I can’t remember where I was the first time I heard Jeff Berkley perform, but I can remember what I felt: everything. His fingers flew across the frets, his voice sank into my skin, and his lyrics stuck to my soul. It was this baptism of emotion that completely converted me to a new religion: music. While Jeff’s talent and musical ability drives his performance, his ability to connect with his listener always rides shotgun. Given his upbringing as the son of a preacher man, it’s no wonder his performance shook my spirit. The proud son of James Leonard Berkley happily listed inherited traits from his father:
“If I am as talented as people seem to think, it’s from him all the way… I seem to have a lot of similar pastoral qualities that my dad had. It helps me with getting folks into that ‘place.’ You know, the place where artists go to channel the universe, to summon the Muse, to tap in, to vibe out. It’s very similar to the place where worshipers go into a church service to seek God. I learned that from my Dad while playing drums in his worship bands. It was very Pentecostal although it was a non-denominational vibe all the way. It was [during] the ’70s/’80s and churches were rebelling against the ‘old’ systems and trappings of ‘religion’ and moving into industrial buildings and having a rock band during the worship services and having long, drawn-out, Grateful Dead-style jams complete with tongues-speaking and singing and general psychedelic behavior. I learned there how to read an audience and flow with where they wanted to go next. I use that everyday. To this day, folks who have no idea that my Dad was a minister, ask me to perform their weddings and even a couple of funerals. Go figure… Do I believe in God? Not the way my pop did. I do think there’s something going on, and we haven’t come close to figuring it out. I worry that religion and people limit the reality of whatever is out there with our own limited language and understanding. Or maybe it’s much more simple than we think. I don’t know.”
James passed in 2009 but his legacy now thrives in two generations – through 44-year-old Jeff as well as Jeff’s 17-year-old daughter. “The greatest accomplishment of my life and my one most important legacy is my daughter, Dakota Crow. She had a tough time from five years old on due to her mom and I splitting up. We were married for ten years and just grew apart… I am so proud of the way Dakota has rolled with that with such grace, strength, and wisdom! She is an old soul and so much smarter than I am. She has my dad’s gifts of spiritual leadership and is already preaching at her church and singing in the worship band! I see my dad in her all the time.”
While his father’s influence lives in the heart of Jeff’s identity, his mother’s influence lives in the bones. Jeff credits his mother Rebecca for providing structure, stability, and protection.
“My mother is a saint. She guided me and sheltered me through some very tough times as a kid! She’s had a tough road, and I think she’s landed in a great place with her husband and my groovy step-dad, Dent! He treats her right! My mother is organized and great at coordinating and motivating people. She knows how to effectively plan, orchestrate, and execute in a way that’s calm and fun! I use that trait from her everyday. My mom loved to sing along to the radio in the car. I think she actually forgot I was listening sometimes. She was in the choir at her church and was great at it! The coolest thing, though, was that she would sing the harmony part with the radio. She laid off the melody and instinctively sang the harmony. Her mind just went there. I am now in an acoustic vocal harmony duo. I travel around singing harmony as part of my living. Thanks, Mom!”
Like many church-raised adolescents, Jeff expanded his personal and musical horizons within the less rigid confines of the public school system, finding both drugs and rock ‘n’ roll easy to come by.
“When I was 12 and in 7th grade I created a band with some junior high colleagues called the Imposters. We played U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ and some RUSH, I think. That was fun! When I moved to Vista with my dad, I was a freshman at Vista High. I took the term high school literally. There were over 5,000 kids enrolled at VHS those years before they built a second high school. Not a lot of one-on-one time with authority figures. I was very curious, having been sheltered in private schools and church ’til then. I tried everything! It was a very magical time of growth as a person and an artist. Also, it’s a miracle that I lived through it. Vista was the meth capital of the world at that time and LSD and cannabis were everywhere, too.
“When I got to VHS as a freshman, I tried out for the marching band. I pissed off the senior first chair drummer by beating him in a challenge for first chair and he did not respond well. I quit marching band for fear of my life. That turned out okay because that week I met Mark Tiesen, a sophomore who was into Bowie and Echo & the Bunnymen and making up his own songs with his Telecaster and Fender Princeton Reverb amp in his pool house at home! We became fast friends and bandmates. Along with our friend and bass player, Steve Lavoi, we started a band called Marilyn Manor; it was 1984. We played ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Beast of Burden’ and ‘Rescue’ and wrote songs. We wrote our own songs! No one else did that! We played lots of parties and church events. Our flyers actually said ‘Marilyn Manor, brought to you by: The L.O.S.B.F.T.P.I.C.’ which stands for The League of Serious Bands Forced to Play in Churches. That band fused with other Vista bands, changed its name to Animal Factory and included members Chris Hafner, Eric Waters, Bobby Nelson, and Billy Pinix.
