|7/6/2011 12:22:53 PM
Review by Randi Wilson
On June 26, I was fortunate enough to see two different artists whose recordings were strong, but their performances showed me what real artists they are. I attended the homecoming concert for Olivia Brownlee, daughter of Scott and Pamela Brownlee, owners of the Rockin’ B Ranch, 3912 N. Spokane Bridge Road. She showcased her talents on a wide variety of instruments, including both classical and acoustic guitar, the djembe, harmonic and banjo. Jay Psaros, who played the acoustic guitar, is the other artist who joined Brownlee at the Rockin’ B. Together, the two have made their way across the country as rising independent folk artists who have begun to make a name for themselves – with good reason.
The Rockin’ B was a perfect venue for them. Not only did Brownlee feel right at home, but Psaros did a tour to Spokane last year and has played in the hall before. It also complimented their bluegrass folk music that they strummed out for the 90 minutes they graced the stage. The audience was extremely receptive, and Psaros commented on it being “very quiet,” perfect for his instrumental pieces.
“Other places you have to earn the attention,” Psaros said. Brownlee added, “It’s very humbling,” but it was clear that venues like the Rockin’ B is where they would rather perform.
First, Psaros gave a set on stage by himself, then he traded off with Brownlee and then they came together at the end with a few other musicians. But they both had to face the crowd alone on stage, unaccompanied. When I asked after the performance if this was ever a nerve-wracking experience, Psaros said that “as soon as I start playing” the nerves vanish. For Brownlee, once she can get into the “mood and the stories of the song,” she’s able to let her performance and theatre background carry her into the music.
When Brownlee took the stage for her set, her parents introduced her, and both were glowing with pride. As her dad said, “It’s not every day that you get to introduce your own daughter.” They left her to perform on her own, showing off her range and dynamic lyrics.
The last part was a compilation of Brownlee and Psaros together, but even then they weren’t alone. They invited a few members up to the stage from the Rockin’ B Dinner Show cast to help them with a few numbers. Drummer Gordon Grove added a little more rhythm to “Mountainridge,” even though their sense of time was tight from beginning to end of every piece. On another song, vocalist Sam Mazzola added a third harmony with Brownlee’s mother adding in to sing a ghostly soprano that floated above the trio on stage.
Throughout the show, the humor of both artists shone as brightly as their musical talents. After every song, Psaros would tune his guitar, a tick he attributed to Brownlee, saying that she would berate him if he didn’t.
“As Olivia would say, tuning is like airplane maintenance; it’s always a good idea.”
And Brownlee showed her mastery of humor in her songwriting as well, such as with her brisk piece, “Hey You, We Need a Date, We Need It Now,” in which she poked fun at her own relationship neediness. She even broke down into a fake, tearful, “I’m fine,” before closing the song with the line, “I’m tired; can we do it tomorrow?”
While both are strong performers and humorists in their own right, it was clear that their individual strengths helped to create something different when they came together at the end.
“Jay is more instrumental than vocals; I’m the opposite,” Brownlee said.
Together, they were able to shine in their strengths and create a seamless sound.
For now, however, they will continue to play separately. Psaros acknowledged that to audiences, “more is better than less,” and two well-known singer/songwriters coming together is much more impressive than if a band has to break up in the future with members having to find their own way. So they will continue writing and performing alone as they keep working together to move forward in their music.
For Brownlee, at least, however far she goes in music, she will never be far from her local roots. She has come from a musical and theatrical background, which all stemmed from her parents and the Rockin’ B. She said she’s been “blessed” to have family members that are both “true people and performers.”
“They’ve taught me that it’s OK to perform as long as you know the difference,” she said.
Liberty Lake resident and Washington and Lee University student Randi Wilson is interning with The Splash this summer.
The Rockin’ B Ranch, 3912 Spokane Bridge Road, will close its barn doors for good after its show Oct. 1, 2011.
“We’ve been very blessed,” said Scott Brownlee. He and his wife Pamela started the Cowboy Supper Show when they moved to the Inland Northwest in the early ’90s.
The two met in music school in Los Angeles. They worked in the cartoon industry, doing voiceover work. But they wanted to live in a smaller town to raise their family, daughter Olivia, now 27, and son Penn, 25. Pamela had two brothers living in Hayden, Idaho, so they decided to move north.
