With dozens of volunteers and supportive local businesses, hundreds of cash-contributing members, and thousands of music lovers attending the shows since 1982, Pistol River has become one of the most interesting concert venues on the West Coast, says Mark Lanier.
An intimate venue that hosts top-notch musicians, paired with a family-friendly atmosphere, makes the experience more than just special, judging by the concert attended by The Pilot last month when blues musicians David Jacobs-Strain and Bob Beach performed for a packed house.
Earlier this year, shockwaves rocked the Pistol River Concert Association when founders and longtime promoters, Les and Mary Stansell, announced their decision to retire from producing shows.
That prompted a serious, soul-searching question for the board of directors. After 37 years and almost 400 performances at the Pistol River Friendship Hall, was it time to put the successful endeavor and its music to rest?
“Yes, it was apt to end things with the departure of those that began it,” was a view expressed by some of the board. Other trustees thought it worth continuing, and possibly even expanding beyond the concert series’ original mission and scope of bringing quality, live, acoustic music to their community.
Current organization president Dave Manzella summed up the majority opinion: “We have organically fallen into a formula that works in bringing wonderful musicians to the area for our community to be enriched by,” he said. “It’s too good a thing to stop!”
The board has since reorganized, with renewed enthusiasm and an eye to plugging the holes left by the Stansells’ departure.
What has emerged is a board that combines the institutional knowledge of some longtime members with a fresh enthusiasm and views of some new, younger trustees.
Longtime board members Manzella and Linda Elfman, the secretary/treasurer, have been with the organization from day one, and lend their experience to booking and promoting the bands. Other long-term board members are Philip Smith, who designs and prints posters and tickets for the shows, and Hap Freiberg, who serves as the Brookings connection and heads up the post-show clean-up crew.
Laura Middleton, the Stansells’ daughter, literally grew up with the shows. She works with booking the bands, keeping her family tied to the concert series.
The board is rounded out by newer board members such as Corey Simonson and Lanier.
Simonson, a Gold Beach Junior High School science teacher, has overseen the purchase, installation and overall upgrade of the sound system. He and Dylan Vila share sound production and mixing duties for the shows.
Lanier tries to get the word out about the Pistol River group and its upcoming shows through newsletters and press releases to various media outlets in the area.
Visiting musicians are treated like family, which is one of the unusual aspects of the Pistol River shows that has bands asking to be booked. Meals, beds and privacy in actual homes are part of the deal, a welcome change from hotels and restaurants that are the norm on tour.
The bulk of that hospitality in recent years was supplied by the Stansell family. Another board member, Eric Nyman, and his wife, Adele, have taken over meal duties, hosting pre-show dinners for the bands this summer and fall. Scott Thiemann works to find folks in the community willing to open their homes to weary musicians after their shows.
The two other critical ingredients that are part of the mix for the winning formula are Pistol River’s location on the map and the venue for the shows there.
The south coast is known for being hard to get to from anywhere. Les Stansell once described Pistol River as “conveniently isolated along the West Coast.” But if you’re a band touring the area, the spot has some advantages. Roughly halfway between San Francisco and Seattle, Pistol River offers a good place to fill in a show while traveling between those two big cities.
The Pistol River Friendship Hall may seem an unassuming and unimpressive place. But what the smallish, older building lacks in outer appeal is made up for with the intimacy it offers for live music. The front-row seats are less than 10 feet from performers and with seating limited to 125, there are no bad seats in the house.
Add to that audiences that are appreciative and quiet – except for any band-encouraged clapping, dancing or singalongs.
With all of that, the Friendship Hall becomes a quaint and cozy venue where musicians love to perform.
With the small stage and close audience, the genre of choice over the years has been acoustic folk. But plenty of bluegrass, blues, country, and swing bands have had their music echoing through the hall.
Past-president Glenn Elfman helped broaden the musical spectrum during his tenure, recruiting New World sounds found in international acts from Ireland, China, Peru and Africa.
The quality of the music and professionalism of the musicians that grace the Friendship Hall stage never ceases to amaze. Many of the players who have performed in Pistol River have gone on to make big waves in the musical world, several becoming Grammy winners.
Past acts include Dar Williams, Greg Brown, Tony Rice and Peter Rowan, Mike Seeger, Chris Smither, Robin and Linda Williams, and Garnett Rogers, to name but a few.
“Thirty-seven years is a long time to keep anything going, especially an organization reliant on volunteers and contributions,” Lanier said. “But as long as the mission keeps being about the music, there’s no reason to think (we) won’t be around for 37 more.”
The next artists, appearing at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Pistol River Friendship Hall, will be Ryan McKasson, Eric McDonald and Jeremiah McLane, who combine vocals with fiddle and accordion to “purposefully explore the dark corners floating on the edges” of traditional mastery, according to the group’s publicity materials.
Tickets are $20 and available online, or at Gold Beach Books and Wright’s Custom Framing in Brookings. The Friendship Hall is at 24252 Carpenterville Rd., south of Pistol River.
Visit pistolriver.com or call 541-247-2848 for more information.