“Mark Tiesen passed away from heart failure while riding his bike in Vista to a recording session with Scott Virtes who is still my friend. While I never got confirmation, I know he died from all the same stuff I was doing to my body. He was 20.
“After high school, I was in some awesome bands like the Cry, the Eclipse, and Rain Cathedral until I met Dave Sharp. He was lead guitarist of the Alarm and in San Diego with his wife as she attended USD. I became his drummer and recorded his demo with him. I had already started meeting the players that would go on to be lifelong friends and Java Joe’s alums!”
As Jeff’s star rose in the San Diego music scene, he soon became an in-demand musician for local and national artists, largely due to his original take on percussion.
“In the early ’90s live music moved from the clubs and into the coffeehouses as DJs became the norm. I was forced to put my big rock drum kit on ice and started playing the congas instead. Since I could sing, I got a lot of gigs.”
Jeff soon became a member of an on-the-rise band called the Cages (Capitol Records), and, while in Los Angeles recording with them, Jeff discovered an instrument that would change his life.
“I went on a quick trip to Santa Barbara to see my friend from high school, Jason Cox… He had a djembe in his closet and said I should take it to the sessions and that it was a cool drum. Back then, literally no one but African dance accompanists would use djembes… Even the hippie drum circle folks were just getting into them. I found that I could make drum-set type sounds with it… I stood and played djembe and cymbals with my bare hands and it sounded like a big ol’ drum set.”
For the next five years Jeff was “the guy,” joining the Joel Rafael Band and countless other acts such as Steve Poltz, Jewel, Shawn and Sarah Watkins, the Indigo Girls, Venice, and more for tours, festivals, and one-off gigs. Jeff even gave djembe pointers to other percussionists such as Toca Rivera (Jason Mraz) and Wally Ingraham (Sheryl Crow), who caught on and developed their own unique styles.
Jeff shared three memorable stories upon request:
#1: “Well, there’s a lot I can’t talk about, but I remember being on stage playing djembe with Ben Harper (oops, I dropped something) in Sedona, Arizona. Just he and I were playing ‘Sexual Healing.’ Women were actually throwing their underthings on stage. Never had that happen when it was just me. I must have been on fire that day!”
#2: “I’ll never forget playing with Arlo Guthrie and his family band on the main stage at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. I was there with my band, the Joel Rafael Band [Joel Rafael, Jamaica Rafael, CEJ, and me, henceforth referred to as JRB], and it was always fun at festivals to get asked to sit in with folks. Arlo asked me and I said, ‘Um, I guess.’ During the amazing set – played at 10 pm while it was 106 degrees – Arlo invited Pete Seeger to join us. He was unbelievable. I was terrified ’cause I had heard the false stories about Pete freaking out about Dylan’s electric escapades at Newport. This was Woody’s family and his buddy, Pete. What if I drummed too loud or what if Pete didn’t like it? Then, he was there. The stage hands put him two feet in front of me with his banjo! @*@##$#!! Okay, man, don’t screw this up! Maintain! Don’t pass out! It turned out to be a life-altering experience as I called on my church band experience and just went with the flow! A couple songs in, Pete turned around and turned his banjo upward and started jamming on it with me like a drum. I cried a bit. No kidding. After that Pete called me by my first name! Holy crap!”
#3: “One time when waiting in the wings to go on with Jackson Brown and David Lindley [oh, pardon me, those are mine... I dropped those], I was about to be introduced, and I felt a presence over my left shoulder. I turned around and it was David Crosby. We had just met backstage in a big circle of crazy famous people on another amazing JRB gig. He was looking at me with that Crosby mischievous smirk. As Jackson introduced me and him in the same sentence, Crosby leaned over and said, ‘Okay kid, everything’s riding on this. Don’t fuck it up.’ I blacked out for a few seconds and came to playing ‘Lives in the Balance’ with Jackson and Crosby!”
Jeff describes his experience performing on the road with big-name acts as “flying close to the sun” — an experience comprised of exciting, intense moments that make for lifelong memories. But at the end of the day, he is more of a moon man. Jeff’s 2007 song “Conversations with the Moon” speaks to the separation felt from his daughter while touring, and his effort to stay connected to her through late-night phone conversations and a view of the moon they could share despite the distance between them:
So dial me up and tune me in
And I’ll be back home again.
