Tommy’s birthday gift to Glen Ellen, praise for Natalie Sandoval
The folks of Glen Ellen
Sometimes the confluence of unrelated events melds so well, that it can’t help but bring joy. Such was atmosphere at Catherine Venturini’s Olive and Vine restaurant in Glen Ellen a couple of Sundays ago. The Leo moon above shone its benevolence upon our town, the weather was a temperate and blessed relief from the cold, and a birthday celebration erupted with energy. Whose birthday?
Yes, congratulations and happy birthday to hometown sensation Tommy Thomsen. While his actual date of birth may be Jan. 14, it was on Sunday, Jan. 27, that his hometown celebrated. In a style befitting the legend that Tommy is.
Inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame on Oct. 1, 1995, Tommy Thomsen has been active and influential in preserving and expanding Western swing music. We might even say instrumental.
Down home charisma
Tommy is a charismatic entertainer pounding out a lively honky tonk rag, serenading us with his down-home, homespun songs and encouraging his fellow musicians to perform their best. He’s both a beloved ringleader and a star. And the folks of Glen Ellen love him. Even more, we love his soft and gentle manner of telling the tales of our town, all the while suited up in cowboy gear and strumming his guitar.
That affection and enthusiasm of his friends and neighbors was evident at his birthday celebration as folks swarmed the history hall at the Jack London Village, waiting to enter the show. Many among the gathering crowds were suited in similar flashy Western gear as Tommy, though plenty of us looked just like plain old Glen Ellen folks and fans of Tommy.
San Luis Rey averted
We applaud, once again, the new bridge beside the rolling Gristmill. The only safe pathway to Olive and Vine from the north parking lot, the new bridge sports stable railings and a sound walkway that held up well as hundreds of folks clumped across it to hear Tommy and his friends rock the old brick walls of that 19th century mill. We wonder if old Joshua ever saw the likes of that kind of celebrating … though we suspect he did, moving from flour mill to wine production in short order.
John Burdick, Catherine’s partner, sweetheart and sommelier, guarded the door (and Big John would serve well as a bouncer anywhere, though that force wasn’t needed with this happy crowd). The first hundred plus made it into the restaurant. I rounded off that number fairly low in deference to Tommy’s mid-music plea to not tell the fire chief how many good folks were celebrating with him. Aside to Peter Van Fleet: just know the room was safe and sanely packed, but not dangerously so.
I stepped into history hall line around 4:30 p.m. for the 5:30 door opening, and then waited in frustration while my guests dawdled. John, not even knowing who I was, remained politely patient, even allowing me to locate our table while I awaited my friends, and waited and waited. Finally, my tardy friends arrived and our group of six filled a front table. I was grateful that my waiting was worth it.
And wow, how thrilling to be up front when Tommy picked up his guitar and began the show. It was rockin’ good and more than worth the wait. Tommy’s gift on his birthday was our pleasure.
Tommy isn’t merely a great performer, he gathers the best folks to help him entertain and they all have more fun than ought to be legal in our town.
At one point, Tommy shared, “I have lived a charmed life.” Yep, that’s true and he brings it all home to the rest of us. His charming magic is worthy of an Orphean myth, which Tommy’s life sort of is. He’s courted death with a liver that just didn’t work, and eventually traded it for one that did. Gentle Thanatos can sometimes be charmed by music and thus held awhile at bay, but never so long as we might wish. Although always taken at last, the taken return in spirit when the time is right. Norton Buffalo we know was present that night behind the back wall where Catherine and her crew worked their own brand of magic.
Gary Vogensen was among the great performers who joined Tommy for his birthday celebration. Gary plays a mean guitar and made his name playing with the likes of Etta James and Elvin Bishop. San Francisco blues legend Ron Hacker played a slide guitar while Grammy winner Ken Emerson was a slack key, lap steel master. One of our favorites always is the queen of boogie-woogie, Wendy DeWitt. Her smile alone graces the crowd, but once her fingers connect with the keyboard, there’s no sitting still.
