Full Circle

Into Open Space and Time: Berkley Hart Celebrate 20 Years

Jeff Berkley & Calman Hart. Photo by Cathryn Beeks.

O Berkley Where Hart Thou production at Poway OnStage, 2014. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Berkley Hart with Steve Poltz at the Troubadour holiday party, 2015. Photo by Dan Chusid.

“Jeff and I have been playing as Berkley Hart for 20 years. In band years, that’s, like, 100!” So states Calman Hart when thinking about this milestone he and Jeff Berkley have accomplished. To mark this anniversary, the critically acclaimed and well-loved duo will return to Poway OnStage for “Wreck ‘n’ Show” on Saturday, April 14, where they will play their debut album Wreck ‘n’ Sow, (get it?) cover to cover. And if that’s not enough, the duo has another reason for fans to come to the show. They will also release their eighth studio album of original music, While the Night is Still Young (reviewed in this issue).

To build up to this spectacular celebration, the two superb songwriters and musicians have honored their other seven albums with cover-to-cover shows held at Java Joe’s in Old Town throughout last year. “It took about two seconds to decide where to do those shows—of course it had to be at Java Joe’s, where we met and where we started out. It’s where every singer-songwriter in San Diego starts out,” notes Calman. Jeff agrees, “All along our clubhouse has been Java Joe’s. He has always opened his door to us and our fans and continues to support us to this day.”

Let’s look back at 20 years of Berkley Hart music through a reverse retrospective to learn the inside stories of recording, where these amazing songs came from, the stellar players who helped bring them to life, and anything else that comes up.

Fleur de Lis (2014)

Berkley Hart had teamed with Eve Selis and Marc Twang to record their self-titled Berkley Hart Selis Twang album after realizing their voices blended well together on a previous tour to England. They were heading back across the pond to tour with the BHST record. Jeff explains, “Calman and I wanted to have a Berkley Hart record finished to sell as well. We had over 20 songs and ended up having most of them on the album. I had been discovering the music of Louisiana. It’s obvious when you listen to the songs and stories from this record. The songs and stories fit together like a gumbo. Shawn Rohlf, Sharon Whyte, and Dennis Caplinger teamed up to give us some authentic vibes.

The title track is about my buddy who moved to California from Lafayette, Louisiana. “Cora Lee“ is the first time I’ve ever made up a story to sing about. It’s about an Irish immigrant who falls in love with a Cherokee woman after crossing the sea.”
Calman notes, “Several of my favorite recordings appear on this album. I never get tired of our cover of the David Crosby song ‘Guinnevere.’”

Adds Jeff, “We always record a cover in hopes that folks will record our songs, too. Sort of a songwriter’s karma thing.”

Calman continues, “The title track, Jeff’s “Fleur de Lis” is still one of my favorite songs to perform. I thought “You’re Perfect for Me” might be too boring, and at first I was reluctant to add it, but then Jeff put banjo on it, and it came to life.”

Crow (2011)

Jeff shares some backstory on the title of the album (their only album, besides Wreck ‘n’ Sow, that is not named for a song on the album). “There is quite a bit of Native American blood on my mother’s side. The Beavers and the Crows married into the Light family. My daughter’s middle name, Crow, comes from Margaret Crow, the matriarch of that side of the family. For the cover, we found a field photo that a scientist took to document the species “American Crow.” He agreed to let us use it as our album cover.”

Calman describes the sound. “We stretched a bit with this album, using some darker tones and experimenting outside our norm. Songs like “Little Boxes” and “My Name Is Sam” have a very traditional folk feel, but we turned a corner with tracks like “Hocus Pocus” and “Barn Sour Horses.” The latter has a banjo track that Jeff makes sound more like a sitar, along with some low didgeridoo pedal tones courtesy of Rosebud [of the music duo Bug Guts].”

“We asked some instruments to do things that they don’t normally do, and they obliged,” Jeff laughs, then continues, “‘My Name is Sam’ is simply one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life. I still get choked up playing it live from time to time. I watch people weep openly from one aspect or another of that song. It’s taken on a life of its own and has some kind of healing quality for a lot of people. Be sure to look on YouTube for the great stop-motion animated video Cathryn Beeks made for it.”

Las Vegas (2009)

Calman recalls how the title track came into existence. “Jeff called me one day and asked what I thought of the line ‘I put the loss in Las Vegas.’ We ended up turning it around and changing ‘I’ to ‘she.’ The cover is a picture of the Las Vegas neon boneyard.”

Jeff adds, “I remember coming up with the idea in the car in Las Vegas. We were on our way to sing the national anthem at the Area 51’s minor-league baseball stadium.

This record took a little longer to make. We did it a little bit at a time between tours and in between me making other people’s records. We were continuing to build our following in certain pockets of the country: Texas, the West Coast, the Midwest. House concerts, theaters, coffee houses. Even some arenas. A lot of it was written on the road. It holds a lot of memories for me about my daughter and traveling.”

