Summer in Santa Cruz has its distinctive touchstones: RVs lumbering along on West Cliff Drive, kids swarming the beach in red junior guard bathing suits, and the music of Extra Large emanating from a beach somewhere along the county’s coastline.
But after more than two decades together, Extra Large has announced that its tenure as one of Santa Cruz’s most popular live music acts is over. After the band’s last gig this summer—Sept. 28 at the Capitola Beach Festival—Extra Large will be no more, at least in Santa Cruz.
“After 20-some-odd years, we have made the decision that we’re going to stop performing here, and quit while we’re ahead,” says the band’s lead singer and songwriter Russ Leal. “We made the decision that we wanted to stop performing here on our own terms, and not be at a show where people might go, ‘Y’know, you guys are done. We’re over you.’ We wanted to go out extra large.”
The band also features Leal’s wife Valerie on vocals, as well as Gary Andrijasevich on drums, Chris Sandman on bass, Dave Byron on lead guitar, and Dan Becker on keyboards and accordion. The Leals have a second home in the Los Cabos area of Mexico, and they say the band will continue to play gigs there. But for locals, the Extra Large Era is over.
Extra Large first emerged in the late ’90s, as a unique player on the local music scene. They weren’t easily categorizable in a genre, and they preferred to play original music rather than covers. “We could have gotten more corporate gigs if we were some kind of cover band or tribute band,” says Valerie Leal, “but we just didn’t do it.”
The band tends to talk about their music in terms of mood more than genre. The sound is a groove-oriented mélange of reggae, soul, R&B, hip-hop, and funk, but the common thread is an upbeat and sunny message of enjoyment and relaxation, a sense of in-the-moment jubilation that fits well with summer on the beach. The band has also released a number of recordings of its original music, most recently 2017’s Just Smile. They’ve been voted Best Local Band by GT readers nine times.
The Crow’s Nest has been one of Extra Large’s spiritual homes for many years, and on Aug. 29, the band will play their final show on the beach there. Valerie Leal says that with each passing show this summer, the decision has become more real for her and her bandmates. “During performances, we’ll make eye contact with other members of the band, and it’s this kind of surge of emotion,” she says. “It’s becoming a reality in a way that it wasn’t when we first made the decision.”
Russ Leal began his music career as the son of a well-known jazz saxophonist in Santa Cruz named Frank Leal. Russ was performing with his dad in the 1990s when Scotts Valley restaurateur Patti Malone approached him and asked him if he had his own band. “I lied,” he says. “I told her, yes. Then I got a band together.”
Since then, the band has played throughout Northern California. In Santa Cruz County, they quickly developed a reputation for original feel-good vibes. But in out-of-town markets, they continuously had to sell themselves to audiences. “People identify with our music,” says Valerie Leal. “Russ writes the most positive, happy songs and, especially in this current (political) climate, people are appreciating that a lot. We make them smile.”
As for the rapidly approaching end of Extra Large, Russ Leal has found a kind of exhilaration with each passing show. “To be honest, since we’ve made the decision, I’ve had more fun than I’ve ever had,” he says. “For example, when we played [Capitola’s Wednesday Night Summer Twilight Concert], there were thousands of people there and I thought, ‘This is the last time I’m going to be here doing this, I’m going to give them everything I got.’”
Extra Large performs 5:30 p.m. to sunset on Thursday, Aug. 29, at the Crow’s Nest, 2218 East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. Free. crowsnest-santacruz.com.