San Quentin welcomed back several Bay Area musicians who performed “oldies” hits in the prison’s Catholic chapel in September.
The organization Bread & Roses billed it as “The Healing Power of Music.” Dozens of inmates attended the Sunday evening event tapping feet, bobbing heads and singing as the band grooved for two hours.
The inmates began with a moment of silence in memory of inmate Ricky Higginbaum and former inmate Arnulfo T. Garcia. Both men recently passed away.
“Although the night started off with a memorial, the energy shifted,” said Julia Harrell, who played drums with the band that included Tony Saunders on bass and Kurt Huget on guitar. “Tonight was like the funnest yet,” she said.
The trio started off with “Feelin’ Alright,” by the group Traffic. The song was made popular by Joe Cocker. “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” by Sly and The Family Stone followed. Then, it jumped from R&B-funk to the Latin blues-rock fusion of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”
Most of the men in the audience were older, so they were familiar with the songs from the ’60s and ’70s. The music made for nostalgic listening with songs like the “The Joker,” by The Steve Miller Band and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.
Detouring away from memory lane, the band played an original tune, “Ain’t Gonna Muddy the Water,” written by Huget. It was cool and bluesy with a “rock” feel and fit seamlessly with the set.
Saunders introduced a song from his new album “Sexy Somethin’” ( released on SF Records) that he produced with Gail Johnson, Norman Brown’s music director.
Huget kept the crowd engaged with a melodic opening to the song “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix. Later Huget joked, “Julia (Harrell) likes to play the chapel’s drum kit because she doesn’t have to carry it around” as the crowd laughed.
Keeping with the oldies tradition, the band went back several decades playing Richie Valens’ “La Bamba.” The song drew special appreciation from the Hispanic men in attendance. They shouted and clapped, and Huget didn’t disappoint with his improvised solo on the guitar. Before the song ended, inmate Jose Diaz was invited on stage to sing. The crowd cheered and applauded loudly at seeing one of their own take the microphone
Inmate Leonard “Funky Len” Walker was also invited to play a solo using Saunders’ custom-made, five-string bass guitar. “It was beautiful,” said Walker. “It was like nervous sweat and tears, but I felt wonderful after I warmed up.” Harrell followed the men with her own percussive solo on the drums.
“We believe in the healing power of music and how it can change a mood,” said Lisa Starbird of Bread & Roses. Starbird has been bringing music into the prison for five years but noted that Bread & Roses has been providing its service to the prison for more than 40 years.
The set would not have been complete without an appropriately worded song by The Beatles: “Come Together.” That’s exactly what the crowd of men from different backgrounds did as the music made everyone equal.
On “House of the Rising Sun,” by Eric Burdon and The Animals, Huget sang and Saunders chased his vocals with a thumping and plucking solo on the bass. Next, a clear message that “Everyday People” were in attendance, with a song by Sly and The Family Stone.
“Tony (Saunders) was exceptional,” said inmate Walter Watson. “I came late, but it was great. I totally enjoyed myself. I was able to hear some of the songs we do in class.” Watson attends Huget’s guitar class on Thursday afternoons.
“One of the guards told me that when we bring in the music ‘it’s more peaceful,’” said Starbird. When the set ended, the inmates gave the band a standing ovation, shouting to show their appreciation. Starbird thanked the men. “We want to give you a good memory through the tough times,” she said.
Inmate Dwight Krizman, who plays drums and bass, worked the mixing console. “My joy is being able to be with them and doing the sound for them,” he said. “Father George has given us an awesome sound system.”
Saunders said he performs for inmates because he can relate to many of their experiences. “When I was growing up, I was probably a hood rat,” he said with a smile. “But I did good.” People recognized his musical talent and pulled him in to make him clean up his act—and he’s remained that way since May of 1983 when his daughter was born.
As most of the men exited the chapel, Harrell, Huget and Saunders lingered a little longer to discuss music and sign autographs. “This crowd had a lot of good spirit,” said Huget. “A lot of good vibes. It’s a family affair.”