On a Thursday evening, as the sun goes down and the heat lamps warm up outside Palo Alto's iTalico Italian restaurant, patrons and passersby alike are captivated by the music of Mike Annuzzi and his shifting roster of collaborators.
In iTalico's outdoor dining area on the asphalt of California Avenue, Annuzzi sings and plays guitar while also keeping an eye out for others he can pull in to participate, whether it's iTalico co-owner Maico Campilongo on guitar and harmonica, a passing pedestrian with a ukulele or a child in the crowd Annuzzi hands a tambourine to so he can shake it and dance along with the music.
Even though the live music iTalico hosts on Thursdays isn't technically an open mic, Annuzzi said in an interview with the Palo Alto Weekly, he's made it uniquely inviting, allowing anyone to join in.
"People have such a starvation to share their artistic creativity," he said. "I truly felt like it was a responsibility of mine to not only provide musical entertainment but to provide a space where others can also give that to the world."
Annuzzi isn't alone in noticing the Peninsula's hunger for music, especially since the pandemic shut down communal spaces. But now, in a few local spots, live music is coming back — on city streets and in community gathering spots — in some cases restoring longstanding events to their former glory, or in other cases, creating an entirely new scene.
Live music finds a home on California Avenue
In Palo Alto, the live music scene on California Avenue led by restaurants Terun and iTalico, both co-owned by Campilongo and his family, is quenching a longstanding drought of live music.
Mayor Pat Burt called the California Avenue music scene one of the most positive developments from COVID-19's disruptions. He said it rivals when artists from the Palo Alto-based Windham Hill label played together at downtown's Varsity Theatre, which closed in 1994.
"I tell people it's the best music scene in Palo Alto since the early '90s," Burt said.
A Palo Alto resident for 17 years, Maico Campilongo saw the lack of live music in the city and jumped at an opportunity in 2020 when California Avenue closed to traffic. That July, Campilongo asked Annuzzi to come play outdoors at Terun and iTalico every week, and the tradition has kept going since then.
Campilongo said Annuzzi is one of the best singers and guitarists he's ever heard, noting that it's easy to play along with him, even when Campilongo tries out an old Italian song Annuzzi has never heard before.
"He just looks at my fingers and automatically catches up to speed," Campilongo said.
The call to play regularly at Terun and iTalico in the summer of 2020 was great news for Annuzzi, who had been searching for local venues to work with since the shutdown, when he lost 60 gigs overnight.
Not only was playing during the pandemic a great opportunity, Annuzzi said, but knowing that he was part of something bigger, getting the community out and connecting again, gave him great motivation.
"I was tired, or sad, or I didn't know what to do, but there were people counting on me," Annuzzi said. "And knowing that they were there to support me was such a drive for me."
Now, Annuzzi's informal and welcoming performances have become a huge draw to California Avenue, with a Monday night of music at Terun bringing in enough business to rival a pre-pandemic Friday night, Campilongo said.
Annuzzi plays everything from classic rock and folk songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to contemporary pop songs by Bruno Mars, John Legend and Ed Sheeran. And whenever he spots someone carrying an instrument or watching intently, he pauses to ask if they'd like to join in, which they often do.
Burt recalled a visit to iTalico when several international Stanford Law students answered Annuzzi's call for musicians, spontaneously performing some incredible Reggae music.
"I'm just astounded at how many really great musicians there are amongst us who never get a chance to play music or sing in public," Burt said.
It's not just musicians looking to express themselves who enjoy the nights of music at Terun and iTalico, so do regulars like Dona Rose, a Palo Alto resident who has been walking from her condo to see Annuzzi play at both restaurants almost every week since 2020.
Rose, who Annuzzi jokingly introduced as the "honorary mayor," often requests songs that remind her of her late father, a professional folk singer.
"Her request list is a mile long," Annuzzi said. "And I play all her favorites, every time."
The live music at Terun and iTalico has become a focal point. On any given night when there's entertainment, diners can be seen listening intently, or taking in the music while eating and socializing. By the sound of their applause, it seems like a good time is had by all.
Annuzzi said that Mahmood Saljooqi, owner of Moods Wine Bar, not only turns down his house music on Thursdays so customers can hear the live performance across the street at iTalico, but he often comes and plays with him.
"It's not just iTalico's night," Annuzzi said. "It's providing beyond just one restaurant. It's like the whole community is really participating."
Burt said he loves that diners on California Avenue can go eat at Zareen's Restaurant and still enjoy the live music from iTalico right next door.
"(The restaurants) think it's a great thing and just a lively European-style outdoor dining culture," Burt said. "They all try to be collaborative as best as possible."
Other restaurants on California Avenue also have started hosting music nights as well. On Fridays, Moods Wine Bar features a DJ night and La Boheme has live jazz.
In Los Altos, music on First Fridays
Just up the road from Palo Alto, another live music scene happens on the first Friday of every month in downtown Los Altos. Sixteen bands, from solo performers to 17-piece groups, play outside of busy restaurants and brightly lit stores on street corners and sidewalks.
