Santa Cruz's Marty O'Reilly performs at the Black Friday American Roots Festival on Nov. 29 at Moe's Alley.

Santa Cruz's Marty O'Reilly performs at the Black Friday American Roots Festival on Nov. 29 at Moe's Alley.

When Santa Cruz’s Marty O’Reilly is playing guitar on stage, he sometimes closes his eyes, loosens his jaw and starts to sway.

“I noticed it as soon as I started playing—that I make ridiculous faces when I play,” admits O’Reilly. “It was something I was self-conscious about for a while, but I came to realize the more important thing than worrying about that is staying focused and keeping my head in the music.”

Sharing his philosophy, he says, are fiddler Chris Lynch and upright bassist Jeff Kissell, the other two-thirds of the Marty O’Reilly Old Soul Orchestra.

“We all do funny little things when we’re playing music,” says O’Reilly. “I think people like to see that we’re so in it. We don’t really care what we look like.”

Whether or not O’Reilly realizes it, basic biology might be behind what he’s doing. And if he wants to drop his jaw low enough mid-solo to fit a country biscuit between his molars, he might be better for it. “You will never be in the zone without your jaw unhinged and your tongue relaxed,” Illinois-based life coach Jim Fannin wrote in Esquire last summer. “That's why Michael Jordan stuck his tongue out when he went to the hole. That's why A-Rod, when he's at his best, looks like he's yawning.”

Indeed, O’Reilly has been in the zone. His band, which blends Mississippi Delta blues and folk sounds, had a harmonic convergence the very first time they performed together, just over a year ago at the Kuumbwa. Luckily, someone recorded it.

“There was just a magical chemistry that happened,” O’Reilly says.

Within six months, the CD was selling and getting passed around Santa Cruz, making O’Reilly and his crew staples of Santa Cruz’s thriving American roots music scene. They have been booking periodic West Coast tours, and played Outside Lands in San Francisco over the summer.

UC Santa Cruz theater grad student Wendy Burr, Lynch’s housemate at the Tannery Arts Center, witnessed the Old Soul Orchestra blossom in front of her own ears.

“What they’ve done in just a year as a group is incredible. I’m so proud of these guys,” Burr says. Spotting Kissell doubling over and laughing at her effusion, she doubles down: “I am! I’m really, really excited for these guys to keep making music.”

Naked Truths

The excitement is contagious.

“The American roots music scene in Santa Cruz is blowing up right now, and there are so many great bands,” says Ona Stewart, guitarist/front man for the Boulder Creek-based Naked Bootleggers. Stewart has put together the inaugural Black Friday American Roots Festival at Moe’s Alley on Nov. 29.

“I thought it would be a great idea to get everyone together and do a showcase of all the awesome roots bands, and share fans, and maybe we can take this scene to the next level,” he says.

Stewart wants to create an acoustic music community out of the bands—some members of which run in the same circles and others that have never heard of each other.

Sharing the bill with the Naked Bootleggers and O’Reilly’s Old Soul Orchestra are nine other groups, including Joshua Lowe and the Juncos, who mix early rock & roll with bluegrass in a balance of foot-stompers and ballads. North Pacific String Band, a quintet that brings bluegrass music to the college-aged crowd, will bring their smooth harmonies and songs of solitude. Steep Ravine, which started as a North Pacific String Band side project, brings jazz chords to that same bluegrass sound.

It won’t just be locals. Stockton Banjo player Snap Jackson, Lester T. Raww out of San Francisco’s Pine Box Boy, bluegrass band Windy Hill from Menlo Park and the punk-infused Little Fuller Band from Twain Harte, Calif., will also perform.

McCoy Tyler will sit in with the Juncos, and 22-year-old bossa nova guitar player Kendra McKinley is an alternate should any group drop out. McKinley’s drummer Alex Bice is also the bassist for Steep Ravine and North Pacific. After a popular set at the Do-It-Ourselves Festival in Boulder Creek, McKinley, who plays at Moe’s Dec. 12, became a mainstay in the same crowd. O’Reilly posted a picture of a peach on her Facebook wall last month with the caption, “This is you.”


Ten years ago, after a month of pounding his fingers on a guitar he’d gotten for Christmas and didn’t know how to play, O’Reilly convinced his best friend to teach him something. The friend showed him where to place his fingers and told him to strum for his first guitar chord. E major.

“It was very resonant in my body,” O’Reilly says.

He took that warm feeling as a sign to keep playing through high school, practicing about 30 hours a week. Now, at 24, his ridiculously steady rhythm hand leads the Old Soul Orchestra on deep dives into the delta-blues sound passed down through Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker. O’Reilly’s singing is hoarse, but powerful, like the vocal layering on a Bon Iver album. The Old Soul Orcheastra doesn’t write set lists, and sometimes their song structures are loose, even when finished.

“We’re not afraid to just see where things go,” Kissell, the bassist says. “One of the things people I think like about is us is we have that sense of abandon in the way that we perform. We just go. Just step onstage and let it rip. We’ve got ideas, and we’ve got arrangements for tunes, but a lot of times we just bend them and take them to some place new—whatever it feels like in the moment.”

