San Francisco, California Clair Bright photo 1995

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San Francisco, California Clair Bright photo 1995

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San Francisco, California David Perry photo 1999

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San Francisco, California Clair Bright photo 1995

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the sunshine boys

san francisco ca 1994-1999

As 1993 faded, the quartet's restless nature again surfaced. Late in the year, bassist Green announced he wanted to pull out as a regular player — he had more lucrative gigs developing — but would continue as a hired hand. Coincidentally, and to explain Green's departure, as well as yet another identity shift for the band, as San Francisco's first tech bubble rapdily filled with superheated air, a revivalist swing scene exploded in the city's music venues. Any night of the week presented a boon for the working musician, but only if said musician had the style and chops to swing it right for a fresh set of nattily attired neo-Lindy Hoppers. The City was drunk with money, and the new swing scene offered the perfect, dressed up opportunity to spend it.

 

The lure of reasonably paying gigs was a strong one and the band eventually found themselves entering the fray from the side door.

 

Taking a pendulum path away from MaLT's confrontational, surrealist rock back toward the rustic stylings they employed in earlier incarnations, Bright, Schulz, Fisher, Green and a handful of capable string bass substitutes, took most of 1994 to retool their sound. Ever the multi-instrumentalist, Schulz quickly picked up the lap steel guitar, Green concentrated mainly on string bass and Bright went back to acoustic guitar. As the year progressed, a twangy blue, countrypolitan/cocktail country vibe began to emerge from Green and Schulz's Minna Street flat, where the band also rehearsed.​ So dramatic was the change from MaLT's sonic barrage to a swanky downbeat approach that upstairs neighbor and longtime friend, artist Scott Alexander, suggested jokingly that the band rename themselves The Sunshine Boys. And so they did. In October of 1994, Jeff Bright & the Sunshine Boys introduced themselves to San Francisco in a show at Spike's Cafe, which had become performing homebase for the band. 

 

The new-look band's first promotional bio led with a quote from Bright: "Most anyone born in America after 1962 has an inherent sense of irony and an appreciation for the darkly comic. Maybe it's an evolution necessary for survival." And on it continued...

 

Given this perspective, you might begin to understand why Bright would call the latest incarnation of his musical combo The Sunshine Boys, a name that brings to mind an old-time bluegrass band or group of cowboys yodeling on the Wyoming range some 50 years ago. But, you see, tongue meets cheek in any association of this band with anything resembling cheery golden rays of sunshine. For a recent show, the Ace Cafe in San Francisco billed the band as "western noir," a lable the 'Boys say might fit as well as any they've heard yet. The songs are typically moody, mid-temp numbers chock-full of earthy nuance. Bright's lyrics are a recital of the basic C&W tenets of love, loss and yearning, while the band backs him up with a liberal dose of vibrato, slide and shuffle. The effect is a smooth vintage sound that often renders the haunting feel of the open road, or as one reviewer put it: "...the catchy simplicity of traditional country and western with the cool, casual aura of a cocktail revival meeting."

 

In 1995, the band landed a cut on Pushing the Norton, a Heyday Records compilation CD representative of the scene at Ace Cafe, a hotbed for performers in the neo-swing movement at the time, and released a single on 7" vinyl with Waggletone Records, an independent label in North Carolina. On the single, "I'm Still Missing You" occupied the A-side and "Let's Get Drunk and Talk about Marriage" — called by one follower "the saddest song ever written" — occupied the B-side, in addition to being the band's contribution to the Heyday release. 

 

Bright and the 'Boys gigged steadily through 1995, with and without bassist Green, who by end of the year had developed medical issues and left the band for good. After a series of fill-in players, Green was replaced permanently in 1996 by David Antony, an active musician at the time in the retro/rockabilly/swing scene, having made an impression with a short lived outfit called The Stardusters.

 

Not long after Antony's induction, the band added Kevin Ink to play guitar opposite Shulz, who by this time had begun playing pedal steel and performing under the psuedonym Spanky Cobb. A recording engineer, studio owner, guitar maker and top-notch player, Ink brought a unique energy to The Sunshine Boys and the sound again shifted. Now, with Shulz/Cobb peeling off traditional honky tonk figures on the pedal steel and Ink countering with a unique brand of old school Kansas City rock-and-roll on his custom made, double neck "Widowmaker" — half classic Fender Telecaster, half six-string baritone — and all players dressed to the nines, the band was churning out a compelling blend of stylized rockabilly and western swing a la late 50's/early 60's era Ray Price, George Jones and Buck Owens — all with a sly, post-modern twist. And the dance floors filled with couples young and old, tattooed, pompadoured, pierced, and otherwise.

 

In 1997, encouraged by attendance and response at live performances, the band set up in Ink's The Studio That Time Forgot and, over the course of a few sessions, tracked 20 songs — 17 originals and covers of three C&W classics. Of the recordings, three were chosen and released by Bay Area independent label Star Tone Records (home to rockabilly act The Stillmen) on nicely packaged 7" vinyl. The single featured "There's a Nail in My Heart" and was backed with "Daylight Falls" and "Trouble, Trouble, Trouble" on the B-side.

 

Before anything fruitful would come of the remaining recordings, however, the revolving personnel door began spinning again. Late in the year, also dealing with medical issues, and in need of a clean break, Schulz/Cobb left the band and moved to Tennessee. Ink's participation would also begin to decrease as other performing commitments and opportunities arose. The core of the band was reduced to Fisher, Antony and Bright, the songwriting and rhythm components of the enterprise. 

 

Eventually, two new players were phased in: guitar slinger Max Butler and pedal steel whiz David Phillips. Both were pedigreed, highly skilled, working musicians and each immediately made a marked impact on the Sunshine sound. Notably, the band's level of technical musicianship jumped several notches, evidenced by more sophisticated arrangements.

 

By this time, with 1998 well under way, Jeff Bright & the Sunshine Boys had fully embraced their role as honky tonk and western swing revivalists — and, in turn, were heartily embraced by a growing family of followers as they plied the California retro swing circuit from the north state to San Diego. Their updated promotional one-pager read as follows:

 

Jeff Bright & the Sunshine Boys put a tear in your beer and a swing your step. "Our notion is to take the classic western sound and give it a little more go-juice," says front man Jeff Bright. And they do. With an aching tenor that could melt any cold, cold heart, Bright delivers tales of kissin', wishin', and the social ramble while the Sunshine Boys back him with a charge of reverb and twang. The effect is a cool, vintage sound equally at home on the sawdust or polished pine. Their songs range from swinging honky-tonk shuffles to rollicking roadhouse numbers with a few ballads and waltzes added for sweetening. Jeff and the 'Boys perform mostly original material, but do cover a number of tunes from honky-tonk's golden era. Bright's own songwriting reflects the time-honored western tradition but with a wry modern edge.

 

San Francisco independent label Red Rogue Records took note of the band's success and soon agreed to release a full length CD LP. For the new record, to represent the then-current lineup of Sunshine Boys, the basic tracks from the '97 sessions with Ink were retained and new lead tracks were added featuring Butler and Phillips. The set was mixed and deftly sculpted into a sound reminiscent of an early 1960's Nashville Columbia recording by Mike "Palm Tree" Johnson at The Apartment in San Francisco. In 1999, She's a Nail in My Heart, 15 songs plus a Ray Price-tribute intro track, was released. 

 

This could have been the launching point for a success story, but it was not to be. The death of Bright's father in August of 1999 appeared to take the wind from his sails. After 15 years of steady songwriting, preforming and promoting — with decidedly mixed results — and one cross-country move, in fall of 1999 Bright informed the band he would be taking a sabbatical. Citing the pull of other interests and other creative endeavors, he has yet to return to music. What remains is this archive.