Peter Rowan | Down Home Music Store | El Cerrito, CA | 12/9/2017 | Photos: Jake Cudek Load remaining images Historian. Storyteller. Collaborator. Innovator. These are all words that at some point or another have been used to describe the renowned Peter Rowan. The man, myth, and legend has been turning out music for over fifty years as either front man or contributor, appearing on or being responsible for over 50 albums.Sitting down with Rowan, it is easy to see within a few minutes that his intelligence is not limited to his instrumentation, but carries over to the vernacular. He tells tales of musical relationships, both on stage and off, with such clarity that one would think that the moment happened yesterday, not decades ago. His willingness to connect with fans as people, not dollars, is truly impressive as the genuineness of these interactions is obvious: patrons are not hurried through a line but rather are encouraged to speak with Rowan as though he were a friend one hadn’t seen in some time.Personality aside, Rowan’s skill with the strings and lyric is what has kept audiences entertained as a solo artist, bandleader, and hired gun, and it’s evident that the man exudes music. He has made an incredible effort not to be categorized as solely a bluegrass performer, producing several recordings and concert series that have blurred the lines between his origins and various other styles and genres, including the blues, country, reggae, Tejano, and, most recently, roots in the island music of Hawaii.As 2017 ends, Rowan’s final performances on his My Aloha tour took place in the eastern part of San Francisco Bay. The tour was billed as Rowan with special guests from the Hawaiian Islands, which included renowned artist and musician Doug Tolentino on ukulele and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Au Hoy on lap steel guitar, performing both traditional Hawaiian songs as well as inspired tunes penned by Rowan. Coming as no surprise and true to form for the bay area denizen, the maestro had a few other cards up his sleeve.The day started in El Cerrito with an in-store performance at the historic Down Home Music Store, established by Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz in 1976. Notably, Arhoolie Records was responsible for some of the earliest recordings of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Down Home serves as its retail location for roots music from around the world. The performance was slotted to begin at 2 pm and by then, the store was occupied by about 50 locals choosing to spend their afternoon among the mix of vinyl, CDs, and analog tapes (if you can believe that) to catch a taste of the latest tropical concoction.As if waiting for any stragglers to arrive, the trio appeared from a side stage door about half-past 2, wearing smiles and Hawaiian shirts. As Rowan took his seat, he called out audible greetings to specific people by name—individuals he recognized in the crowded aisles who had obviously seen him several times, had personal relationships with him, or both. Those in attendance were treated to a single 40-minute set consisting of songs from the new recording My Aloha, including “Lotus Flower”, “A Man of Time and Tides”, “Uncle Jimmy”, and the traditional island tune “Pua Lilia” led by Tolentino on vocals and ukulele, which segued into Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz”.It was apparent from the start that Tolentino and Au Hoy were equal in talent and were given plenty of room to take leads and contribute to the songs vocally. Each song was preceded by a story that set the context for the pieces and afforded the crowd humorous moments in customary Rowan style. Even though the set came in under an hour, the band showed no signs of hurry and remained in the store mingling with the audience, signing autographs, and doing some Christmas shopping of their own for nearly twice that time.As night fell and the lights of downtown Berkeley were lit, the evening’s attendees began to line-up outside The Freight and Salvage Coffeeshop an hour before door time in hopes of getting the best seats in the house. Home to the country’s longest-running open mic and celebrating its 50th year of operation in 2018, this general admission venue is no typical café. Entering the establishment, the walls are decorated with performance photographs, both historical and recent, that have taken place on the stage within. Leaving the lobby, the warm concert space resembles more amphitheater than the scattered tables and wobbly chairs of a typical coffee shop. With a capacity of 200 plus people; comfortable, spring-loaded seating; and walls adorned in warm, wooden slats, this venue reflects that there are still amazingly small places to see great live music that are focused more on the quality of the experience than the quantity.Keeping with the theme of the evening’s main event, opening the show was given over to local slack-key guitar virtuoso, Patrick Landeza. Born and raised on “the island of Berkeley”, this man reflected that the spirit of Hawaii comes from within, not where one is born. Trained by many of the masters of slack-key guitar, his passion and talent has earned him multiple awards, both on and off the mainland.Two solo songs into his set, Tolentino and Au Hoy joined him on ukulele and upright bass respectively. Adding to the authenticity of the music, the trio was also joined by Sophia Pena, a classically trained Hula dancer. Throughout the set, Landeza offered up anecdotes of his youth and travels revolving around the Hawaiian culture, community outreach, and