Ask 100 people what belongs on the ultimate Santa Cruz soundtrack and you’ll get 100 different answers. But if there exists a consensus on such a loaded question, it’s that the Grateful Dead has to be included somewhere.
That’s why, when a group of Santa Cruz County musicians came together in April to produce a video that served as a kind of calling card for the local music community circa 2020, it made too much sense that the song they perform be the Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter classic “Ripple.”
The video, credited to the KPIG Fine Swine Orchestra, has racked up 10,000 views since its debut on YouTube on May 25. It features three elements almost universally popular in the 831 area code: 1) the front-line “essential” workers in health care, food service and other industries that make everyday life in the county possible; 2) drone shots of the breathtaking Santa Cruz coastline, and 3) the top-line talent of the local music community from several generations.
The idea started with Laurie Roberts of KPIG, says the project’s co-producer Michael Gaither. One day, shortly after the state’s original shelter-in-place order, Roberts suggested to Gaither that he and his musician friends should do a “Playing for Change” style video. Playing for Change is a movement in which musicians collaborate from long distances, often from spots all over the world, usually as a way to inspire hope, to raise awareness of causes, or to express a universal sense of joy. It was Roberts also who suggested covering the Dead’s “Ripple.”
“It was a big ask,” says Gaither, himself a respected singer/songwriter and also a programmer at KPIG. “But I made a few phone calls, picked a few people, which meant I got to hang out with the cool kids again, which is always fun.”
Among the luminaries along for the ride in the video are Keith Greeninger, Tammi Brown, Jamie and Kellen Coffis, Dayan Kai, Steve Ucello, Sherry Austin, Sharon Allen, Jimmy Norris, Shelley Phillips, Anthony Arya, Henry Chadwick and Patti Maxine.
It was Greeninger who grabbed the reins and produced the recording of “Ripple,” soliciting contributions from musicians who were all sheltering at their respective homes.
“Keith sent me a track,” says Gaither, “and I added banjo and vocals and he said, ‘Sing it all the way through and then I’ll cut it together like we’re all singing together.’ That was the effect he wanted.”
Despite different recordings of varying quality, Greeninger fused it together in one seamless whole. “And it became this beautiful track that sounded like we were all in the studio singing together. It was a really nice piece.”
Yet, the project was only halfway there at that point. It was then that Gaither became a kind of project manager, enlisting the help of producer and sound engineer Andy Zenczak of Gadgetbox Studios.
“This is when it really evolved into something special,” says Gaither, who had to collect video clips of each singer as they performed. Gaither then decided to make a video a kind of tribute to the community’s essential workers, which featured everyone from food bank volunteers to his own mail carrier.
“The thing I really wanted, the thing we just had to have, was medical personnel. So, I made a few more phone calls to Watsonville Hospital and said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to come down there, but could you get somebody already there to shoot someone working?’ And that’s how we got this adorable footage of nurses in masks dancing to the song.”
Zenczak brought in drone footage of the Santa Cruz Wharf at sunset, the yacht harbor, the North Coast and other local landmarks. “Andy took it and ran with it,” says Gaither, “wrapping all this rippling water themed footage around performers and front-line workers.”
The result is a particular artifact of the Covid-19 era, a collection of artists reaching out to each other through music. Gaither says it’s possible that this project was made easier, not more difficult, by the restrictions of quarantine. “We had all this time on our hands,” he says. “It just would have been a lot different if we were all in the same studio. Scheduling this way was easier.” But, also, seeing each musician in their own home studios or gardens gives the project a dimension of personality it would not otherwise have. “Every shot is personal to the artist doing it,” Gaither says.
Since it’s been online, the “Ripple” project has garnered thousands of views and a few dozen comments, many of them from former Santa Cruzans longing for home.
“Everyone is thrilled,” Gaither says. “I’ve heard from maybe half a dozen people who’ve said (some variation of) ‘It made me cry.’”