Cars move slowly but are not prevented from driving on the streets; they are part of the scene as pedestrians amble along the sidewalks, listening, swaying and occasionally dancing to an eclectic mix of bands on a warm October evening.
The narrower roads and slower flow of traffic reveals an urban planning design that event organizers, Jamie Lucia and Carol Garsten, have capitalized on since 2011.
"Closing down streets causes a huge amount of red tape," Garsten said. "It disturbs the restaurants and stores. But this way people can still drive and walk around. They can use their ear to pick out the music and go to different locations."
Sponsored by the nonprofit Los Altos Forward, the monthly music sprang up in response to the rise of internet retail and shopping mall culture, Garsten said. It was a way to bring people back into public community spaces and support local businesses.
While always well-attended, the Friday night music scene has become even more popular since it reopened last year when pandemic restrictions were lifted.
"People are so much more appreciative of things we used to take for granted," Katherine Lang, 58, a resident of Los Altos, said. She nodded to Top Shelf, the band playing swing at Veteran's Community Plaza.
"It's a real treat to come here and see them. It has that small-town feel," she added.
The popularity of the music scene cuts both ways with not only more people wanting to hang out in public settings but also more musicians wanting to play for an eager crowd. Lucia rotates the bands every month but still has a waitlist of six to eight bands ready to step in at a moment's notice.
The Lawn Darts, a classic-rock cover group, is part of this new cropping of "COVID-bands." They started practicing together to escape the tedium of social isolation during the early days of the pandemic, playing music on their front lawns in Mountain View. Band member Victor Brilon, who works in Los Altos, learned about the Friday night music when walking by it one evening. The Lawn Darts now have a regular spot in the parking lot next to Dogma, Lucia's human-canine chiropractic business.
Another group, Pour Choices, was there to lend moral support to Cool Fire, a band that they shared a performing space with on the sidewalk, alternating every month. Typical of what was happening elsewhere on sidewalks, in parking lots and alleyways, Pour Choices set up folding chairs and a table for a picnic dinner, indicating that they would be there the entire night.
Jocelyn Tseng, 36, who was watching her toddler son as her partner and her daughter finished dinner at a restaurant across the street, was delighted with the music scene.
"It's liberating to be here," she said, noting that this was the first time she has attended the event, even though she has lived in Los Altos for three years.
When the music stopped, a few audience members dropped some bills in a basket, a token of appreciation, as none of the First Friday bands receive payment for their performances.
"It's not just about the music," said Scott Davidson, 57, a Pour Choices band member and Sunnyvale software engineer. "It's everything around it too," gesturing to the audience who showed up for his friends.
The future of the Peninsula's scene
Now that Los Altos First Friday events have returned, the established event is doing better than ever and back in the swing of getting the community together, the events' organizers said. But Palo Alto's California Avenue scene is hungry for expansion.
Maico Campilongo said he hopes the city can establish a permanent space for musical performances on California Avenue, whether it takes the form of a full stage or something else.
"There is so much space not used by retailers," he said.
After the scene grew organically, Burt said, he wanted to see an urban design for California Avenue's permanent closure to support the thriving community culture.
"I hope that we'll figure out how to help support the arts, both performing arts and visual arts, and various other kinds of things that are active socially," he said.
Campilongo specifically admires the format Los Altos has established for its First Friday events and wants to see Palo Alto do something similar, using space downtown on University Avenue or on side streets, like downtown's Bryant Street and California Avenue's Birch Street.
"Los Altos' idea is brilliant," he said. "I would like to see something on that scale, permanent in Palo Alto."
Where to find the music
California Avenue, Palo Alto
Nearly every weekday night, restaurants on California Avenue host a wide variety of live music. At these venues visitors can enjoy the music scene as a spectator or, on occasion, as a participant.
Terun Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant
448 S. California Ave., Palo Alto
5 p.m. until closing
iTalico Italian Restaurant
341 California Ave., Palo Alto
5 p.m. until closing
415 California Ave., Palo Alto
6 to 10 p.m.
Moods Wine Bar
320 California Ave., Palo Alto
6 to 9 p.m.
Los Altos First Friday
On the first Friday of every month, downtown Los Altos features 16 different bands, from solo musicians to full set swing and jazz bands, which can be found playing outside on the sidewalks. Visitors can listen to music while strolling the streets or frequenting the restaurants, bars and shops that stay open late.
First Friday of the month
Main Street, State Street, Second Street and Veteran's Community Plaza, Los Altos
6 to 9 p.m.
Rock the Dock
On Saturday afternoons, bands play at the Redwood City Port as part of the city's fall concert series. Visitors can bring chairs, refreshments and jackets to enjoy the live music while overlooking the scenic harbor.
459 Seaport Court, Redwood City
3:30 to 6:30 p.m.