The return of Concerts In the Park is the return of a force helping the city find itself
By Scott Thomas Anderson
Members of Moxy were determined to take the stage.
Below them, most concert-goers gathering in the late summer light didn’t know how much fearlessness was driving their commitment.
Moxy’s lead singer, Amber DeLaRosa, had suffered two terrifying grand mal seizures in the days leading up to the show. They happened right as she’d turned 28 and marked the latest setback in an already-challenging journey for her and her bandmates. DeLaRosa had developed epilepsy only three years before, at roughly the same moment she, Santino Franzino and Dryw Owens together formed Moxy. The trio were all well-known and accomplished Sacramento musicians in their own right. Now, they were writing an album that showcased a joint vision of bringing vintage synthesizers and classic instruments into a searing, soaring alt-pop sound. It was a musical mission they were eager to share.
As DeLaRosa navigated pursuing that goal while living with epilepsy, the global pandemic set in, bringing new health concerns – and canceling an entire national tour Moxy had scheduled for its debut.
The band kept working on its songs. It believed in what it had recorded.
“It was a matter going through the writing process while adjusting to this new normal that’s not normal at all,” DeLaRosa remembered. “Every instrument on the album is real and authentic. It was a lot of hard work – a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
Flash forward to Friday, June 3 and Moxy’s appearance at Concerts In the Park was set to be its first live show ever. The band was bursting with excitement, particularly looking forward to sharing the night with Sacramento vocal virtuoso, Bob Moses.
But as the date for Caesar Chavez approached, DeLaRosa began to get hit with an ongoing cluster of partial seizures. The stress of these alone can overwhelm her, since she always has to worry they might escalate into a grand mal, which can trigger violent, prolonged spasms that paralyze her – or even make her lose consciousness.
Moxy kept prepping. They secured a top musical back-up for the show, with Elijah Stavely agreeing to play drums, as well as all-star singer Tim Brown handling duties on the keys. That was all encouraging.
Then, the first massive seizure broke through DeLaRosa’s medication. She describes it as hearing peoples’ voices around her suddenly fade, even as they’re telling her to breathe, and then having those sounds and faces just slip away into blackness.
When DeLaRosa awoke from the first grand mal, she was disoriented and felt like she’d been hit by a bus. After going through a second attack, her ankle was sprained, and her tongue was severely injured.
She told her bandmates she still wanted to do Concerts In the Park.
“When we got offered this opportunity, we definitely didn’t want to pass it up,” DeLaRoas explained. “I did truly feel like I was holding on to Concerts In the Park as a beacon of hope for so long, that it had become an important part of my recovery to stick with the plan to do that.”
She added, “My tongue was completely lacerated: I was essentially just gargling medicated mouthwash and trying to practice my parts.”
Some of DeLaRosa’s bandmates were also dealing with stressful life events. They managed to soldier on with her. When the fateful Friday arrived, the band was told Bob Moses pulled out as the headliner because he’d contracted COVID. It was a gut-punch to every musician involved in Moxy’s line-up. But they also knew, especially now, that the show must go on. Without Moxy, there’d basically be no show.
Moxy came up with a plan in case DeLaRosa was struck by seizure during the performance. She had a small team waiting at the side of the stage, carefully watching her. She thought that if things went really wrong, they could discretely help her away while Franzino and Owens carried on performing the album instrumentally. Moxy also had the stage technicians change the bright strobes and lancing lights into a tame, calming evening hue. Fast, flashing optics can bring on seizures: There was already enough left to chance.
Then, it was time.
For Sacramento music fans, the flooring grit that Moxy was about to flex – the band living up to its name on a level that no one should be expected to – wasn’t just a testament to their character and emotional toughness, it was also a sign of how much Concerts In the Park has come to mean to the city.
Put on by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, the series is the area’s longest-running outdoor music festival. This summer heralds its 31st year in existence, though its stage lights went dark for two notable summers during COVID.
Now, people across the region are celebrating its return, both its uplifting echoing sounds and the buoyant communal spirit that pulsates through the heart of Sacramento. While it was Moxy’s first-ever live performance, and its members fought through technical issues, DeLaRosa felt nothing but an overwhelming aura of appreciation from the large crowd.
“The audience was so loving and supportive,” she stressed. “Everybody was just with us for every moment – super present, super engaged. Even people who had never heard of us came over near the stage and bought our merch, and talked with us for a while about how much they loved our set. Concerts In the Park is such a rare event. There’s just an energy about it.”
Two weeks before, Sacramento’s all-star, rock-reggae band Arden Park Roots had a similar experience. As a group with a West Coast following – who’s toured nationally for a decade – this ensemble of performers amount to some of the true veterans of the concert series. Their May 20 show at Caesar Chavez was their ninth time wowing a hot-weather crowd there. Leader singer Tyler Campbell says that, despite all the gigs he’s done across the country, there really isn’t a stage that compares to Concerts in the Park.
“It’s always been our favorite show of the year, regardless of the year,” Campbell reflected.
“Even though, these days, we can always pull a good crowd at venues like Ace of Spades or Goldfield’s Roseville, whenever we’re playing Concerts In the Park, we’re looking out at like 8,000 people – it’s insane. And it’s a moment when you’re performing as the sun is going down through all of the buildings, and it’s just really special.”
