Back in the swing of things

Richard Olsen, photo by Robbi PengellyCareer planning was a cinch for Sonomabased musician Richard Olsen. As the affable singer, band leader and clarinet player admits, “ Music is the only thing I know how to do.”

Fortunately, Olsen’s talents, ambition and professional path dovetailed into a 40- year career that continues to flourish. Locals can see ( and hear) Olsen ply his trade tonight when he and his 17- piece Big Band Orchestra perform in the Plaza as part of the 10th annual City of Sonoma Party.

The gig is a return engagement for Olsen, who points to last year’s performance at the city party as indication of what audiences might expect this year.

“It was really a lot of fun. Everybody came out and danced. We had little kids standing in front – we have two female vocalists – so they were just gaga over the girls,” he laughs.

“There were people who were 80 who loved it and teenagers too. There’s something for everyone.”

Accommodating the musical tastes of “ everyone” is a staple of the trade for working musicians.

“I do so many private parties and wear so many hats. When you play clubs you usually work up a certain type of material and style and you stick within the boundaries. If it’s a swing club you play nothing but swing, that kind of thing. At private parties you play everything that they want, from background music to Sinatra to Motown to the Stones,” said Olsen, who is looking forward to performing a wide selection of music at the show.

For Plaza party goers, Olsen plans to perform a survey of popular music from 20th century, culling tunes from catalogs as diverse as those of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin and Tom Jones to Benny Goodman, Santana and the Beatles.

“We cover a lot of genres and we do it pretty authentically,” beams the charismatic Olsen, who will be backed by a band comprised of nine horns ( of which he is the lead), a fivepiece rhythm section, percussion, drums, keyboards, guitar and two women sharing backup vocal duties.

“These guys are really excellent players. They’ve played with everyone from Van Morrison to Tony Bennett,” said Olsen, who was a member of the seminal 1960s psychedelic rock act the Charlatans, which included Dan Hicks, later of Dan Hick and His Hot Licks fame.

Olsen has seen the Bay Area’s live music scene evolve over the course of his career and points to several peaks and valleys that have come and gone as audiences’ preferences shifted and styles changed.

“Live music is really hard now because everything is really DJ- oriented,” Olsen laments. “ In that respect it’s been difficult in the Bay Area.”

That said, Olsen remains optimistic that such transformations are both inevitable and more importantly, cyclical.

“The whole San Francisco scene changes every 10 years. And the skyline changes every 10 years, too,” said Olsen, who remains enthusiastic about the Bay Area as an epicenter for performers. “ I think that sort of creative thing with the water and the hills and the liberal aspect of it just draws musicians and artists. You can be so diverse and nobody cares. Nobody is going to say, ‘ Oh, let’s kick him out of town.’ All diversity is welcome.”

Olsen moved to Sonoma five years ago, but visits his old San Francisco haunts regularly.

“I lived in the city so long it’s in my blood.

I have to go in every few days just to get my electricity,” he said with a laugh, but is quick to remind that he loves Sonoma. “ It’s beautiful here, the thing is you get to the point where you’re enjoying it so much you’re not doing anything. You have to stimulate yourself somehow. If you’re here and enjoying the outdoors and stuff, then all of a sudden a few days have gone by and people are forgetting you. You have to get back and knock on the doors.”

When not knocking on doors Olsen practices, practices, practices, in a home studio he installed in the second story of his home.

“I practice more since I’ve been here, because it’s kind of peaceful and nobody bothers me,” he says.

They may be impressed with his sartorial finesse. Olsen enjoys classing up his act by donning his band in tuxedos.

“I had a lot of fun last year because nobody knew what to expect. People were just going thinking that it’s the ‘ Tuesday thing,’ then there we were, all these guys in tuxedos with horns. I think it blew a lot of people away,” Olsen recalls. There’s a certain respect for music when you dress up. It’s like going to church. It makes it special and that’s what it should be. A lot of the old jazz groups used to dress really well.

“Then you see acts playing in T- shirts and jeans. You close your eyes and it’s great, but it doesn’t add anything visually. There’s nothing special about. It’s like they’re rehearsing instead of performing.”

Looks can be deceiving. Olsen reminds that one shouldn’t judge a band by the cut of its lapels.

“A lot of people will assume we’re a certain kind of band, but as the evening goes on and it gets darker we’ll get more in the rock and Motown. We do all kinds of stuff,” Olsen said. “ It’s like a progression. It’s interesting to see what people respond to in this area.”

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