In the seven months that we’ve been open, we’ve received no shortage of queries about the art on our walls: the Oaxacan street scene photo by Deborah O’Grady (many think it’s a painting), the branded wood panels by John Bisbee (more about Mr Bisbee in the coming weeks), the three quiet paintings in the rear of the restaurant which were painted by my father Duane and the “Birds” triptych by musician/painter/friend Billy Martin of the group Medeski, Martin & Wood, aka Illy B.
I’ve known Billy for many years, dating back to the early years with Phish. I still remember getting a call from Trey about “this amazing trio we just saw last night”. I quickly became friends with Billy, Chris and John and have kept in touch with them over the years despite geographical distance.
What many people don’t know is that, in addition to being an extraordinarily talented drummer, Billy is also a gifted visual artist. He designed MMW’s logo, has done cover art for many of their albums and has had a number of gallery shows over the years. As we developed the acoustic plan for Comal with Meyer Sound, we envisioned a series of panels over the front bar shelving that would provide both acoustic damping and visual interest.
I immediately thought of Billy and specifically of one of his favorite motifs: birds. He has done many paintings of birds over the years, and they have a primitive depth that belies their simplicity. I was also very inspired by a painting he did in 2004 while visiting the French Antilles called Phantoms. I called Billy and explained what I was picturing – essentially a big triptych that echoed “Phantoms” and possibly incorporated elements of his birds as well. He had a very tight time frame to complete the work, and that wasn’t the only challenge. He also hadn’t seen the space in person or worked with the poplin fabric that Meyer uses for their Libra panels. A few experiments later, he was confident it could work. The day before he headed off for a European tour with MMW he cranked out the art for all three panels. Sometimes inspiration strikes, and it certainly did in this case!
Billy also finds his way onto our playlist on a regular basis – not only do we feature MMW regularly, but we also have been spinning tracks from Shimmy, a recent release that Billy recorded with Wil Blades, who resides in Berkeley and plays a mean Hammond B3. Here’s a recent review from KQED’s California Report. Billy also currently appears on the cover of the latest issue of Jazz Times.
So the next time you’re saddled up to the front bar, tapping your toe to some soulful beats and staring up at the ethereal birds hovering above you, you may have Billy to thank for both…
Creating playlists for Comal has been quite an adventure to say the least. In some ways, it’s been a microcosm of the overall experience. I’m a white guy who grew up in Maine with very little exposure to Latin culture, other than the fact that my father spent time in Mexico and makes a mean pot of beans. My wife Rachel likes to say that she’s “Latina on the inside” – she’s also fluent in Spanish and has spent lots of time traveling all over Mexico (side note: she may be the only wife who has ever pushed her husband to open a restaurant).
I’ve been passionate about Mexican food for years, but was hardly an expert when I decided to open Comal. And I’m still far from being an expert, but not being an expert means I have lots to learn and experience – not just about Mexican food, but about Mexican culture and by extension Latino culture. In many ways, the best thing for me about opening Comal is that it has set me on a path of discovery and exploration – and creating our playlists has been no exception.
I spent most of my adult life in the music business, but managed to emerge from that chapter with nearly no knowledge of Latin music. I knew that I wanted to feature great music from all points of the globe at Comal, but that clearly the focus should be Latin music – not just from Mexico but also from Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Spain, etc. I made some lucky connections with Latin music experts like Josh Norek, Jacob Edgar and Jose Ruiz, who have all helped accelerate my learning curve in different ways.
Now nearly six months in, I’m starting to get a toehold on the vast landscape of Latin music, both traditional and “alt”. It’s been refreshing to listen to so much new music as of late, especially music outside of my normal listening patterns. Our blog is a great way to share some of these discoveries.
First up, for no particular reason except the fact that I’m keen on his new album at the moment, is Campo (thanks Josh!). Campo is a nickname for Juan Campodónico, who was a founding member of the acclaimed Argentine electro-tango group Bajofondo Tango Club, and before that, a member of the Uruguayan thrash metal band Peyote Asesino. I haven’t explored Peyote Asesino’s music, but we have played some Bajofondo Tango Club at Comal as well. An accomplished producer in his own right, he has reinvented himself yet again as Campo, and recently scored a Latin Grammy nomination in the ‘Alternative’ category for his self-titled debut album. Campo’s latest music video (see link below) features guest vocals from fellow countryman Jorge Drexler, best known for contributing the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” to the film ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’
We’ve had more than a few guests ask “who is this playing right now?” while Campo is playing – which isn’t surprising to me. It’s an infectious blend of old and new, mixing elements of tango and cumbia with pop and electronica accents. And the album cover is stellar too…
-JP (with help from Josh Norek)