It don’t matter where I’m bound.
When the sky is black and you are blue
we’ll have an incandescent view.
And I’ll be right there next to you.
Conversations with the moon.
The gravitational pull to be present in his daughter’s life ultimately contributed to a new trajectory in Jeff’s life as he made the decision to spend the majority of his time in San Diego rather than on the road.
“I just didn’t want to be away so much anymore is the simple truth. Dakota was born at a time when I was just beginning to play solo shows and so the transition to staying home and beginning to build a solo career was natural… Between percussion, guitar, and Berkley Hart gigs, I was playing 250 gigs a year. It was time to come home. It was the best thing for me. I wouldn’t have made it much further. I was living the lifestyle and it was crazy and fun and dangerous and all that! But there are good friends who didn’t get through that time, and I wanted to be a dad!”
Looks like the entire songwriting community owes their gratitude to one miss Dakota Crow! “Fatherhood exposes faults and strengths,” says Jeff. “It’s easier to see what needs fixing in yourself when you’re a dad. It’s trying to overcome the broken bits and still provide the kind of love and support it takes for a child to thrive. Being a dad has given me the perspective I needed to grow. It’s changed everything!”
Jeff now lives in Clairemont with his girlfriend of nine years, acclaimed poet Lizzie Wann. While he still travels near and far to perform, San Diegans are lucky to have so many opportunities to attend his concerts in 9-2-something-or-other zip codes. Jeff’s music career continues to flourish in multiple forms:
In the midst of his rigorous touring schedule, Jeff had been steadily building a name for himself as a songwriter, winning the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk Contest in 1999 for his songs “High School Town” and “Not My Heart.” Typically known for his drumming/percussion skills at the time, Jeff entered the contest at the urging of bandmate Calman Hart and was shocked to win. This achievement helped Jeff move from a side-stage utility player to a bona fide center-stage songwriter, appealing to crowds with his impressive guitar chops, warm vocals, moving lyrics, and witty jokes. Jeff’s original music incorporates influences ranging from Guthrie to Bowie to McCartney to Van Zandt and many, many more. One look at his iTunes library and one might be sent into a envious rage (by “one” I mean me).
When Jeff writes solo, he enjoys the freedom to “go places no one expects ’cause no one’s there to have to explain myself to.” Watching him perform solo is a similar experience. Unencumbered by additional band members or instrumentation, he reads and responds to the audience masterfully, subtly steering the listener on an emotional journey, from the cheerful highs of “Austin Girl”…
And my Austin girl sings like a bird
She already knows the words.
They’re written on her heart and soul,
She will make them beautiful.
…to the melancholy lows of “Fleur de Lis”:
Just give me one more Delta thunderstorm,
One more sultry southern morning,
One more summer afternoon,
Lighting bugs can’t come too soon.
’Cause tomorrow I’ll be gone.
California, here I come.
Across the Pontchartrain, I’ll flee.
Fare thee well, my Fleur de Lis.
Likely to bookend heavier tunes with off-color humor, Jeff recognizes the importance of tending to the audience’s emotional needs.
“Well, the crying is so much more intense when you were just laughing,” Jeff says. “It’s so much more of an extreme to pull the listeners’ heart to. No one wants to sit all night and hear heartbreaking story after story and pretty love songs one after the other with no respite in between. You gotta show folks a good time. Big laughs are part of that. It’s just how I am. I’m being myself up there. It comes naturally to me. Thank goodness.”
Also natural is Jeff’s voice, simultaneously raw and smooth, serving as another highlight of his intimate solo showcases. It soars with joy, aches with loss, and lulls the listener with its genuine and gratifying kindness.
The Troubadour has focused much attention on the success of Berkley Hart, Jeff’s 15-years-and-going-strong act with fellow storytelling assassin Calman Hart, so I will tread lightly here, knowing that the majority of our readers are already apprised of the duo’s impressive collection of music (seven studio albums, including the brand new 20-track Fleur de Lis), performances (they recently opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay), and accolades (eight San Diego Music Awards).
My absolute favorite aspect of Berkley Hart is both members’ ability to embody the spirit of young boys or wise men on any given tune, sometimes even within the same tune. This characteristic acts as a testament to their longstanding relationship.
“We just never fight,” says Jeff. “It’s the most awesome thing! We disagree, but we trust each other.”