Onstage, Lynch, the fiddle-player, leans forward and sometimes kneels, wincing and moving his bow from right to left so ferociously he often shreds it, tearing hairs on half the songs. In between tunes, Lynch holds out his bow and bites off the busted hairs—which are made from horse hair—spitting them out and leaving a blanket of hair around his feet.

“It’s exponential,” Lynch explains. “If you break some, you’re going to break a lot more. I wish I owned a lot of horses.”

One Saturday last month, DeAngelo Nieves, a trumpet player who had just moved to Santa Cruz from Massachusetts, was walking out of the Tannery Arts Center, where he lives, when he ran into O’Reilly, who was on his way to play a free show at the Poet and Patriot.

“He said ‘Do you wanna sit in?’” Nieves recalls. “And I was like ‘I’ve never played with you. Ever.’ And he said, ‘I trust you.’”

Nieves joined O’Reilly onstage that night and has since become a frequent addition to the Old Soul Orchestra.

“It felt like a breath of fresh air. I love Louie Armstrong and the blues. I love Tom Waits. This is like if Tom Waits had a string band,” Nieves says. “It’s really earthy. There’s a lot of flexibility that anything can happen. Whenever I play with these guys, I feel like we’ve been playing together a long time.”


Hog Call

Americana music didn’t take off in Santa Cruz out of nowhere. Local disc jockeys have been spinning folk, bluegrass and weird country music, on public radio and most famously on KPIG 107.5, and on KFAT before that. Both had as their driving force the late Laura Ellen Hopper. When singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris credited KPIG with single-handedly creating the Americana genre at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium earlier this month, she was hardly the first.

“That’s the whole role KPIG played: everything,” says “Sleepy” John Sandidge, who hosts the station’s Sunday live music show “Please Stand By.” “We were the first commercial radio station to play Americana. And you can ask any artist who does the most to promote Americana, and they have to say KPIG. There’s nobody else.”

Hopper and her radio friends earlier helped launch successful musical careers for off-beat songwriters like Crowell, Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, the Austin Lounge Lizards and Todd Snider.

Sandidge’s show has provided a big boost to the local scene. National artists often appear, but so have local acts like the McCoy Tyler Band.

Of course, the term “Americana” can be problematic, because no one knows exactly what it means. Some, like Keen, have equated it with alternative country music. But others describe it as something more open-ended and old-timey. The wordy Americana Music Association says the genre is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres.”

Sometimes, O’Reilly and his bandmates don’t even call their music Americana.

“We are an Americana band in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways we aren’t,” O’Reilly says. “People call us an acoustic band, but we’re really not. I’m playing through an amp and Chris has a lot of effects pedals.”

There are other reasons folk, roots and blues music thrive in Santa Cruz. Fiddle-player Lynch credits the Devil Makes Three, a trio originally from Santa Cruz, with inspiring a number of Americana bands locally. Well-known local songwriters like Sherry Austin and Keith Greeninger have also bolstered Santa Cruz’s acoustic music credentials.

Stewart from the Naked Bootleggers credits Santa Cruz’s history of people busking on the street with creating that cultural space.

“In Santa Cruz, it all stems from the street music scene—such a big attraction for traveling musicians. They come here, and they settle and find a niche. This is such a cool place to hang out and play, there’s so many good musicians,” Stewart says.

Over the Cliff

It’s Nov. 7, and O’Reilly is standing in the parking lot of Moe’s Alley, getting ready to open for the Tumbleweed Wanderers, who he first met when they were at UCSC together. O’Reilly, Lynch and Kissell just got back from a beach cabin rental in Steep Ravine, near Stinson Beach, for a band retreat this month to work on some songs. O’Reilly’s a little bit embarrassed to report that several bottles of whiskey have obscured their new arrangements, and left what the band actually worked on sounding a little fuzzy.

“You need those nights, too,” Rob Fidel, a guitarist for the Tumbleweed Wanderers, chimes in.

“You’re much more familiar with your girlfriend if you see her every night, so you know her left and right,” Fidel adds. “So, you know if she sends you a text that says ‘K’ that she’s upset because you know the way she thinks. Let’s say, Marty brings a song to the table, they think, ‘Oh, I see where you’re going with that.’ That way you’re on each other’s level. It’s really important. It’s just like a retreat camp for a class or a family vacation. And you’re also able to get of your element and put aside all the distractions at home and focus on each other.”

Kissell, a 49-year-old Santa Cruz local, is a veteran of the Old Soul Orchestra and a workhorse when it comes to technique—usually putting in from 90 minutes to four hours a day and hiring a teacher whenever he feels stuck. He says it’s the band’s fearlessness and trust in one another that provide for its chemistry and creativity.

“I’m older than both of them are,” Kissell says. “And I’ve played in a lot of bands that were not there, to have that sense of curiosity about music. You don’t want technique to get in the way of creativity, but you need the technique to be able to achieve the kinds of creative things that we want to go for. Even if I totally crash this thing that I’m doing over a cliff, they support that.”

The Black Friday American Roots Festival will be held Friday, Nov. 29 at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz.


  • dina saalisi

    You can download Marty’s lucky recording of his very first show with Old Soul Orchestra at Saalisi Presents Buskers Showcase right here for FREE:

  • dina saalisi

    You can download Marty’s lucky recording of his very first show with Old Soul Orchestra at Saalisi Presents Buskers Showcase right here for FREE: