I met John Ray in small group, strength-training classes at my local gym. I was impressed at how diligently he and his wife, Sue, lifted weights, swung heavy kettle balls and finessed the TRX straps.
Our accompanying music was often ‘80s or ‘90s rock ‘n’ roll standards. One morning in class, while suffering through a regimen of squats, planks and push-ups, I heard a tune that sounded just like Willie Nelson, one of my personal favorites. When I pointed out the song to Ray, he corrected me: “That’s my band, the Second Street Band, but thanks for the compliment,” he said, smiling.
In Napa’s ever-growing environment of home-grown music, I was eager to learn more about this newly-formed local band. Recently, I met with Ray at Molinari Caffe to “get the skinny.” The 66-year-old, former health care company executive was leaving the following day for Cambria to ride 1,000 miles on his Velocette British motorcycle with other like-minded bike enthusiasts. It’s a gathering he has participated in annually during the past 35 years.
Playing music has also been a consistent “ride” for Ray, although he never took lessons. “I played trumpet through junior high and in the high school orchestra,” he said, “and after my senior year, I played in a band that practiced in a friend’s basement. One day, he took the trumpet and put a bass guitar in my hands. ‘Louie Louie’ was the first song I played.”
After performing professionally in Seattle for seven years, Ray used his earnings to put himself through graduate school in the University of Washington’s Master of Health Care Administration program. It wasn’t until 10 years ago, when a member of his former group invited him to a band reunion, that Ray found an opportunity, as he describes, “to get my chops back.”
Once he retired, Ray was spending time working on improving his skill on and knowledge of the bass, but he also wanted to play some music, so he put the word out on Craigslist. “After several fits and starts,” he explained, “I got a response from a drummer (Nigel Bates), and it turns out we’ve known each other but never played together.” Bates lives on Second Street, hence the band’s name.
Vocalist and harmonica player Michael Hebner, plus son Patrick on vocals and lead guitar, joined to make the band a foursome.
“We started clicking and pretty quickly, we sounded like music,” Ray said. “Collectively, we decided it would be great if we had a keyboard — that’s when David Kessner on keys completed the Second Street Band.”
The band’s musical bent is “rockin’ blues with some retro soul R&B tunes,” according to Michael Heber. “The music is danceable, exciting but also listenable and respectful to the blues masters.” Favorites include “Riding with the King,” “Got My Mojo Working,” “Rack Um Up” and covers of more modern blues songs.
“What we’ve worked really hard on is having tight, interesting and engaging arrangements where musical things happen,” adds Ray. “It’s part of our professional pride, and we want to play music we’re proud of. This is about having fun and doing what we love to do.”
Look around the Napa Valley and you’ll find every musical genre played at local festivals, restaurants, on grassy fields and indoor stages. Getting booked is now highly competitive and, Ray says, “You’ve got to find a balance between being politely persistent and becoming a pest.
“To get a gig,” he continued, “unless you know somebody, you have to have a website, and to have a website you have to have recordings, audio and video. Patrick put these together for us (www.secondstreetband.net), and we were then able to go out and get gigs.”
He noted, “There’s no money. The money’s not zero, but you have to do this for the love of it. For our collective stages in life, we have the luxury of not trying to put our kids through college. It’s the most fun thing. First is the interaction with the other musicians, particularly if you’re tight, and it clicks — there’s a magic to that. You’re eternally in the present; at any split second you’re in that present, like a river. It’s always the same but it’s always changing. It’s a really transcendent experience.”
And playing the bass versus trumpet? “I actually like it,” Ray conceded, “because you’re connecting the rhythm to the melody and harmony. My primary job is to set the groove. And as Dire Straits sang in ‘Sultans of Swing,’ ‘They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band.’”
Catch the Second Street Band for free at Porchfest, Sunday, July 31, from 2-6 p.m. on the patio behind Silo’s (and wear your dancing shoes).