TOM BALL AND KENNY SULTAN’S 40th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 26
Cost: $34 and $44
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Information: 805-963-0761, www.lobero.org;
BALL AND SULTAN AT COLD SPRING TAVERN
When: 1:30 to 4 p.m. Sundays. (The exceptions are when they have out-of-town gigs.)
Where: Cold Spring Tavern, 5995 Stagecoach Road
Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan have played all kinds of gigs, from Sunday afternoons at Cold Spring Tavern to their big nights at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
Plus bizarre concerts elsewhere in the world.
One time, they played at a skeet shooting festival in East Germany.
“Of course, nobody’s watching us at all because they’re shooting skeet. Boom, boom, boom!” Mr. Ball, 68, told the News-Press at the table in the kitchen at his Santa Barbara home. Mr. Sultan, 64, who also lives in Santa Barbara, smiled as he listened.
“I have no idea why they even hired us, but it gives you a good story,” Mr. Ball said.
And then was the time they were told accommodations would be provided for them when they played a club in Johnson City, Tenn. “So we expected hotel rooms,” Mr. Ball said.
Instead, the blues duo was told to sleep in sleeping bags on the club’s stage.
“Then they locked the doors so we couldn’t get out,” Mr. Ball said. “And then they forgot to pay their utility bills, so all the power went out.”
But there was a bright side.
“At least, we were in a bar!” Mr. Sultan said.
The two men laughed, their banter as effortless as the acoustic blues music they’ve played together as a duo for 40 years.
They credit their longevity to several factors. They’re among today’s rare acoustic blues duos. They only perform songs they both love. And their music has such broad appeal that they play at festivals ranging from blues to bluegrass.
“We’ll do blues songs, jazz, ragtime, maybe some rock and blues songs,” Mr. Sultan said. “We call it Americana music.”
They plan to perform and tell stories during their 40th anniversary concert at 8 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Besides their duets together, both Mr. Ball and Mr. Sultan play a guitar solo at each gig.
“Kenny’s a brilliant player, and he plays in this particular style you don’t hear very often,” said Mr. Ball, who has recorded more than a dozen albums with his music partner.
“Over the 40 years, we’ve played basically everywhere they had music (in Santa Barbara),” Mr. Ball said, citing examples such as the Harbor Restaurant, SOhO Restaurant & Music Club and Duffy’s Bar & Grill in Goleta.
For 35 years, they’ve had an arrangement to play at Cold Spring Tavern on Stagecoach Road every Sunday afternoon unless they’re performing out of town.
“We love it up there,” Mr. Sultan said. “We call it the Cold Spring party, not the Cold Spring gig.”
Besides the Lobero and the Santa Barbara Bowl, they’ve played the Arlington Theatre and the Bowlful of Blues at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai.
“You can feel this energy in the air if it’s a big room and it’s full of people,” Mr. Ball said. “The adrenaline comes up even before you go on stage. When we go out on stage, it’s full-blown adrenaline.
“When you’re on and the audience is with you, nothing can come close to that,” he said.
Mr. Sultan said the thrill hasn’t gone away after their 5,000 or more shows together.
Some concerts stand out in particular.
“I think opening for Stevie Ray (Vaughan) at the bowl is pretty high on my list,” Mr. Ball said, referring to the legendary blues singer, who died Aug. 27, 1990 in a helicopter crash.
“It hadn’t been that long since he himself had been an opening act,” Mr. Ball said, recalling Mr. Vaughan checked to make sure they liked the sound system, food, beer, etc.
“I remember Kenny and I looking at each other, thinking, ‘That guy’s a good man,’ ” he said. (The duo went on to open for Mr. Vaughan at other California concerts.)
Mr. Sultan and Mr. Ball recalled opening for the Neville Brothers for two weeks in Florida in the late 1990s.
“A different town every night,” Mr. Ball said. “They were phenomenal. What’s more, they mixed their sets so much that one night’s concert was completely different from another night.
“One of those nights, Bob Marley’s mother showed up,” Mr. Ball said. “So they played two hours, doing blistering, fabulous reggae.”
