by Jim Harrington
On a blistering night in May--the hottest of the year up to that date--guitarist Clinton Bennett works unsuccessfully to get the sparse crowd gathered at Cubberley Community Center into a rocking mood. It was simply too hot to rock, too hot to dance, too hot to stand, almost too hot to listen to music--even when it's as sonically pleasing as that of Bennett's roots-rock band, Sweet Virginia. Inside the auditorium's stuffy constraints, it felt 10 degrees hotter than outdoors, and, Bennett said, "on stage, it was even worse."
"It was pretty warm. We were all melting," he said. "It was unbelievable."
It was a less-than-ideal homecoming for Bennett, an East Bay resident who was born and raised in Palo Alto. His dad, who still lives in Palo Alto, was too sick even to attend the performance. Perhaps things will go better when Sweet Virginia returns to Palo Alto on Tuesday, June 17, the opening night of the city's annual Twilight Concert Series, which runs through July 29.
Bennett, who has been in and out of bands since before graduating from Gunn High School in 1987, knows that sometimes it just takes a while for a group to get things going in a certain area.
It's taken Sweet Virginia five years to get to where it is now on the San Francisco scene: opening for big-name bands at historic venues like the Fillmore and the Warfield; garnering media attention from the San Francisco Chronicle; getting music from its self-titled, independently released CD occasionally played on powerful KFOG radio; and drawing impressive crowds to headlining shows at large halls and clubs. It's been hard work, holding down part-time jobs in the days and constantly gigging during the nights, but the payoff is a San Francisco-based audience that has grown substantially over the years.
"We've generated a pretty decent fan base in San Francisco," Bennett said. "It's always been pretty grassroots that way."
The meager crowd at the Cubberley gig was a clear sign that the band has a long way to go toward gaining a fan base on the Peninsula. The band hopes for a better, livelier turnout next week with the open-air environment at Mitchell Park, which hosts the first Twilight Concert.
It's hard to believe that lovers of folky rock 'n' roll could find a better option for a warm Tuesday night in Palo Alto than attending an outdoor Sweet Virginia concert. The band is solid, and it moves easily from genre to genre, slipping from slow to up-tempo, country to Velvet Underground rock. Still, there is no question that the star is vocalist Hilary Webb. Listening to her low and breathy voice, which occasionally rises in peaks of passion like Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, it doesn't take long to understand why Bennett was so impressed the first time he heard her sing.
Sweet Virginia owes its origins to anthropology. Webb was taking a class in that field at San Francisco State University with Bennett's younger brother. Webb was introduced to Bennett and she, reluctantly, agreed to sing with the guitarist.
"I kind of coerced her to sing," he remembered. "She had never sung in a band."
Nor had she any intention to.
"I was going to go make films out in Africa," Webb explained. "That was my dream."
But once Bennett heard her sensuous vocal work, he wasn't about to let her get away.
"(I) thought 'Lock the doors, man.' She was great," he said. "Just the way she interpreted one song that wasn't even hers--it was pretty amazing. She was phenomenal."
Once Webb was on board, Bennett began recruiting the rest of what would become Sweet Virginia. The goal was to find like-minded musicians, interested in songwriting, not just in scoring some quickly-forgotten single.
"We're not looking to be the next (radio station) Live 105 hit band," he said.
It's hard to classify Sweet Virginia's sound into a neat little label, but over the years, some critics have dubbed the group a "hippie band." Bennett doesn't think the musical label really fits. He says you can't do the Grateful Dead-style twirl to Sweet Virginia's music, although some Deadheads disagree. He's heard a lot of labels--hippie-rock, Americana, southern-rock, alternative country--and he doesn't put much stock in them. The truth of the matter, he explains, is that the band doesn't try to write in one particular style. The music, Bennett said, just sort of happens.
"You can either fight it or you can just go with it," he said. "And usually it's easier to just go with it."
What: Twilight Concert Series in Palo Alto
Line-up: Sweet Virginia, southern-tinged, bluesy rock, June 17, Mitchell Park, 600 E. Meadow Drive; Mike Sloan Big Band, 17-piece band, June 24, Peers Park, 1899 Park Blvd.; Caren Armstrong, upbeat folk with acoustic guitar and cello, July 8, Johnson Park, Everett and Waverley streets; The Charms, beehives, prom dresses and your '50s and '60s faves, July 15, Civic Center Plaza, 250 Hamilton Ave.; Cory Cullinan, creative and lively original pop, July 22, Peers Park, 1899 Park Blvd.; Tony Miles Reggae Band, celebrating Rinconada Park's 75th anniversary, July 29, Rinconada Park, 777 Embarcadero Road
Time: 6:30 p.m.
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