Twenty-Five Years of Soho

by Richie DeMaria for the Santa Barbara Independent

This year marks the 25-year anniversary of SOhO Restaurant and Music Club in Victoria Court, and it’s a significant milestone for the show space. Maintaining a business can be a struggle for many on and off State Street, but the beat has been going strong for the venerable venue ever since 1994, when Gail and Bob Hansen opened SOhO.

The couple had been living locally with Bob working in Orange County when the space hit the market. Bob was transitioning away from a restaurant chain job, and the two saw the potential for a new life in the space that previously housed Bluebird Café. “We said, ‘Whoa, music!’ The music idea really sparked my curiosity. I’ve been a music lover my whole life, and my whole family’s really into music,” said Gail. The two had initially thought of doing only a restaurant. “We had no idea of doing a music venue at all. We had no idea what we were in for.”

A quarter of a century later, the brick-and-curtained club has a shining reputation. “SOhO is the heart of the live music community in Santa Barbara,” said We the Beat founder Kirk Reed, who books many live shows there. The venue “has stood as the place to go see good music with a great atmosphere,” said Eric Iverson of longtime SOhO performer Soul Majestic. “They consistently bring in some of the best touring acts in the world, as well as support the local music scene.”

“We do all kinds of music, pretty much every kind of music you could imagine,” Gail said. “When you do all different kinds of music, I think your chances are better at staying open because you draw different crowds each night.”

Photo: Paul Wellman Chris Robinson

In time, SOhO has become a central gathering place for not just music but Santa Barbara life in general, said King Bee’s Rachel Sarah Thurston. “SOhO isn’t just a restaurant, bar, and music venue; it’s a social hub, which gives all of us the opportunity to celebrate being alive through our music, friendships, and community. It’s been such a joy playing there over the years,” said the singer of the retro rock band that has been playing SOhO for almost 18 years. “It’s become a place for our community to gather and celebrate milestones in life, to grieve the loss of loved ones, to raise each other up during times of hardship in the past several years — mudslide, fires, shootings, etc. — and to help raise support and funds for local organizations doing amazing work in S.B.”

Particularly during weeknights, the club hosts acts from area schools, often the first real stage for young talents getting their start. “In between the touring bands, SOhO is a community event space,” said Smart Alec Presents founder Alec Beloin. “There are children’s performance recitals, lectures, plays, award ceremonies, jazz jams, spoken word events, dance recitals/lessons, weddings, and so much more. And Gail has always made an effort to make the space available (and affordable) for local bands. … It is special that SOhO has been able to accommodate a diverse range of local acts and listeners alike.”

The venue has always hosted a mix of genres and events, but the earlier years were “a lot more local” musically, Gail said. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played there monthly. Perennial S.B. cover band Area 51, which still fills SOhO, has been playing since the first years, as have other area favorites such as Animal Liberation Orchestra and Raw Silk. Other popular acts in SOhO’s earlier days included Jane and the One, the Pontiax, and the Messengers.

“We have a lot more touring bands now than we ever had before, partly because there’s just less local bands, and I don’t know why that is. I wish it weren’t that way,” Gail said.

The space used to be smaller, with a 190-person capacity compared to today’s 400. The bar and stage used to share a room. Twelve years ago, SOhO added a lounge area, a bigger green room for the bands, and bigger office space. Fortunately, the building has withstood no disaster worse than broken pipes and power outages. The menu, codesigned by Bob Hansen and Chef Orlando Luna, “had a more ethnic flair.” (Until 2002, the <em>Santa Barbara Independent</em> co-occupied the spot — and it continues to favor the venue for Local Heroes luncheons and other ceremonies.) At present, portraits by photographer Alan Kozlowski that showcase the faces of acts who have graced the stage, such as Jeff Bridges and Jackson Browne, hang on walls that have also featured works by area artists like Missy Vivenzio and Natalie Wilson.

Photo: Paul Wellman Conner Oberst plays Soho.

The crowds have changed a bit, too. “I think we have a younger clientele than we used to,” Gail said. SOhO sits in an interesting intertidal zone between longtime residents and new, college-age arrivals, and new acts share schedules with “bands that have been around forever,” like frequent performers Venice or former favorites Willie & Lobo.

SOhO still manages a small club feel for bands that often play venues three times its size. “When it’s a quiet performer, our room is quiet. I think the artists really appreciate being listened to and not talked over, and Santa Barbara’s people are good about that. When they walk in the door, they know that’s what’s expected,” Gail said. She credits Rosie Hernandez, “[He’s] our sound engineer extraordinaire who keeps our system in tip-top shape, along with the other engineers that we have.”

Another reason for SOhO’s prolonged success — and younger audiences — has been the integration of outside promoters such as We the Beat, Numbskull, Red Eye, and Smart Alec Presents, beginning about 10 years ago with Club Mercy. “Having a music venue that provides entertainment seven nights a week is a hard feat to maintain,” Beloin said. “It requires nonstop attention to a never-ending calendar — there’s no downtime, even if you’re booked out three months ahead. Promoters help Gail fill spots on the calendar and also bring acts to the club that we may not have had eyes on.”

It’s not always a smooth business to run in an industry where bands disband, trends fade, fan bases are fickle, and rents are high. “How has SOhO managed? Not easily,” Gail said. “During the economy crash, we honestly almost had to close our doors, and just squeaked our way through. When we hit those hard times, somehow we’re always able to rise above, and I don’t really know why.”

Maybe it’s because of SOhO’s family feel. The all-in-the-family philosophy extends to the staff’s hospitality, and performers have come to know it as a homey kind of place. “The family vibe is what we portray the most. “We feed musicians good food; we nurture them; we give them hugs — they feel loved when they’re here,” said Gail. “We’re fair, we’re honest, and I think just that warmth and family vibe is what we’ve always gone for, and, I believe, always achieved. … I think if things keep going the way they are, we’ll be fine.”

SOhO has been delivering world class music for the past twenty two years! Some of the talent that has graced SOhO’s stage includes:

David Crosby, Kenny Loggins, Jimmy Messina, Jon Anderson, Rickie Lee Jones, Jimmy Cliff, Ozomatli, Donovan Frankenreiter, Dave Mason, Karla Bonoff, Umphrey’s McGee, Poncho Sanchez, Pinback, Christopher Cross, Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO), Alpha Blondy, Leon Russell, SambaDa, Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra, Don Carlos, Jesse Colin Young, Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, Tierney Sutton, Venice, Martin Sexton, Benise, Duncan Sheik, Ben Taylor, Gregory Isaacs, Midnite, Loudon Wainwright III, Mad Caddies, Glen Phillips, Sean and Sarah Watkins, Yeasayer, Built to Spill, The Temper Trap, Vaud and the Villains, Beach House, Sean Hayes, Henry Rollins, A.A. Bondy, Landon Pigg, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Rüfüs du Sol, Acoustic Alchemy and the Dirty Knobs (featuring Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).