But they had two horses that were raised in California, so they needed some land with a barn. They found the ranch just 100 yards from Interstate 90. Scott had been scouting out places without Pamela and it was the first place his Realtor showed him.
“I couldn’t get this place out of my head,” Scott Brownlee said.
The family moved in a month later, but the two horses died. The Brownlees then wondered what they were going to do with the very large barn.
Some musician friends stopped by the place and suggested sunrise worship services or concerts. They invited people over and told them to bring a dozen cookies to share and the musicians played on a hay-bale stage.
“We had a ball,” Scott Brownlee said.
It’s grown from there. Today, visitors are shown to their seats at long tables with benches and are given jars of lemonade to drink. Family musicians entertain the crowd while everyone gets to know their neighbors. At a recent evening performance, an 8-year-old girl sang and played fiddle with her family.
In fact, the Brownlees said the venue has become a place for young musicians interested in folk-based music to perform and practice their craft. Over the years, he said they have had musicians from age 4 through their 70s play at the ranch.
When everyone has arrived, they are herded back outside for a skit and a shootout between local townsfolk of Spokane Bridge and a band of train robbers.
Children, who have a lot of fun at the Rockin’ B and come dressed in cowboy finery, often cover their ears during the shootout and giggle when the bad guys are either caught or reform themselves from their thieving ways.
Dinner is impressive. After the crowd sings the Star-Spangled Banner and takes a moment of silence to say grace, employees wrangle hungry visitors through the line for barbecue chicken, ribs and beef, potatoes, beans, coleslaw, cornbread and applesauce.
“Applesauce is the most important thing on the plate,” Pamela Brownlee said. The dinners are served on tin plates. With all that hot barbecue, the applesauce gives diners a cold place to hold their plates without burning their fingers.
Children get a special choice of hot dogs and chicken legs, which are only for them.
There is also the barbecue sauce, which Pamela created from a family recipe.
Around 300 diners a night load up their plates and sit down to eat in a mind-boggling 20 minutes. They can go back for seconds or thirds, but the Brownlees ask that everyone eats all they take.
The floor show starts after dinner, an event that includes fiddle music, story time for the kids, and music from the band, Riders of the Rockin’ B. Scott plays stand-up bass, sings and arranges the music, Pamela sings and they are joined by guitarist Sam Mazzola, percussionist Gordon Grove and fiddler JayDean Ludiker. Every year there is a new theme for the show – this year’s is “How the West was Swung,” a tribute to cowboy music of the 1930s.
For the next month, the Brownlees will keep up this pace every Friday and Saturday night through Oct. 1. The doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the fun keeps going until about 9.
Traditionally, the Ranch is open from June through the end of September. Along with the weekend supper shows, there is bluegrass night on the third Tuesday of the month from 6 to 9 p.m., and Grassroots and Gospel Hour on Sundays in August, which is recorded for a radio show on KPBX. Local actor Tim Behrens performs Patrick McManus comedies with supper on some Sundays.
It was this schedule that finally convinced the two it was time to “hang up their spurs.” Pamela Brownlee said they passed their 30th wedding anniversary in June.
“We didn’t have time to celebrate,” she said. “It takes all of our time and energy.”
They are thinking of different business ventures for their future. They might bottle their famous barbecue sauce and sell it. They may rent out the ranch or sell it, start a new business or do something with music down the road.
“We don’t know for sure,” Scott Brownlee said.
“We’re sure going to miss you,” one diner told Scott at a recent show.
For the visitors, the Rockin’ B Ranch is fun for both the young and the old.
“Oh, it’s fabulous,” said Susan Mann, a diner who came with a group of friends recently. She said it is a down-to-earth place where you don’t have to have great table manners, just have a good time.
“They are so organized,” she said.
Cheyanne Hauss, 6, was recently at the show with her family from Roy, Wash., including her twin sister Sierra. She said her favorite part of the evening was the shootout.
The Brownlees said they would like to find former musicians to come back to the ranch one final time to perform on that last day, but other than that, they don’t have too much planned before they close the doors.
“I’m planning not to cry through the whole thing,” Pamela Brownlee said.