For his 3,000th show, local promoter Michael Horne debuts the two-day Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival
When Michael Horne first got into music promotion in the 1980s, there was a saying in the business about what to expect any time you introduced a new act or event: the first time, you lose money. The second time, you break even. The third time, you make money.
Times have definitely changed for independent promoters, says Santa Cruz’s Michael Horne.
“Now it’s: the first time, you lose money. The second time, you break even,” says Horne. “The third time, Live Nation steals your show.”
So, yes, as Horne presents the debut Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival this weekend at Roaring Camp in Felton—featuring a lineup that includes Railroad Earth, Zappa Plays Zappa, Rodney Crowell, Ani DiFranco, James McMurtry, Dan Bern and more—the festival game has probably never been so stacked against non-conglomerated music events.
But then again, this is Horne’s 3,000th show, and, after 30 years, the man behind Pulse Productions knows his business is a series of unsure bets—and that money can’t be the only measuring stick.
“I want to make a bumper sticker that says ‘artistically successful, financially disastrous,’” he says with a laugh.
When it comes down to it, the guy just wants to throw one hell of a party.
“People don’t care about the promoter. My job is to set up the ecosystem on stage, and get out of the way,” he says. “There is a community that is occurring for a couple of hours. People sometimes remember that for the rest of their lives. That’s the payoff.”
Mountain Sol marks Horne’s return to the festival scene, which he first jumped into early in his career, after opening Blue Rhythm Records in Capitola, which quickly became a local reggae mecca.
“That was our little niche. Bob had just played the Civic, and the reggae scene was just starting here,” he says, meaning Marley, of course. That led to the Backbeat Reggae Fest, which led to 1985’s Soul to Soul Santa Cruz, a multi-day festival at the Cocoanut Grove which featured James Brown, Al Green and Ray Charles, among others. Maceo Parker had just rejoined Brown’s band, and the connection turned out to be an important one—Parker would eventually play both the opening and closing shows of Horne’s iconic Santa Cruz club Palookaville.
Horne is a musician himself—his band Special Fun is one of several local bands over the years that conquered the Santa Cruz scene, with great expectations of breaking nationally. They opened for the Dead just as the jam-band phenomenon was about to become a thing, and if the band itself hadn’t imploded just a couple of years before Phish exploded in the early ’90s, Horne still kinda thinks it could have been them.
In any case, in 1994 he and his business partner Bruce Howard conceived of a club that would be altogether different from the typical bar-sales-driven venue.
“I thought, ‘I want to build a musicians’ club, from a musician’s perspective. To actually get to build that dream was so exhilarating,” says Horne.
Palookaville hosted some 2,500 shows, some of which are now legendary—like Sublime’s last Santa Cruz show before Bradley Nowell died, which was mostly a solo Nowell show thanks to the fact that the rest of the band called eight minutes before show time to say they were “almost there”—in King City. The show is now a favorite bootleg among fans of the band.
The range of acts that played Palookaville swung from Spearhead to Flaming Lips to Dave Matthews Band to Alkaline Trio. But the demands of filling the club night after night got to be too much.
“The first three years, those were the Ricky Ricardo years. ‘Da club, da club!’ All I wanted to do was go to the club,” says Horne. “We were there for eight years, and we had fun for about six of them. The last two years were really hard on all of us. I’m so glad to have done it, and I’m so glad to have it out of my system.”
He has great memories of bringing everyone from Fela Kuti (who arrived accompanied by half a dozen of his wives) to Johnny Cash (who told him ‘Thanks for the work, son’) to the Civic. But he always had a dream of starting an amphitheatre-type outdoor venue for hosting festivals. When he saw the success that the Redwood Mountain Faire was having with Roaring Camp recently, he was intrigued. And when Steven Wyman, co-owner of Boulder Creek Brewery, approached him about doing a festival there, he decided to go for it.
“I thought ‘let’s just book all my favorite bands.’ It’s a soulful lineup of Santa Cruz tried and true. We’ll see if it works,” says Horne.
Horne says he’s in a good place, and happy to be able to pick and choose the events he brings to Santa Cruz now based solely on their artistic merit. So what’s the difference between the Michael Horne that booked that audacious Soul to Soul Festival three decades ago, and the Michael Horne bringing Mountain Sol to Felton this weekend?
“I’m older, balder and fatter,” he says.
The Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival will be held Saturday, Aug. 9 and Sunday, Aug. 10 at Roaring Camp in Felton. For schedule and ticket info, go to santacruzmountainsol.com.