No one's been hit harder by the pandemic than professional working musicians, those folks whose entire livelihoods are based on playing paying gigs. Being a professional musician in SLO County isn't exactly a big moneymaker anyway, and a lot of players keep a roof over their heads by giving private lessons, but even that has been curtailed. One musician whose career I've followed for years is renowned multi-instrumentalist Eric Brittain, who's an absolute monster of any stringed instrument.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- THE LEGEND OF LAST STAGE WEST Local working musician Eric Brittain has three amazing CDs available, and now's the time to support the local music scene, one performer at a time!
"I'm doing well considering it's 2020," Brittain quipped via email. "Haven't played a live show since February. Had to cancel a shitload of bookings. Very unhappy about that, but I'm staying healthy, so I'm thankful to be alive."
The music business has changed so much in the last two decades. First CDs started to die out thanks to MP3s, then Napster taught music lovers how to steal, and soon record stores and music labels started dropping like flies. The only way an independent musician like Brittain could make a living was gigging and selling CDs, and now all he has is CD sales until live music starts up again.
He's got three CDs you can get your hands on—two instrumentals he said could "be found on Amazon, CDbaby, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, CDUniverse, and too many more to mention. If people want to find out about me they can just go to Google and put in 'Eric Brittain Music' and page after page will pop up."
The earlier instrumental CD, 2010's Slack Key and Then Some, is a terrific showcase for Brittain's Hawaiian fingerstyle playing. Now considered quintessentially Hawaiian music, the music genre actually developed in the late 19th century when Mexican cowboys introduced Spanish guitars to Hawaiian musicians, and instead of embracing the Spanish tuning, the Hawaiians retuned to a chord now called "open tuning."
Brittain is a true master, perfecting the pull-offs, hammer-ons, and string harmonic techniques indicative of the genre. He dedicated the album to Aunty Ku'ulei Perez, a famed Hawaiian slack key player who passed away in 2011. She and Brittain appear together on the album cover. Brittain said her "mele and aloha have been an inspiration to me and countless others."
Mele means chants, songs, or poems, and aloha, in addition to meaning hello and goodbye, means love and affection. It's a wonderful tribute and a brilliant and beautiful album.
The other instrumental, 2016's As I Am Here..., features 18 Brittain originals. He writes in the album liner notes, "To go where no musicians has gone before; to reach into the mystical ether of creation and pull forth the inner vibrations beyond time and space; to let the spontaneous magic of the universe course through your instrumental like flowing water; with little or no precontemplation, letting God, (the life force), speak through your soul, mind, and body freely. We can and will do this!"
It's a wonderful display of sparkling musicianship as Brittain plays all the various stringed instruments you hear—mainly guitars and mandolins. Recorded in Molokai Minchie Studios on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and mastered by Steve Crimmel at Painted Sky Studios (then in Harmony but now located in Cambria), it's a testament to why Brittain was such a sought-after sideman in the pre-pandemic days. He can add hot lick to anything!
The album that really strikes home for me, however, is the most recent one, 2017's Legend of the Last Stage West, on which Brittain covers a bunch of well-known bluegrass and country songs as well as a couple of traditionals, throwing in two originals.
Last Stage West, the old roadhouse located between Morro Bay and Atascadero on Highway 41, was founded by Brittain's parents, and the album is a tribute to them: "This album is dedicated to the late great 'Buffalo' Bob Brittain and his faithful wife of 60 years, Carmon Brittain; for without these two beautiful people, my life and my music would never have existed. Many of the songs on this album were sung by Bob and the family in thousands of performances throughout the West."
Brittain actually recorded the songs in 1997 when his family owned the joint. It was a place people would drive to and enjoy Bob and Carmon's amazing barbecue. People gathered at communal tables, and after everyone was served, the Brittains would come out of the kitchen, get on stage, and throw down an amazing show! Lots of the locals would wander up on stage with them, turning the night into a real hootenanny. It was magic.
After a decade in business, the main building burned to the ground, and Bill and Carmon decided to retire. Atascadero local Tom Passon bought the property in 2005, putting up a metal building and doing what he could to carry on the Brittains' tradition. The venue permanently closed in 2018.
In 2017, Crimmel at Painted Sky mastered the recordings, and Brittain released it. You can only get the album through Brittain by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and purchasing it directly. You'll love his fiddling, picking, and rumbling voice on great songs like Dan Hicks' "Cowboy Dream #19" and Merle Haggard's "Ramblin' Fever."
"Been recording and woodshedding to keep my music going," Brittain said. "Thank you for taking this on. It's good for me to keep my name out there so what following I still have doesn't forget about me all together."
Do yourself and the live music scene a favor and support professional musicians like Eric Brittain! Δ
Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at email@example.com.