Arden Park Roots credits the record-breaking crowds they’ve kept getting at CIP, year after year before the pandemic, to the Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s hard work and marketing expertise. Campbell thinks the DSP had turned promoting the series into a science by the time COVID arrived.
“It’s the vibe that they’ve created,” he observed. “It’s just really tough to describe.”
Arden Park Roots is still doing gigs around Sacramento (they’re playing this Saturday, June 16, at Crawdad’s on the River from 10 p.m. to midnight), but as one of the early May acts for CIP’s long-awaited return, they weren’t sure what the post-lockdown expectations should be. Kicking their set off with “I Could Never Be Wrong” from the album Burning the Midnight Oil, they saw a massive audience was again flocking into the bright summer glare.
Same as it ever was.
“It picked right up like it was in the past,” Campbell noted. “It hadn’t lost a thing – it was like it never took a break.”
Giddy ghosts in the twilight
Shawn Peter knows all about the shadows of Sacramento’s past.
Peter has been as a historian and guide through the city’s faded structures of yesteryear for two decades. The band he formed in 2012, The Ghost Town Rebellion, marks an intriguing musical trip through those murky backstories – one that touches on the rough and wild frontier days when cholera, typhus, small pox and scarlet fever took thousands of Sacramantans to their graves between East Lawn and Broadway. During the onset of COVID, Peter found himself researching how the Great Influenza hit California’s capital after World War I, filling its infirmaries and forcing the creation of modern hospitals. And people wore masks then, too. In early 2020, the musician was seeing parallels with the present.
Yet, on June 17, as Peter – dressed in a dapper black suit and strapped with his obsidian 1974 Les Paul custom axe – started to look out on the broad crowd mustering in Caesar Chavez, he wasn’t peering at a city in the throes of another pandemic, but rather a sea of people determined to break one’s grip through the vitality of music.
“Concerts in the Park has become such a huge event,” Peter observed, “and, musically, I think the audience knows it’s going to be the best of the best for Sacramento.”
The Ghost Town Rebellion’s landing at that status didn’t happen overnight. Peter’s inspiration for starting the group went back to his days working at the original Capital Garage in the 90s. Back then, he was roommates with members of Forever Goldrush. As a diehard history fan, Peter thought the way those guys were penning songs rooted in mining legacy of the Sierra foothills where they’d grown up offered real potential. He later teamed up with guitarist Mike Shively to start writing songs about the crazy, breakneck days of Sacramento’s early founding. They’ve since recorded three full-length albums.
Shively says the scope of their historic lens has widened over time.
“We’ve never been running out of space to make new songs,” he noted. “And, as we progressed and grown, we’ve also started writing about things further away: Writing about the West Coast and then the entire U.S. So, after almost ten years of being together, we’ve gone from singing about very local things, to larger events that kind of encapsulate the entire U.S., and ones that made a big difference in everyone’s lives”
He added, “Some of the ways we got here are pretty dark.”
Themes of songs are one thing, the atmosphere of an event in another – and there was nothing dark about the show that people were enjoying after The Ghost Town Rebellion took the stage.
The band opened with the whirling, whip-cracking fury of “Poverty Ridge,” Shively driving its gallop with a distorted slide guitar. Park attendees were instantly hooked. Ghost Town’s second number was a punk-punching rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” It came and went through the evening air like an inferno. Before long, Ghost Town was showing the crowd its new dreamy, rocking dive into dystopia, “I Wanna Know,” the video of which – filmed by Shively and edited by Sac reissuance man Jayson Angove – had just made its world debut the previous midnight.
Throughout the band’s set, a charge of laidback positivity kept flowing through the crowd as inflatable beachballs bounced over peoples’ heads. Vocalist and keyboard player Ruby Fuse was playing only her third show with Ghost Town, and was amazed by how encouraging the large crowd was. She also felt true gratitude for Peter, Shively, bassist Tyler Francis, drummer Jamey Shidler and trumpeter Jonny Hi-Hat all building her confidence for such an important night.
“I feel like, in my own personal development, this is something I knew was coming on the horizon; but I think the reason why I feel so safe and confident is because my bandmates see something in me – an artistry me – so I’m being nurtured,” Fuse said. “It is going from zero-to-60; but it’s an opportunity to learn.”
Before the show was over, Ghost Town bathed the crowd in some chunky spiritual fire with its rendition of “War Pigs.” By now, most in the crowd were moving their feet and hips, while the Downtown character known as Dancing Kenny was bringing head-scratchingly high karate kicks into his jitterbug gyrations – his face overtaken by especially wrenching signs of his signature rapture.
It was a night that was pure Sacramento.
“This is like a dream come true for musicians,” Shively reflected. “To play at Concerts in the Park, it’s not just a cool venue, it’s a giant award for the band, because it means Sacramento is accepting you as a top-notch musical entertainer. It’s a really nice pat on the back to say, ‘You’re really doing something right here.’”
Scott Thomas Anderson is also the host of the ‘Drinkers with Writing Problems’ podcast.