Calman concurs, “Several of the songs have very personal meanings for us. Jeff wrote ‘Conversations with the Moon’ about connecting with his young daughter while he was on the road. ‘Scarlet’ and ‘Sliver’ were both drawn directly from his youth. I wrote ‘She’s So Beautiful’ about meeting my wife. I indulged a bit by recording not one, but two songs expressing my thoughts on religion with ‘Looking for Jesus Again’ and ‘God in a Drawer.’ And then we sweetened the whole thing with a fan favorite, our version of Bob Marley’s ‘Stir It Up,’ with Rick Nash on bass.”

Pocket Change (2005)

Jeff provides some details about the reception the duo was getting. “By this time we were playing around the country, we had an agent, and we were getting some amazing national recognition as folk circuit regulars. Our audiences loved it when we just played with our acoustic guitars and voices. After three records with big casts and lots of production we were ready to strip it down. This record happened over 17 hours and a bucket of whiskey. I didn’t want to be an engineer and a musician on this one. We called Ben Moore and went to Audio Design studio on El Cajon Blvd. They had a tape machine and an old API console. We played everything live. I think we only overdubbed a solo or two. We borrowed every cool acoustic instrument that we knew of in San Diego County. David Beldock loaned us his Gibson six-string banjo that barely tuned up. You can hear it on our cover of the Waterboys song, ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?’ This record is deeply personal for me. The songs reflect my life at the time really well. I still don’t ever play the last song on the album. It’s just too intense. It was deeply cleansing emotionally.”

Recalls Calman, “I remember playing a 12-string on ‘Jaguar Sun,’ and my fingers got so sore I barely made it through the other tracks. The title track is a song I wrote about my mother, probably the most personal song I’ve ever written. Overall, this album is the closest to what we sound like on stage; just us, no frills.”

Twelve (2004)

“This is the first album Jeff produced, mixed, and engineered by himself,” begins Calman. “I’m still amazed at how fast he taught himself ProTools and how good this album is considering the rather rudimentary set-up. He ran the console from his bedroom, and we set up microphones in the living room. There were cables strung all through his house.”
Jeff elaborates, “We talked the label into letting us use our recording advance to buy recording equipment instead of going into a studio. I was literally recording the record while reading the manual. I had a computer that was not even as powerful as my current cell phone. But the label liked the record, and we got to keep the studio!”

About the sessions, Calman recalls, “We had a lot of fun on this one; not a lot of heavy themes. We had several cameos. Eddie Cunningham came in to sing backups. AJ Croce played an inhumanly fast piano part on ‘Big Bad Barbie Doll.’”

“That track sounds like an old-school boogie-woogie album,” interjects Jeff.

Calman continues, “Doug Pettibone added pedal steel to ‘Rodeo Heart.’ Listen for the sound of Jeff’s refrigerator during the quietest moments of ‘How Could I Not,’ which was recorded around midnight in his kitchen, as a last-minute birthday present to my wife.”

Jeff shares, “I’m sure you can hear the trucks on Adams Avenue in all sorts of pops and stops and things. Those early years of doing my own recording were only possible because people allowed me to learn on the job. Thank God for Gavin Lurssen who saved my ass every time we mastered my records. You can hear me exploring all sorts of different types of recording tricks. It’s pretty fun for me to listen back. ‘Rodeo Heart’ sounds like an old Neil Young record. ‘I Ain’t Nothing’ sounds like a David Wilcox record.

“I remember recording the percussion part for ‘Across the Rubicon.’ My daughter, Dakota Crow Berkley, was about five years old and was hanging out in the room with me with the headphones on her head. I’ll never forget how big they looked on her. The song has the line, ‘I still love the Dixie Chicks.’ At the end of the song, almost on cue, Dakota says how much she loves the Dixie Chicks, too. Adorable. I can’t hear it without crying.”

About the publicity for this record, Jeff remembers, “We still had a label, and we had management. The promotion of that record was kind of crazy. Nobody really knew what to do with us. We were half Americana-half rock.”

Something to Fall Back On (2002)

In thinking back to their sophomore effort, Calman remembers, “When it came time to record, we were flying high off our first album and decided to go big. We wanted to rock, so we formed a five-piece band. Ben Moore on a big Hammond B3, Brian ‘Nucci’ Cantrell on drums, and Clark Stacer on bass.”

Jeff notes, “We decided to make a rock ‘n’ roll record, something like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or the Jayhawks or Little Feat or something of that ilk.”

Calman continues, “This album is high energy all the way until its soft landing on ‘My, My, My,’ the last track. ‘Come On In,’ the first track, is a song Jeff and I wrote in Nashville. It was just a little folksy tune we wanted to use to open our shows. The first time we ran through it with the full band, I was blown away; it rocked. I knew this was going to be a fun record to make. We recorded it at the same place we recorded Wreck ‘n’ Sow, at Big Fish Studio in Encinitas.”

