Santa Rosa busker find the beat by embracing different music styles

Gus Garelick is a regular in the Lake County Symphony Orchestra. He helped put together and directs the Gravenstein Mandolin Ensemble which is playing a concert at the Windsor Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 7.|

Music keeps David “Gus” Garelick young.

How else can one really begin to describe the 60-year career that the 78-year-old Santa Rosa resident has had as a musician?

He’s played fiddle and mandolin all over the world. He’s jammed with Hall of Fame musicians. He’s plucked, picked and slapped his instruments on stage with some of the most famous musical geniuses Sonoma County has ever known.

Garelick also has kept his music approachable to everyday music-lovers. He’s busked the streets of downtown Santa Rosa.

He’s a regular in the Lake County Symphony Orchestra. He helped put together and directs a musical group of mandolin players. That group — the Gravenstein Mandolin Ensemble — is playing a concert at the Windsor Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 7.

The Windsor gig is just one event on Garelick’s list this month. Taken as a whole, his commitments to play live music rival those of an average musician half his age.

“I love what I do,” he said. “When you love what you do, everything is better.”

Lifelong love of music and finding home

Garelick grew up in Detroit, and he started studying classical music as a student at the University of Michigan.

The way he remembers it, his family listened to lots of Russian and Jewish music, and this, in turn, sparked inside of him a curiosity about what makes these genres unique in the world of music beyond their cultural significance. Naturally, then, these types of music became two of Garelick’s specialties by age 18.

He spent most of his time in university playing classical violin, but he dropped out for a year to learn bluegrass. When he finally went back to school, he majored in English and received his degree. Then, he moved to California to become a junior high school English teacher.

By this time, it was the late 1960s and San Francisco had developed into a burgeoning bluegrass scene. When Garelick wasn’t teaching, he was gigging around town. He became renowned for his quick fingers and impassioned play. He played at the first-ever Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley in 1976 and won the state championship for fiddle-playing that same year.

“It was quite an honor to be the top fiddle-player in the state for a bit there,” he said, looking back.

His championship title opened the door to participate in even bigger competitions — nationwide fiddle contests. One of these brought him to Nashville in 1976, when he played on the main stage at the Ryman Theater.

Garelick moved to Sonoma County in the early 1980s, mostly for new opportunities and to get out of the city. He fell in love with the open space and the number of creative people nearby.

He has called the county home since then and up until 2020, when the pandemic hit, he served as a substitute English teacher.

Finding the beat in different bands, music styles

Once Garelick established himself in Sonoma County, he started playing with bands in and around the North Bay.

One such band, Wine Country Cowboys, was headed up by Tommy Thomsen, a Sonoma country-music singer who later became enshrined in the Western Swing Hall of Fame. The two men played together at Twin Oaks Roadhouse in Penngrove for years.

There were other bands and musical opportunities, too. He played fiddle for the Sonoma Swamp Dogs, a band started by Cotati legend Jim Boggio. For a stretch, Garelick played fiddle and mandolin in a band with Queen Ida, a famous Zydeco accordionist. Both these experiences ignited in Garelick a passion for a new genre of music — in this case, Creole tunes.

The beat for Garelick went on.

In 2006, he was one of the founding members of the Sebastopol-based Gravenstein Mandolin Ensemble, a group of 14 musicians who play mandolin, mandola and mandocello.

He later played Italian music in several different bands, more Zydeco, even some Brazilian Choro music.

Don Coffin, a guitar player, has gigged with Garelick on and off for the better part of the last 25 years — for a while the two were in a band named the Hot Frittatas. He said he considers Garelick “an excellent classical musician,” and credits Garelick with introducing him to genres such as Italian, Klezmer and Choro.

“I always looked at Gus as my side man, then he introduced me to all this great new stuff,” said Coffin, who once was married to the late Kate Wolf. “He always inspired me to learn more.”

Pandemic pivot to survive

Like many living through the COVID-19 pandemic, Garelick found himself in a precarious position in the spring of 2020: He had to pivot to survive.

Music venues shut down, and many of his regular gigs dried up. At first, he didn’t know what to do. Then he made a conscious choice to return to his roots and pound the pavement like a beginner. He chose to busk, or play music on the street.

As Garelick explained it, this endeavor was both humbling and exciting.

On one hand, it was fulfilling to get direct glimpses of how much his music brought people joy — especially at a time filled with so much sadness and uncertainty. On the other hand, it was vexing to see how different property owners treated him; for every company that embraced the idea of someone playing free music, there was at least one other company that rejected it.

“At first it was uncomfortable, I felt like a beggar,” he said. “Ultimately for me it became a way to get paid to practice. It also was nice to have people come up and request songs or tell me it was wonderful or just come up crying.”

Garelick said he would most commonly busk in front of Santa Rosa’s Oliver’s Market on Montecito Court, other grocery stories, or in Railroad Square.

After a hiatus due to health issues, Garelick gradually stepped back into the live music life in 2021. The Gravenstein Mandolin Ensemble met with masks on, and Garelick ran those rehearsals. Founder Rhonda Berney said she’s not sure the group would have made it through COVID-19 without Garelick’s dedication.

“He’s always there for us,” she said.

Berney added that, in general, Garelick’s breadth of experience has made the mandolin group better: “Under his leadership we have explored lots of different music,” she said. “Now we thrive because of it.”

More music to play around the county

If there’s any one certainty in the life of Garelick, it’s this: The show will go on.

Garelick said he practices for two hours a day every day on his 1954 Gibson A-50 mandolin. He also gives lessons to aspiring fiddle and mandolin players. Musicians looking to take lessons can reach him at 707-526-7763 fiddler@sonic.net.

In the immediate future, he and the mandolin ensemble have that gig at the Windsor Public Library this weekend. Next weekend, on Jan. 15, Garelick and his old pal Thomsen are reuniting for a few sets at the Sebastiani Theater in Sonoma. Next month, on Feb. 18, Garelick is playing at the annual An Olive Odyssey at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in Sonoma.

The mandolin group has a few other gigs in late January and early February. The Lake County group picks up again in the spring.

In the distant future, Garelick is writing a book of original mandolin songs that also provides details about his life as a musician. He also has given thought to what might be his “bucket list” gigs, and he said he’s still holding out hope they might happen one day soon. First he said he has a fantasy of directing a program at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma; the program would include Stravinski's “Soldier's Tale” and Edith Sitwell's “Facade.”

He said he would love to go back to New Orleans and play with Michael Doucet at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or maybe jam with the Hot Club of Cowtown in Austin, Texas. Garelick said he could even see himself taking an extended vacation to Brazil to he could expand his knowledge of Choro music.

“So much music, so little time,” he quipped. “My plan is to keep playing until I can’t play more.”

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