Calman also relies on that sense of trust. “You know those awkward moments we all have as performers where we’ve said something stupid or otherwise launched a momentous stage gaffe? Playing alongside Jeff is like having a stage-bomb first-aid kit. He has a knack for grabbing the wheel and steering back onto the road with just the right words and wit.” Calman adds that in all their years together, “I’ve been proud to be a part of every single song, recording, and performance. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think most bands who stick around this long can say that.”
Both Jeff and Calman indulged me with standout Berkley Hart memories. Displaying the same good-natured banter that plays a primary role in their performances, they both lovingly poked fun at pseudo-embarassing stories involving the other partner:
Jeff recalls: “One that stands out is the time we were at SXSW. We had played our showcase and went down to Antone’s to see the Black Keys. Calman and I were hanging near the bar drinking Irish whiskey, and in walks a very tall man dressed in a little black dress and pumps! Tons of makeup and a five o’clock shadow. He surveyed the room only to lock on to Calman. He made a beeline toward Calman who was as yet unawares. The nice man traversed the crowded 50 yards across the room to the bar, from the door, like he was levitating. He walked right up to Calman with his back to the stage and reached down for a handful of ‘Little Calman,’ if you catch my drift. I saw the whole thing! Calman was very gracious in his retreat.”
Calman recalls: “Early days of Berkley Hart at Java Joe’s. Jeff and I are planning ‘Berkley Hart: A 2001 Space Odyssey.’ Jeff says, ‘Man, we gotta have a smoke machine; you start playing the 2001 theme on your guitar, I’ll say that it needs to be more ballsy, then Johnny will blast the soundtrack from the movie over the PA, then I’ll hit the smoke machine!’ Seems like a great idea, so we do it. All is going well, crowd of 100 or so is laughing and applauding. Johnny blasts the 2001 theme, then Jeff hits the smoke machine… a few too many times. Within seconds, Java Joe’s is completely enveloped. Everyone is hacking and coughing and you can’t see six inches in front of your face. Have to stop the show, open all the windows and doors, and evacuate the room. Thirty minutes later everyone comes back in, we resume the show, and as we’re apologizing for the trauma to their respiratory systems, a woman yells from the back, ‘Do it again Jeff!’ Awesome.”
Berkley Hart Selis Twang
In his newest musical configuration (formed in 2012), Berkley Hart joined forces with two other staples in San Diego’s Americana music scene: Eve Selis and Marc “Twang” Intravaia, resulting in Berkley Hart Selis Twang, a powerhouse double-duo featuring a whirlwind of voices, instruments, songwriting styles, and emotion. Jeff notes that upping the number of collaborators can be challenging at times, but “ultimately, the person who brings in the tune kind of acts as a guide to keep us on track.”
Where Jeff’s solo and duo shows instantly provide a level of comfort and accessibility, BHST performances add an additional layer of polish and professionalism, probably due to the practice-makes-perfect requirement of nailing down intricate instrumentation and multifaceted vocal harmonies. The band recently returned from a tour in England where they received big praise and a warm reception. “Fans on the road treat us like stars so it’s good to come home and be grounded by our families and San Diego fans,” says Jeff.
Live performances from the band are particularly dynamic in that the act can narrow down to two duos or expand into a full quartet. The members’ genuine admiration for each other is also compelling. Marc (who trades praiseworthy guitar solos with Jeff) raves, “I mean this with all my heart when I say that Jeff is a musical genius. He has the best ears in town, has an amazing voice, writes beautiful songs, is a fantastic guitarist/drummer/bassist and has a wicked sense of humor. I’m honored to call him my friend.”
Jeff’s on-stage work in the aforementioned projects is enough to make any musician’s head spin, but the fact remains we have barely scratched the surface of his contributions to San Diego’s music community as a whole. Jeff infuses the local scene with his generous spirit and earnest desire to support fellow artists. He regularly hands over stage time during performances, inviting music colleagues in the audience to come up and play a few original tunes and allowing them to earn new fans via his endorsement. He also donates his musical talents to a who’s who of beloved acts (Lisa Sanders, Suzanne Harper, Garbo, to name a few). On top of all this, he somehow finds the time to run a full-fledged recording studio.
Established in 2003, Berkley Sound “just sort of happened. I have recorded a lot as a session player, solo artist, and with my bands. I’ve learned from amazing engineers and producers. Still am actually. My dad, Andy Mingione, Joel Rafael, Ben Moore, Paul Dieter, John McBride, Gavin Lurssen, Mike Piersante, Sven Seaholm, Gregory Page, Frank Lee Drennen, and more. After Berkley Hart records started coming out, folks asked me to produce them. I hired Ben Moore for years until I thought I could fly solo as a recorder. Then, an opportunity came along to own my own gear. I set up in my house and haven’t looked back.”
