspired by musicals along the lines of Singin’ in the Rain, Hurwitz said the big challenge of La La Land was to be inspired by the older movies, but also make room for something new and a little bit fresh.

“On my end,” he said, “my dream was to make music that would not sound old-fashioned, that would sound like its own thing. I think, generally, the movie does feel contemporary, while still feeling connected, in its DNA, to some of those other movies.”

“Back to the idea of musicals being subversive,” Chazelle said. “One way that might be true, to a degree, is that all movies are collaborative, right? But I think musicals, just by necessity, are even more so. That’s why so many musicals are about people coming together to put on a show. You get into that ‘hey-let’s-do-this-together’ mindset in a really big way when you are doing a musical.

“Maybe that’s the real message of musicals,” he added. “We have to work together. And we can work together, and working together we can do some pretty impossible things.”

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This week in the Pacific Sun, the cover story of our Love & Sex issue, ‘Intimate Advice,’ is a Q & A with a somatic sex intimacy and relationship coach and a clinical sexologist. On top of that, we’ve got a piece on North Bay resistance, a roundup of standout specialty foods, a review of ‘Native Son’ at the Marin Theatre Company and an interview with musician David Luning. All that and more on stands and online today!

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