Wendy then and now
Tommy shared that way back in the day, when Wendy was around 10 years old, he gave her piano lessons on an old spinet at Rita’s Mexican Restaurant at Londonside up Warm Springs Road in Glen Ellen.
One of our tablemates offered up that he practically “grew up at Londonside,” yet when I wanted to know more, he simply smiled, close-lipped, evermore quiet. Maybe his stories will make this news later.
But quiet was not the keyword for Wendy, who can pound out a boogie-woogie that makes it impossible not to wiggle and twist, jive and thrive. Since there wasn’t dancing space in that crowded room, I did my own version of chair dancing (my version of chair dancing, by the way, fully fit for a family newspaper). Once upon a time, at another event, Lumpy Williams praised me for my leg-free dancing, but I know he was just trying to flatter. And yep, flatter it did and still it does, dear Lumpy, you gone-but-not-forgotten dear saint.
Like Lumpy, Wendy's another one who brings joy to the world. Her tunes are always happy, despite any lyrics to the contrary. Even better, is her mile wide smile, infectiously contagious.
Musical pantheon graces stage
Kirk “the Madman” Harwood, who once upon a time was Norton Buffalo’s drummer, kept up a driving rhythm. Then lovely Helen “Honey” Mead, with the voice of angels, sang some wrenching ballads that calmed everything down again. Calm? Only for a bit. Soon, the whole crew, including birthday boy Tommy had us swinging and jumping, dancing in our seats.
Later in the evening, Glen Ellen's king of rocking riffs and licks, musical genius, best beloved down-home dude David Aguilar joined the performers on stage. Like Wendy, David greets his audience with the biggest welcoming smile that makes you happy just watching.
Then the music begins and wow, happy is what you hear and feel, with his riffs vibrating through your skin, down to your soul. What a feel good night.
The final medley of tunes included Big John Burdick on guitar with lots of jazzy solos, from Big John and various other band members. All in all, an evening of music I’ll never forget.
Everybody got together
The song that moved me most was a plaintiff rendition of the ’60s hit, “Get Together,” written by Chet Powers and popularized by the Youngbloods. The verses’ gentle guidance still applies, “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” The entire audience joined Tommy and his band in singing that verse while the harmony of love vibrated through the room. Despite Clear Channel adding that beautiful hymn to their list of “songs with questionable lyrics,” it remains an anthem celebrating peace on earth. The perfect plea for Tommy’s birthday and beyond.
What a gift of music Tommy Thomsen shared on his 65th birthday. It was a loving present for all, musicians and audience alike. And, I have to say, folks: 65 looks pretty good on Tommy. Didn’t we once think that was old once-upon-a-time? Heck, we thought over 30 was old.
Smooth sailing staff braves jumping jivers
It was a miracle that the servers could even get to our tables, winding their way through a crowd that roared and clapped, jumped and jived and were decidedly in the way. Even in that chaotic room, we got some of the best service we’ve ever had in a restaurant. Thanks to our server, Katie Knauff, for her calm demeanor and kind attention. Even given big time (read that too expensive) restaurants around the world, Katie is one of the best servers we’ve experienced.
That food: superb, of course, with Catherine in charge you know it will be memorable. I chose the roast chicken. A simple Sunday regular repast? Maybe at my house. But what Catherine and her kitchen creates far exceeds anything with a similar name that I’ve had lately. It was perfect and provided the added panache such a common meal deserves. Given the huge crowd that night, we’d say Catherine created a little miracle. My friends equally praised the lentil soup, crab salad and risotto.
As for Tommy: we wish you many happy returns of the great day and thank you for your birthday gift to your hometown folks.
