I hate to be the one to break it to you: The hobo Hotbox Harry — the man Mike Scutari has credited with inspiring, composing and divining the set lists for his Big Sur band Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us — has died.
But his memory lives on in the music created and performed by the seven-piece ragtag crew with a hankering for the good ol' times. Good thing the band has a debut self-titled CD to its name so there will never be any question as to how and why they exist.
There has always been a question, however, about whether it was the storytelling talents of Scutari that gave us Hotbox Harry since the band formed in 2010, or whether it was a fevered dream in his mind after one too many potent socials one night at the Fernwood saloon. Now that the old hobo has been laid to rest in some unmarked grave near Virginia City, Hotbox Harry's existence may never be truly determined without an immense and determined effort by some forensic fanatic straight out of a "CSI" script.
So let's raise a toast to the man and the myth at two official hard copy CD release parties, 7 p.m. Friday at Barmel in Carmel and 10 p.m. Saturday at Fernwood Bar and Grill in Big Sur.
"Mike is really into the story," lead singer Tara Wings said in a phone interview the other day. "On the CD he credited all the songs and artwork to Hotbox Harry. (Although it's true that Wings is really the visual artist.) No, there is definitely a wink-wink. I constantly screw up on stage. Like I'll say, 'Mike wrote that song,' and he'll say, 'You mean Hotbox Harry wrote that song.' I go, 'Oh, right,' and literally wink. Honestly I can't keep up with the myth. But it's sweet, it's a fun story. I don't think we need to keep it as gospel, though."
So with that tacit permission to embellish upon the myth — ahem, I mean fictional accounting — I felt free to add my two cents' worth of gossip and declare the death of the legend. But has he really died? Well, it's all a matter of trusting in the source, and I promised not to reveal who that was. So it's all up to you.
The new CD has 14 original songs written by the band in Hotbox Harry's honor, whether dead or alive. You could be hearing more of his voice through the songs already set for a second CD, and through the always festive live appearances of the band with Scutari (songwriter, rhythm guitarist, vocalist), Wings (lead vocals), Tracy Chesebrough (lead guitar), Magnus Toren (acoustic guitar, vocals), David Peasley (drums), Jaimason Berkheimer (lead guitar) and Chris McGreal (bass).
Originally the band included Laurie Kost (fiddle) and Wally Barnick (bass). Kost moved away to attend school, and Barnick moved down to the little town of Harmony, just south of Cambria on the coast.
"Wally, who ran a store in Big Sur for long time, has been a musician forever," Wings said. "He played with the Cash Valley Drifters, who were really successful in the '60s and '70s. When we went down to Harmony, he recorded the album with us down there (in his home studio). Since he's moved we've had another bass player to play live."
Barwick will be at the Fernwood event to play with the band, but otherwise McGreal is the man holding down the bottom at live shows.
"Dancing is my favorite thing about the band," Wings said. "We're very much a live band. We have a lot of audience interaction. Every once in awhile we play a place that's not really a dancing venue. We just played at Jack London's in Carmel. Even though it's a restaurant, people got up and were dancing at their tables."
In the ever vigilant way in which the band works to share their joy with the audience, there comes into play a jam band aesthetic that allows for improvisation and impromptu set changes.
"We have a term that we call on stage which is described as a dance emergency," Wings elaborated. "Which means if people are dancing happily to the current song, we'll throw in extra solos, sing another verse or go back into another chorus to extend the song. We'll completely change up our set list in the moment just reacting to whatever the audience seems to be liking."
While the spirit of much of the band's music lies in the realm of old-timey country-style tunes, similar to what you might experience with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, there is also an evolution taking place and a fondness for a variety of musical genres, including rock 'n' roll. Wings said the band opened for Wanda Jackson at Don Quixote's in Felton last year, a treat for her as she's a huge fan of the pioneering female rocker who was a friend of Elvis Presley. They learned a few of her songs as a result.
"I definitely describe our music as a throwback," she said, but added, "I think we pull from various decades. Some of our newer songs — not on the album, but will be on our second album — have even more of the surfy kind of feel. Our music is evolving through the stages that music did, from more '50s to more '60s, and we have some from the '70s, too."
So, it's time to celebrate the life and times of Hotbox Harry and the band that carries on in his tradition. The Fernwood show is special as it is the home base for the band with plenty of dancing room. For those who prefer an earlier and closer-to-town experience, the Barmel show would be a preferable option. Both shows are free.
Beth Peerless can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.