She’s a petite blond with a voice that can both rattle the rafters and lull you with its sweetness. She can be crude and raunchy, self-deprecating and humble, and heartbreakingly vulnerable, often all within one song’s time. She doesn’t live here in San Diego anymore, and neither does most of her band, but that doesn’t mean those of us left behind have lost the fervor of our fandom or aren’t anxious for a chance to see her and her band whenever they come back.
Barbara Nesbitt moved to San Diego from Virginia around 2005. She had been playing music in Virginia for years and didn’t know what to expect from the music scene here. “It turned out to be a warm and inspiring crew of people and really propelled my creativity. I had written a few songs over the span of my music career in Virginia. When I started playing Cathryn Beeks’ Listen Local showcases in San Diego, the people would say they enjoyed my set and wanted to hear more of my original music. It was such a nice compliment and really opened the floodgates for me. I guess I just needed a forum for my writing to really evolve. I wrote more songs in the next six months than I had my entire life.”
In the midst of all that writing and playing, she met Mike Spurgat and Bill Coomes. She explains, “I saw their band, Deadline Friday, play and thought to myself, ‘Muah ah ahhhh, I want them for my very own,’ while twisting my mustache and petting my white cat. It wasn’t long after that that we were each scheduled to play the same Acoustic Alliance [a Listen Local event] in the round.”
Bill continues, “I had hung out with Barbara before I knew she was a musician. At the Acoustic Alliance, she modestly tells me she’s there to sing some of her songs and that she’s part of the show. I am clueless at this point. After her song, I turn to her and say, ‘I had no idea!’ and proceed to thank Cathryn over the mic for putting me in line after Barbara.”
After those fateful nights, Bill asked Barbara if she needed a drummer. He bought a djembe and started playing acoustic shows with her. Enter Mike. “Bill and Barbara started singing together, and I saw them together for the first time at Winston’s and was like, ‘You guys need a third harmony and lead player!’ So we practiced once or twice, and I think we all knew we were on to something.”
Barbara agrees, “Mike, Bill, and I knew there was something special there immediately.” So they worked up songs and played a show. There was not a consensus as to where the first show was played, however. Barbara says it was at the Tiki Bar in Pacific Beach, while Mike and Bill (‘with one practice’) both say it was at the Mission Bay Boat & Ski Club. Regardless, the trio was complete.
A Magical Musical Blend
One of the most striking things about the Barbara Nesbitt Band is the ridiculous harmonies they’re able to create. Bill notes, “I have never met anyone I enjoy singing with more than Barbara. Our voices just match in my mind. When you throw Mike in the mix, it’s the missing piece to the puzzle. Mike and I have been singing together for a long time. We’ve found those specific inflections in each other’s voices and know how to abide. With Barbara it’s the same, but it seemed to happen from day one.”
Mike adds, “It seems to come really naturally to us. Our voices just blend together so well. Plus neither of them ever have pitch problems, which makes it easy for me and has definitely made me a better singer. Bill is great at finding almost any harmony so if we’re struggling ever to pick out notes to sing he can usually find it right away, and it just makes the whole process almost effortless.”
So what’s the next thing to do when you’ve got a bunch of songs, a groovy group to play them, and people who want to own them? That’s right. You make a record.
“Jeff Berkley was making the kinds of records I wanted to make. I had a meeting with him, and within minutes we knew we were long lost brother and sister. Musically, I knew he was the right choice, but the connection we made and still have really made the whole process that much more special,” says Barbara.
Jeff has mutual admiration for Barbara. He recalls the first time he heard her sing, “I was at a Listen Local outdoor event. I was in a rush to get where I was going, truly not paying attention to the music. Then, Barbara sang the first line of her first song, and her voice stopped me in my tracks as I’ve seen it do 1000 times since to others! I stayed right there and listened to her voice and amazing songs! I had to record her records!”
Berkley thought Marcia Claire would be a good choice for a bass player as they got into the recording process. Barbara explains, “I knew her a little and adored her and her playing, so we brought her in. It was the perfect final piece to the puzzle.
“Making the CD was very exciting for me. We had rehearsals with Jeff helping with arrangements and fine-tuning things for us. He and the band really took my songs to another level, made them far better.”
In 2007, Barbara released A Million Stories, of which George Varga of the San Diego Union-Tribune said, “…it’s refreshing to hear a debut that boasts so many accomplished songs with such a keen sense of purpose and personality.”
Barbara also worked with Jeff and the band to record The Bees (2011) and Almost Home (2013), which was recorded in both Austin and San Diego.
Marcia Claire notes, “The beauty of all of us recording together is that we are all extremely open to other people’s ideas and suggestions, not to mention that it is incredibly fun to record with these talented and hilarious music types.”
Bill sums it up, “Recording with Barbara is a blast to be sure! Barbara is a fantastic songwriter and singer. Between all of us and Berkley’s influence, the end products are frickin awesome in my book!”
“I hope to record the next one with Jeff, too,” Barbara remarks.
Jeff is down. “I will as long as she’ll have me! I’m a lucky recorder of songs/producer guy!”
What Happened Next
The Barbara Nesbitt Band worked consistently in town for about four years. Some of the band’s highlights include the CD release for A Million Stories at the Belly Up with Marc Ford, Cathryn’s showcases, and a variety of house concerts. “I really love the house concerts,” says Barbara, “They are intimate, there is story telling and shit talking. They’re relaxed and fun.”
But Barbara made the decision to move to Austin in 2010. “I really wanted to go to a music-oriented town. I checked out Nashville and Austin and felt the latter was a better fit for me. In some ways, my decision was rather capricious and I didn’t know a soul here, but I did it and I am glad I did.”
In Austin, she found success with the Whiskey Sisters, a rollicking, harmony-driven six-piece band of which she was one of the lead singers and songwriters. Now the band only plays occasionally so she’s doing more of her solo work and has put together an Austin version of the Barbara Nesbitt Band. Plus she can often be seen singing with Tim Flannery & the Lunatic Fringe.
Mike and Bill also moved away from San Diego. Mike moved to Nashville in 2011, and Bill did the same in 2013. Both are full-time musicians in the Nashville scene.
San Diego Calls
Even though the band, with the exception of Marcia Claire, has moved away from San Diego, they all make it a priority to travel back to town to play gigs together.
Marcia explains, “Barb, Mike, and Bill keep coming back to San Diego because this is where the Barbara Nesbitt Band created some of the best lifelong memories people could ever wish for. It is no wonder that we meet up here for reunion shows. We really, truly love each other and enjoy each other’s company both on and off stage.
“This camaraderie, I believe, is a big reason that the fans keep coming back. Clearly the songwriting and execution of the songs is great, but fans really do look forward to the banter that we share on stage. They can tell we really do get along that well, and we are actually having that much fun!”
Barbara counts herself lucky in her musical journey. “I’m thankful I get to come back to San Diego regularly, and I’m glad that my feelings for my San Diego friends are mutual. And that Bill and Mike still want to make the trek to play together makes me feel all warm inside! They have all been willing to make it happen, and I hope they always will.”
Don’t miss the return of the Barbara Nesbitt Band at the Grassroots Oasis on Saturday, August 29. Visit grassrootsoasis.com for tickets and info.