Music for the Masses 

Samvega lives a life not normally lived

In the essay "Affirming the Truths of the Heart," Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes the concept of "samvega."

"It's a hard word to translate," he writes, "because it covers such a complex range--at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay and alienation that come [sic] with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it's normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle."

Samvega, a band based in California's Napa Valley, certainly isn't interested in life as it's normally lived. On the song "People's Park" from the album Brain Sugar Blue (2009), a man screams over droning bass, yowling guitar and rumbling drums: "There's so much more to this life. / There's so much more. / There's just so much more. / How can't you see it?"

For almost a decade, Samvega has worked to bring this message to audiences with a quirky, ominous yet playful mix of psychedelic rock, funk and world music that the band describes as a "dark circus" sound. The band will leave Napa Valley at the end of May for a coast-to-coast summer tour, which will include a show at The Bouquet on Sunday, June 1, featuring local openers Mindshoes and A Mighty Band of Microbes.

Pat Feistel, Samvega's drummer and manager, acknowledged that the band's ambitions go beyond the purely artistic.

"You need to be a participant in life and we all influence each other," he said. "And what better way than through creativity?"

Samvega's interest in raising consciousness through art began when its founding members, Feistel and Napa-raised sisters Melissa and Mercedes Baker, were students at the University of Wisconsin. The three helped found the Jambalaya Art Cooperative in Oshkosh, Wis., which Feistel said showed them "the effect of how you can get excited about something and how that energy just brings other people in."

Mercedes moved back to California with Feistel and his old band, Forgotten Roots, in 2002. Samvega formed in 2005 after Forgotten Roots broke up and Melissa, who had already played in a couple of groups with Feistel before, moved back as well.

According to North Bay Bohemian writer Nicolas Grizzle, Napa Valley doesn't provide the most supportive climate for launching a new musical project.

"Napa is kind of a dead zone for local, live music," Grizzle said. "There's not a lot of venues, and the music that is there is usually at wineries, and it's background jazz and stuff like that."

In spite of the lack of venues, Samvega persevered. The band played gigs in nearby cities like Santa Rosa and San Francisco and began organizing events in Napa like the Under the Sun music and art festival. Samvega also converted a seven-acre cattle ranch into an arts commune, where the band's current lineup lives today.

Grizzle got to check out the commune while writing a story on Samvega back in 2012. "Their space was really cool," he said. "They had a couple of small buildings; they all looked like converted barns. But one of them was their rehearsal studio, which is also their recording studio."

"We've made a little compound down here for us, and it's been great ever since," said Feistel.

The members of Samvega still seek to enrich their people's lives through art. The Baker sisters teach drawing and painting at Nimbus Arts, a nonprofit "dedicated to curiosity, fostering creative expression, and building a sense of community." Bassist Vincent Gutierrez works with the nonprofit Collective Sound, which gives lessons in writing, performing and recording music to kids aged 12-18. The band also assists with events like Nimbus Arts' recent art auction and fashion show, Nimbash 2014.

These events and organizations are part of a growing trend of community-engaging art projects that Grizzle has observed in the North Bay area.

"It seems like there's this whole DIY aesthetic that's really getting more popular at the moment," Grizzle said, "and I think maybe that has something to do with it. You can make your own art; you don't have to go buy someone else's version like the thing at Ross [or] the mass-produced Target paintings."

Feistel said that Samvega will release some more of its own art soon--the band plans to put out a new album in the fall. He's more excited about touring, though.

"Music is for the masses, and there's nothing better than live music," he said. "It's vital for us, for bands to be out there really connecting with people. People need that all across the country and the world."

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