Songwriter Barbara Nesbitt (one of Jeff’s “Austin Girls”) continues to work with Jeff years after moving from San Diego to Texas, which speaks volumes about his abilities as a producer. “Jeff is one of my very favorite people on this big blue planet,” she says. “We connected from the start and his contribution to my life through music has been unmatched, producing all of my solo albums, helping hone my songs, and being a stellar utility man. He is the best Star Wars-loving, filthy-minded, sweet-souled, fellow ‘Georgian’ brother a girl could have.”
Artists currently on deck at Berkley Sound include Allegra Barley, Jeffrey Joe Morin, Rob Deez, Sierra West, the Yes Team, and more. He’s also recorded acts such as Ed Sheeran, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Lifehouse. Helping develop other musicians’ sounds “is so much fun no matter who the artist is or what they’ve done!”
As for his production style, Jeff describes, “I like to paint with warm colors! Nothing too sharp. Not old but timeless, like it’s always been here. Feeling like real people playing together in a groovy sounding room: that’s what I go for. In this age of the digitalization of tone and feeling, maybe the raw approach is what stands out a bit.”
In addition to recording albums, Jeff also lends his studio to ongoing projects such as KPRI’s weekly “Homegrown Hour” (hosted by local music promoter/DJ Cathryn Beeks) and a monthly local podcast called “Sordid Tales” (hosted by local columnist Edwin Decker).
But wait, there’s more! To date, Jeff has been the driving force behind several Opry-style themed concerts, including five “O Berkley Where Hart Thou” events and one recreation of the Band’s final performance called “The Last Waltz.” Inviting his local music friends to contribute covers and originals, Jeff offers an array of artists the opportunity to be seen and heard by large music-loving audiences under the guise of a tribute show. He explains, “To most folks, ‘local’ means sucky. It’s just that way, and we have to overcome that every time we play here for new audiences. If we are afforded an opportunity to be heard, we feel like we can turn those frowns upside down and make new fans.”
Jeff promises there is even more to come. “I have an idea for a big show in the works. It’ll happen soon!” He also envisions recording a new solo album. “I’m always wanting to make a cool band and record it playing my songs live in a groovy studio. Something more electric. You never know what could happen there.”
Whatever happens, we can all count our lucky stars to live in the place where Jeff Berkley watches his garden grow.
HYPOTHETICALLY SPEAKING, WITH JEFF BERKLEY
You win a hypothetical radio contest and you get to write a song with Tom Petty or Bob Dylan. Who do you pick and what will the song be called?
I guess, realistically, I would write with Tom. One just does not co-write with Dylan. How the hell would I suggest a line or chord change? I write more like Tom who, like me, is heavily influenced by Dylan. The song would be called “Over Easy,” and it would be a metaphor about ending a relationship as carefully as flipping a fried egg without breaking the yoke.
You have a hypothetical mid-life crises like Garth Brooks and decide to change your performing name to:
Berkuleez or Johnny Sunshine or Bert Amplecrotch.
You and Calman have been given a time machine and an invitation to sing the national anthem at any past Major League Baseball game of your choice. What game do you pick?
Any game that Tony Gwynn played in!
Your projects seem to double in size. If BHST could combine with another quartet (past or present) to form a mega-awesome eight-piece ensemble, who would you want it to be?
Joke answer: Boyz II Men? ABBA? Dream answer: Crosby Stills Nash & Young
You get to pick your ideal venue and your ideal opener and closer. Where and who?
My grandpa’s and grandma’s houses. Dakota opens, and my dad headlines!
Your studio is hypothetically on fire and you only have time to save one instrument, one piece of gear, and one bobble head. Which ones do you save?
Knock wood!!! Forget the bobble heads! Save my Alvarez acoustic that I’ve been with for 30 years and my Coles ribbon mics.
You just won a hypothetical Academy Award for Best Song in a motion picture. Who directed the movie and what was it about?
Wes Anderson, and it stars Owen Wilson, Bruce Willis, and an unknown young actress who plays a runaway Russian circus pig who defects, one moonlit night, to Luxemburg during the Proto Proloterian conflict of ’07. It’s called Moons Over Myhammy.
You are a hypothetical inventor… what device or gadget do you invent that revolutionizes the music industry?
A Hologram projector that allows you to have private concerts by anyone you want in your home.