Sunday Supper Club
As part of their Sunday Supper Club, Olive and Vine recently featured another favorite performing duo, Jaydub and Dino, more formally known as Jeff Falconer and Dennis Cordellos. We missed that show, but heard that Nazar Ejumailly, another cool Glen Ellen musical dude joined in that night during a few songs. Jeff tells me that Catherine’s restaurant space has “always been a wonderful room to play from the musician's standpoint, in terms of acoustics and ambience.” Once again, we’ll give credit here to Norton’s spirit (with more-than-a-little current help from Big John and his Sweetie Catherine). They’re keeping the music alive in our town.
Fourth grader on a mission
An aside, with kudos, to thoughtful fourth-grader Natalie Sandoval, who was inspired by Sierra Jenkins, to rebel against the Mission assignment: your letter was excellent. I bet if you proposed an alternate project to your teacher, say a research paper on local tribes, maybe even including a diorama of a typical native village, you might still garner a A-plus and enlighten your fellow students. I’m impressed with your thoughtfulness, Natalie and I’d like to take you on a hike, with your mom or dad, to the Bouverie Preserve’s native dwelling. Call me.
Yet another birthday blessing
As long as we’re handing out birthday blessings, we can’t forget local fellow Marty Cox. He celebrated 58 on the 28th, with a chocolate tart. Congrats good fellow. We’re happy to call you one of our good neighbors.
Best hikes near and far
In non-musical news today we’re happy to hear that neighbor Tracy Salcedo-Chourre’s latest guidebook, “Best Hikes Near Sacramento” has just been published by Falcon Guides, Globe Pequot Press. In 20 years of writing guidebooks, Tracy has published more than 25 books, which is a hiking/writing achievement that staggers the mind, not to mention wobbles the legs.
We’ve happily supplied visiting friends and relatives with a number of her local guides, especially “Best Easy Day Hikes San Francisco’s North Bay,” which even real backpackers claim as excellent. For us day hikers, it’s especially helpful. A family favorite for us is “Exploring Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate NRA,” and fourth graders, of course, might benefit from “A Falcon Guide to California’s Missions and Presidios.”
GE writer gets around
Still, we applaud Tracy and marvel at how much she gets around, including an amazing adventure in Alaska this past summer, that to be saved for another column. Yet Tracy still manages to do more than most folks, while hiking and writing, exploring and adventuring.
Tracy and her boys maintain their old farmstead up on Chauvet, replete with wandering chickens, ball-chasing dog, thriving gardens and lively teens. In addition to writing guides and novels, Tracy also writes a Glen Ellen column for the Kenwood Press, and has, on several occasions, taken over this column (as has B.J. Blanchard) whenever I feel the need to repair body parts or take off for warmer and more exotic climes.
Teaching, birding, gardening
Tracy’s prodigious writing and timely publications are impressive. But that isn’t all she does. For many years, Tracy has worked as a substitute teacher at Dunbar School, as well as a frequent parent helper through the years that her three sons were there. Tracy also spent a stint as the school garden coordinator where, as she so eloquently says, “unearthed a love of gardening.” Another time, she “let fly a passion for birding” and worked with Tom Rusert and Daren Peterie, coordinating the Dunbar’s school-wide bird count. Currently Tracy works as an associate editor with Streetwise Reports, an online publisher of investment newsletters for gold, energy, and the life sciences. For our part, we’re surprised that Tracy has time to think . . . but that she does, and quite well, too. When not busy writing, gardening, working? Tracy counts up the miles as she laps the outside pool at Sonoma Aquatic Center. Congratulations on your current hiking guide’s publication, Tracy. If you want to know more about Tracy’s guides, go to her website, laughingwaterink.com, a pleasantly liquid name.
Want to see your own name in the news: Share your stories with friends and neighbors in Glen Ellen. Call or write me at 707 996-5995 or P.O. Box 518, GE 95442. Or email me @ Creekbottom@earthlink.net. Glen Ellen chatter rarely requires timeliness; however, if your news does, please be sure to contact me at least two weeks before the run date.