Bluegrass in Berkeley: The family that picks together sticks together

OMGG
Obviously Minor Guys and a Girl (OMGG) play the Freight on Monday June 22 with special guest Bill Evans on banjo. Photo: OMGG

It might seem strange to refer to Monday’s OMGG performance at Freight & Salvage as a reunion concert, given the quartet’s average age hovers around 18, but these bluegrass musicians have already logged a lot of miles since they last performed together four years ago. The moniker stands for Obviously Minor Guys and a Girl, and the quartet brings together young players who have established themselves as fully equal to the task of performing with veteran masters.

Featuring Berkeley High junior Max Schwartz on bass and five-string banjo and his older brother Nate Schwartz, an impressive mandolin player who’s studying jazz guitar and composition at UCLA, Boulder Creek’s Marty Varner, now studying guitar at Clark University in Massachusetts, and the stellar vocalist and fiddler AJ Lee, a 16-year-old from Tracey who has been touring and recording with the Tuttles, the musicians essentially “grew up together in the California bluegrass community,” says Max.

The brother and Varner originally came together as a trio, Obviously Minors Guys, at the Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival. They made such a strong impression that Sharon Elliot, who helps run the Kids on Bluegrass program, offered the trio a gig backing Lee at the Foggy Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Windsor. Like so many before them, the guys were blown away by the tween, and quickly appended “A Girl” onto their name. The quartet performed with seasoned players at International Bluegrass Music Association’s FanFest in 2009 and 2010, and they released an eponymous album in 2011.

But that summer, they split up, “just to pursue different avenues,” Max says. “AJ started performing with the Tuttles. Nate and I got very busy with jazz. But I had been missing bluegrass and they’re our best friends. This year I asked if they wanted to get together for some playing, and maybe some gigs. Everyone wanted to play.”


The Schwartz brothers first started performing together in the Oak Grove Family Bluegrass Band with their father Bob Schwartz on rhythm guitar and vocals, step-mom Gail Miles on bass, and younger sister Tessa Schwartz on fiddle (she opens Monday’s show with her bluegrass quartet 35 Years of Trouble, 35 being the band’s cumulative age). Like many in the East Bay acoustic music scene, the Schwartzs don’t hail from Appalachian stock. Bob decided to take guitar lessons when Nate started studying trumpet in fourth grade. Knowing that music thrives in community, his guitar teacher John Blasquez encouraged Bob to sit in at a local bluegrass jam session, if not on guitar just to sing a tune or two.

“One night he come home wild eyed and sweaty saying he just sang at a jam session,” Nate recalls. “That summer he brought us to this big bluegrass festival in Grass valley. That was 10 years ago, and we’ve been going ever since. The sense of community is what grew us in. You walk around and there are people from all different walks of life, and if you hear a jam session that sounds good you can just sit down and join in. It’s infectious.”

The family was serious enough about music that they moved from Walnut Creek to Berkeley about two years ago when Max got word that the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble bassist was graduating and no one was lined up to take the chair. He auditioned and was one of three freshmen to make it into the vaunted band. He had already been studying at the Jazzschool for several years with trumpeter Erik Jekabson (a Berkeley High alum).

Max has taken full advantage of the vast educational resources available to motivated young musicians. Shortly after Monday’s show he’ll be performing around Europe with the Jazzschool Studio Band, which is directed by trombonist/arranger Dave Eshelman. He’ll be playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September with the Berkeley High Jazz Combo A, the result of winning top honors at the Next Generation Jazz Festival in April.

He’s just finished his first year with the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, and he’s won numerous honors and awards along the way, including a coveted spot on the Grammy Jazz Combo that performed at events in the run up to the 2015 Grammy Awards. And in yet another sign that good bass players never need worry about a lack of gigs, Dave Grisman Bluegrass Experience fiddler Chad Manning, a Schwartz family friend, mentioned Max’s name to Laurie Lewis when the bluegrass legend was in need of a bassist.


“We hired him to play this gig and he was phenomenally good,” she says. “He has such a good attitude on stage, really paying attention and responding really well. We’ve done a couple of other gigs, and he gets nothing but better all the time. He will be inundated with work. And AJ is a wonderful singer. I just saw her with the Tuttles, and she’s got such a beautiful voice.”

Recommended gig: Wild-man guitarist Simon Hanes

Simon Hanes. Photo: courtesy Simon Hanes
Simon Hanes. Photo: courtesy Simon Hanes

Berkeley-raised Simon Hanes is a wild-man guitarist and bassist who has thrived on Boston’s underground music scene over the past five years. The son of supremely resourceful drummer John Hanes, who performs with John Scott’s Actual Trio, Myles Boisen’s Past Present Future, and Orchestra Nostalgico (playing tonight and Saturday at Duende), the 23-year-old composer and arranger presents a West Coast version of his Ennio Morricone-inspired project Tredici Bacci at the Berkeley Arts Festival space 8 p.m. Wednesday. Playing Hanes tunes drawn from a possibly apocryphal Italian sex comedy, the 13-piece band features a cross section of vividly inventive musicians.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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