Mr. Sultan and Mr. Ball smiled as they talked about their love for music, which started during their childhoods.
Mr. Sultan, a Calabasas native, was 7 when his brother, the late, acclaimed photographer Larry Sultan, taught him how to play the guitar.
“He had an old Gibson,” Mr. Sultan said.
After graduating in 1972 from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Mr. Sultan came to UCSB, but found he wasn’t interested in being a music major because that meant focusing on Bach and other classical composers.
Instead, Mr. Sultan devised his own curriculum by majoring in black studies and minoring in music. That allowed him to study the blues and write an unusual thesis.
“For my senior year, I talked my professor into letting me go to all the blues clubs and study the blues guys,” Mr. Sultan said.
“So I took notes, drank beers and, at the end of the year, typed, typed, typed. That was a great senior year!” he said with a smile.
Mr. Sultan earned his bachelor’s in 1978.
Mr. Ball, a Los Angeles native, played in the Yerba Buena Blues Band when he attended Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades, where he graduated in 1968. The band played all over Hollywood and up and down the famed Sunset Strip.
After studying art and earning his associate degree in 1970 at Santa Monica College, Mr. Ball spent most of the decade seeing Asia, South America and Europe.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Ball moved to Santa Barbara, where he met Mr. Sultan.
“I was playing with an electric blues band, called the Blues Company, and I had just moved to town,” Mr. Ball said. “But I really wanted to go acoustic.”
After learning Mr. Sultan played acoustic guitar, Mr. Ball sent his girlfriend, Laurie, to listen to Mr. Sultan accompany singer Susan Hamilton at Deja Vu, a State Street club. The future Mrs. Ball took notes during the gig.
She returned with a favorable report on Mr. Sultan’s guitar playing, sense of humor, taste in music and love for Heineken beer, which Mr. Ball also liked. Mr. Ball introduced himself to Mr. Sultan a week later at a Santa Barbara Blues Society gig at Baudelaire’s (now Whiskey Richards) on State Street, and Mr. Sultan invited him to join him when he was interviewed live on KCSB, the UCSB radio station. The owner of Sojourner Cafe heard them on the radio and called to hire them as a duo.
They immediately agreed.
“We learned some material really quick,” Mr. Ball said, recalling they got an album of music by famous harmonica/guitar duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
“We got paid $15 and a pizza,” Mr. Ball recalled. “We held out for free beer. That was 1979, our very first gig.”
Early on, the duo focused on covers of music by blues greats such as Samuel John “Lightin’ “ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush.
“Kenny had a real strong background in jug band music and rag time. He brought a lot of stuff to the table,” Mr. Ball said. “I had some Chicago (blues) stuff because had been previously in the electric band.
“When we ran out of stuff to swipe, we thought we’d better start writing some songs!” Mr. Ball said with a laugh.
Mr. Ball writes the lyrics, and Mr. Sultan, the music, and they help each other in those areas.
Their original songs vary from “Filthy Rich” to “I Found the Perfect Woman.”
“Those are really big hits at festivals,” Mr. Sultan said. “They’re funny songs.
“We’re definitely on the humorous side of the blues,” Mr. Sultan said. “We both live in Santa Barbara. We make jokes about that when we travel. ‘We’re from the home of the blues, Santa Barbara.’ People laugh.”
They’ve also written and recorded music for movies, TV shows and commercial jingles.
“One of them was, ‘Your lover might leave you, but your Levis will never split,’ ” said Mr. Ball, whose wife, Laurie, works at the Montecito Branch Library and whose daughter Shay Ryan, teaches music in Tacoma, Wash.
“But playing live is the icing on the cake,” said Mr. Sultan, whose son, Nick, is a musician and a UCSB senior and whose girlfriend, Tina Dabby, is a nurse who sometimes sings with the duo. “When you’re playing in front of a live audience and things are clicking, that’s really, really great.”
The two blues musicians plan to keep playing at least up to their 50th anniversary.
“As Hank Williams used to say,” Mr. Ball said, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”