Jeff provides some flavor to describe the sessions. “We spent two weeks making a big rock record for a label. It was a dream come true and so much fun. I got introduced to what old electric guitars and amplifiers were all about on that record. I remember getting ready to do my first electric guitar track for ‘Desert Rose,’ which I wrote with Frank Drennen from Dead Rock West. I slung the ’59 Goldtop Les Paul around my neck and got plugged in to two Silvertone twin 12s plugged into Marshall cabs. Everything was on 11. I had to stand in the vocal booth because the guitar was feeding back so much. Right before the track started Ben came over the talkback in my headphones and said, ‘Okay, brother, sing me a sad sad song.’ My life was changed forever. That one statement made me look at things in the studio a little differently.”

Jeff adds one last note, “One of the things that came from the promotion of this record was our Berkley Hart house concert revolution. We had just transferred our mailing list to email. I started writing monthly newsletters, and in one of them I included our ‘House Concert Manifesto.’ Over the next few years, with help from our house concert guru, Lizzie Wann, we started over 30 house concerts just in Southern California alone. We certainly didn’t invent it; we just took advantage of a great idea!”

Wreck ‘n’ Sow (2000)

Calman begins with the story of how the title of the album came about. “We were almost done recording, but we still hadn’t come up with a name for the album. I showed Jeff a painting that a friend of mine did as part of a series, depicting old rusted out cars sitting in wheat fields. We decided to use that painting as the cover and, voilà, Wreck ‘n’ Sow.

Jeff gives insight into how the recording came about. “Calman and I were playing  Wednesday nights at Java Joe’s and had amassed enough songs to make a whole album. We knew Marti Amado who knew her way around the studio and how to wrangle musicians. We enlisted some friends from around the scene, who, luckily, were also among the best musicians for what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted the record to sound like the records we were listening to at the time, like Tom Waits’ Mule Variations as well as the first Gillian Welch record. The only choice for engineer was Ben Moore.”

Calman chimes in to talk about some of the players. “Dennis Caplinger played all things string and Wayne Nelson (of the Little River Band) played bass to form our core. Gregory Page played on ‘911 Jesus,’ a song he had already recorded on his album. My favorite session was when we added a choir made up of all our friends on that song. John Katchur played on ‘High School Town,’ a song we had been doing since the Redwoods [the precursor to Berkley Hart featuring Jeff, Calman, John, and Dani Carroll]. Dani sang on ‘Blue Morning Moon.’ Robin Henkel added killer slide dobro to ‘Helluva Highway,’ a song I wrote with Dave Howard. For ‘Achin’ Feelin’,’ we even brought in a tuba.”

Jeff recalls some more details about those sessions. “We recorded it over a couple weeks and several gallons of whiskey and moonshine. There are several tracks on that record that are completely live. We came in with only a couple records between us. Calman had made some solo albums, and I had been on several albums but had never recorded my own. There was tons of angst and liquor. You can’t really hear it in the tracks, and I’m proud of that. We didn’t just copy those records I mentioned before; we made our own new sound with those things in mind. It was really, really fun!”

Calman agrees, “I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun making an album, before or since. This was a magical moment, and I really believe we captured lightning in a bottle.”

Jeff lets us in on the strategy Berkley Hart employed to build on the success of the record. “We started doing Saturdays instead of Wednesdays and having packed houses every time. We actually made a conscious decision based on some advice from our friend, Steve Poltz. He explained that there is an amazing acoustic music scene here—small but fierce! They will all come out for you if you give them a good show and don’t ask them to do it too often. We listened to that advice and did shows every two months for a couple years and wrote more songs. Then we signed a record deal with an independent label and set out to make our second album.”

After going through their discography, my next question is about the secret of their long success. Calman answers, “Our shows are never the same. For better or worse, we’ve never had much of a game plan when we go on stage. We decide what we’re going to play, and what we’re going to say, as the show progresses, giving the flow a very dynamic and spontaneous vibe, allowing us to feed off the specific personality of each audience. I think it’s one of the reasons it’s still as exciting to play as it was 20 years ago.”

Jeff responds, “I’m so proud of the songwriting on all of our records. The songs we’ve written together are the perfect combo of the two of us. I love being in Berkley Hart. Who knows what the future holds? We’re looking at getting back to England and beyond as well as continuing to play all the wonderful nooks and crannies of the country that we have come to love!”

Calman sums up how they both feel about their 20-year anniversary performance. “We can’t wait for Wreck ‘n’ Show. It’s going to be wondrous.”

April 14 at Poway OnStage, 15498 Espola Rd., Poway, Show starts at 8pm. To purchase ticket, visits: www.powaycenter.com/375/Berkley-Hart

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