To know Sacramento music is to know The Storytellers (or the Sacto Storytellers, or the Sac Storytellers, or the Tellers or any other version of the name that has been used over the years). It’s been 20 years since this band of ever-rotating musicians has been filling Sacramento clubs, parks, basements, backyards, streets and parking garages with rocksteady, ska, dub and reggae, and they show no signs whatsoever of slowing down.
While the lineup is somewhat fluid, the Sacto Storytellers has been held down by a consistent core of talented and dedicated musicians for about 10 years, according to the band. The main lineup consists of Lesley Bruce upfront on vocals, Kenny Beasley on guitar and vocals, Reggie Drew on bass, Jeremiah Keller on keys, Matt Rodriguez on drums and Antwan Lashay on trumpet. Those six may make up the “nucleus,” as Rodriguez calls it, but the Storytellers have an open-door policy when it comes to the membership of the band and have had a number of line-up changes over the years.
“If we have a place for you and you’re jonesing to play and keep that spirit alive, the ‘Tellers are here for you,” said Rodriguez. “You’re a Teller if you want to be a Teller.”
Along with being a temporary fix for local musicians in between bands, the six at the center call the band home.
Every member has their story when it comes to joining the band; Drew describes his time couch-surfing 20 years ago when he caught one of the earliest Storytellers shows at a block party. After the show, he asked Rodriguez if could crash for the night. He’s been with the band ever since. Beasley and Bruce have both gone in and out of the band while also working on their own projects—most notably, the two were a part of the now defunct rocksteady outfit Steady Ups. Keller, who has known Rodriguez since they were about 15, remembers the early days when he would drive down from his former home in the Bay Area just to practice and play shows with the rest of the band.
“It’s always been like a Midtown Sac family,” said Rodriguez. “So many people come in and out and it’s just family.”
Like most any reggae outfit before them, the Storytellers are in all of this for the love of it. They all share the love of music, the love of Sacramento, the love of their friends and the love for each other.
“We’ve always been of the mindset that we are doing this for the love of it,” confirmed Beasley. “You know, we don’t need anything else.”
The band has always needed that love of the craft to survive. Keller asks himself if playing along with this band is what church feels like when they get into a deep groove. Drew has likened their ability to improvise and just play for what seems like hours to therapy. A Storytellers jam session is a kind of medicine for those playing along. It’s all about feeling connected and strengthening their chemistry.
“We’re always exploring to see where a jam might lead us,” said Rodriguez. “Reggie might have a bass line, Kenny or Lesley might have some lyrics … and we just throw it out there and start seeing what colors work on it. Everyone finds out what color they are on that painting and how much of that color is on that painting.”
Those paintings get the full gallery treatment when the band plays live, as they put it all on display.
It’s no secret that the Storytellers play live around town a lot. If most of the band is available, then they’ll almost always be up for playing a show. They’ve even perfected some surprises they weren’t expecting.
Drew recalled a few times when the band wasn’t sure if Beasley would be able to make a show and instead of planning on finding a stand-in or planning on playing without him, the band would practice a set that they knew Beasley would be able to perform without practice just in case he ended up making the show.
“There’s that old saying, ‘cry in the dojo, laugh in the battlefield,’” Drew said. “When you’re on stage—the battlefield—this is what you have. You don’t stress on it or get down on it. You accept what it is, relax, open your mind and play.”
It’s this philosophy behind their live performances that has garnered the band such a glowing reputation for their shows. That reputation has helped them land gigs opening up for reggae legends like Jimmy Cliff and H.R. of Bad Brains.
While Drew’s famous Christopher Walken impression once kept the crowd at the Jimmy Cliff show entertained while some technical difficulties were worked out, the Storytellers’ true home are the local shows.
The bandmembers spoke fondly of an era in their early days when there was a whole scene of local bands who would play “renegade shows.” One band would talk to another who would talk to another and a bill would form. They’d get the word out about the show by word of mouth alone and get crowds out to parking garages where bands would play until the cops showed up to shut the party down.
“It was something that can’t happen anymore,” explained Beasley. “When Midtown was still dark.”
There’s a lot that keeps the Storytellers going. Since the band has been a part of the DIY punk scene in town and haven’t had to answer to any higher ups or managers about anything, they get to keep their essence. They’re a reggae band that doesn’t have to be confined to reggae if they don’t want to be. Whatever it is that they put out into the world is wholly authentic, and that’s what’s kept this band going strong for 20 years.
Many bands don’t make it out of the garage before they decide it’s time to call it quits. The ones that do put themselves out into the world usually don’t last this long. Two decades is more than just a milestone for any band; it’s a testament to the dedication, love, acceptance and open-mindedness that all the members possess for the music they create. After all this time, the Storytellers have only come to love what they do even more, and they’re grateful for the opportunity to do what they do for Midtown Sacramento all these years.
“I’d like to say thank you to all the people, venues and all the other bands who helped support us and so on and so on over the years,” said Rodriguez. “We got nothing but love for the city and we wear it on our backs proud.”
Catch local legends the Sacto Storytellers live on Friday, Nov. 8 at Old Ironsides (1901 10th St.) with The Phantom Jets, Sad Girlz Club and Flip the Switch. Doors at 8 p.m., 21-plus, $10 donation at the door benefits American Cancer Society. To keep up with the band, check out Facebook.com/sactostorytellers.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #303 (Oct. 23 – Nov. 6, 2019)**