family, including how on this evening, he discovered that Tolentino had been friends with some of his relatives and that Landeza’s aunt had trained with the same teachers that Pena had when studying the art of Hula. The audience sat quietly engaged, entertained by the acoustic threesome’s passion and perfection in song and string.Following a short intermission, Rowan and company were warmly welcomed to the stage, not as the expected island trio, but surprisingly as a quintet. The additions were familiar faces from Rowan’s revolving door of talent: Paul Knight on upright bass from The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band and electric guitar extraordinaire Nina Gerber from The Big Twang Theory formation. These surprise additions placed a smile on each face in the room, the audience applauding with exuberance as each player was recognized by the ringleader.As the music began, composed of tunes from My Aloha, the capabilities of Knight and Gerber were apparent, as both fell right in with the construct, contributing their own unique voices to the feel of the Hawaiian numbers without falling out of step or coming off as misplaced. This was an impressive feat, as rehearsal between the men from the Islands, Rowan, Gerber, and Knight had been limited to the soundcheck prior to the set. Four songs into the set, Rowan stated he would like to bring out another guest to join the performance, referencing the skills of a talented fiddle player. From the front row, stage left, a man who had been pleasantly enjoying the takes from the new album scurried frantically to the side stage entrance, an action witnessed by all in this small venue, and appeared suddenly on stage, smiling albeit a bit disheveled, fiddle in hand, ready to play.Blaine Sprouse, the fiddle in The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band and renowned solo artist, enjoyed a good laugh at his own expense alongside his already chuckling bandmates and settled in ready to provide chop and phrase. Before beginning the next selection, Rowan recalled a discussion with Bill Monroe decades earlier about the similarities between the worlds of bluegrass and Hawaiian music, referencing a specific melody and how Monroe had used it to structure one of his most famous numbers. With the backstory set, the group performed the same coupling from earlier in the day: “Pua Lilia” and “Kentucky Waltz”, which again appeared as seamless as its prior reading, but now with three other backers, extending the piece to give each player an opportunity for improvisation.As Rowan is a firm believer in supporting talent, whether known or undiscovered, he warmly invited Landeza to sit in with the band on two numbers. Taking his spot next to this Godfather of bluegrass, the smile on Landeza’s face could literally have been no bigger. For the second tune, Rowan relinquished his position and sat atop a stool as a listener, watching this honest-souled performer interact with the rest of the band, a similar, sizeable grin stretching across his face.Although the patrons seemed to be content with the island catalog, no Rowan show would be complete without a few numbers from the genre that got this adventure started all those years ago. Extended takes on “Midnight Moonlight” and “Free Mexican Airforce” gave each member a moment to shine. One noticeable contribution for the bluegrass tracks was the ability of the ukulele and the lap steel as formidable alternatives to the standard mandolin and dobro, and Tolentino and Au Hoy proved again that they were the right choices for their positions as they owned their parts with confidence and joy. The encore for the evening was a track that has become a synonymous moniker for Mr. Rowan over the years: “Panama Red”. The crowd sang along to the familiar tune from the onset, bringing a smile to the band of compadres on the stage. At the point of interlude, Rowan lead the band and crowd into Elizabeth Cotton’s American folk song “Freight Train”, an obvious nod to the venue, before returning to the land of “Panama Red”.As per the usual, Rowan’s associations are always comprised of talent and this day in December was no different. Tolentino’s sweet falsetto voice was an added bonus to his astute ukulele playing, both in lead and rhythm, as he handled many of the traditional Hawaiian numbers with steadfastness and conviction. Au Hoy’s ability to shift between the authentic feel of his native style and flavoring his playing with the bluegrass edge when the number called for it reflected that it is likely that audiences will see more from this man in the future in unexpected circles. As for the sincerity and dexterity of the talented Gerber, Knight, and Sprouse, these three stringed wonders will continue to please audiences with their love for the music and onstage communication with whatever players surround them.On the brink of a new year, Peter Rowan already has more than 2 dozen dates for the first half of 2018, including a spring tour in Australia. This fact reflects that this man is non-stop and shows no signs of slowing. In fact, the only thing that is sure is that he will continue to reinvent the way his audiences look at him by creating something no one saw coming. What it will be will be anyone’s guess, maybe Appalachia-infused rap to bring in the younger crowd or reworkings of jazz standards with a bluegrass vibe. Whatever his fancy, the fact is that as long as this man lives and breathes, the world is a more musical place with him in it and catching him live is always going to hold some surprise that makes coming back for more the obvious choice.