Ice Cream Sociability

Posted on June 22, 2008 – 3:22 PM | by OldManFoster
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Ricky BergerRicky Berger ranges around the small stage at Luna’s, the venerable café that has been a home to many of Sacramento’s jazz and folk acts for over a decade.  The cafe has a casual atmosphere, and Art Luna himself helped Berger arrange the microphones on stage and adjusted the PA when he wasn’t busy behind the bar.  Berger plays a number of instruments and tonight she had brought a guitar, an electric piano and a ukelele.  Testing the mic levels she briefly launches into song and the rambling audience freezes, as if caught out in a game of musical chairs.  The burst of song lasts only seconds, and the audience settles into their seats, focusing on the stage, waiting for her set to begin.

People are watching Ricky Berger.

In just under two years, this young Sacramento singer-songwriter has moved from open mics to headlining slots and has collected rave notices from a wide slate of critics. Her fanbase runs the gamut from teens to the jazz jubilee set, and includes a healthy portion of Midtown’s rock and indie scenesters.  And while Berger has been performing regularly, her main focus has been on completing her first album with producer Ricky Bell.  Advance reviews are good—better than good, actually— and Berger’s career seems to be on the verge of catching fire. 

Ricky Berger’s First Album, to Ricky Berger's First Albumbe released on June 28, is the fruit of a fertile crop. Berger recorded a total of 53 original songs while working on the album, eleven of which made the final cut.  That kind of ratio is extreme even when compared to legendarily fruitful composers like Hoagy Carmichael and Lennon and McCartney. Still, all of that wouldn’t mean much if the results weren’t impressive.  

“If”, the opening track off Berger’s soon to be released debut is that ultimate rarity in a record: an instant and unmistakable classic. Tastefully underproduced with only a fingerpicked acoustic guitar behind Berger’s layered vocals, the song ranges across seven or eight decades of pop music, never settling into any era or style, but flirting with them all.  “If” could just as easily be a Tin Pan Alley number from the thirties, a Mamas and Papas hit from the sixties, or what it actually is: a recent song by a charming twenty-year old chanteuse who dresses like Judy Garland and lives in Natomas with her grandmother. 

Berger’s recent set at Luna’s wound through a dozen songs, many from her forthcoming album, some new.  Berger’s ‘aw-shucks’ stage presence is rawboned and sincere, and interactions with the audience had the feel of family banter. Berger seemed to recognize many in the crowd and often dropped her set list to accommodate requests, including one for “more ukelele”. The songs ranged from pop to pretty folk-style ballads to jazzy bossa-nova, and she moved comfortably from starkly serious material to playful numbers that included occasional whistling and yodeling interludes.

Norah Jones is usually one of the first names that pops up in reviews of Berger’s work.  The comparison is apt, if perhaps too easy; both are beautiful young singer-songwriters who consciously evoke the classic vocal era.  But Berger is nerdier and more down-home– wide-eyed where Jones is worldy; this is, after all, a girl who cites Weird Al Yankovic as an inspiration.  Still, Jones has done what Berger seeks to do: made a career with adult contemporary hits that go against the grain of much of today’s music.  Yet, I suspect that Berger would sound exactly the same if Jones’ career had never gone beyond the New York cocktail bars where she got her start.  If Norah Jones is not to be found on Berger’s list of influences she shouldn’t be terribly offended— the list is fairly light on the contemporary.

“My Dad likes harpsichord music,” says Ricky Berger. “My Mom listens to opera.”  Raised in Bakersfield, the cradle of the California Country sound, she rarely heard country music growing up.  Or rock.  Or pop.   The commercial pop that did sometimes make its way to the family stereo– Simon and Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, Leo Kottke— fascinated Berger and heavily influenced the music she makes today.  She started piano lessons at 4, and began composing songs on her own almost as soon as she had learned to play.

Though Berger was always drawn to music, it did not always occupy a central spot in her life.  “In high school my friends didn’t even know I played music,” she says.   It wasn’t until her late teens that she began to explore pop music in depth, and it wasn’t until she was 17 that she made the decision to pursue music as a career.  Her parents, both educated professionals, were unenthused.  “I think my parents wanted me to be an engineer, a scientist or a heart surgeon,” she says.  When she announced that she was dropping out of school, their reaction was predictable.  Although Berger cites a desire to Ricky Berger Livepursue her career as her reason for moving to Sacramento, it is clear that there was plenty of tension at home as well.   

Berger’s singing is breathy and sweet, a distinct style that might be described as a cross between Chet Baker and Mama Cass.  Despite her youth, Berger sings in a sophisticated manner that seems both effortless and uncertain.  And though her voice is conventionally beautiful, it is her unique tics- the slight hesitations, the hint of a lisp- that make it interesting.  These willful imperfections give her singing a natural feel, rounding out the beauty of her voice and giving the impression that she is not just singing lyrics, but imparting an experience that is absolutely true.

And, it probably is.  Many songwriters create ideas for songs simply based on lyrical potential or a novel ‘hook’, rather than actual experience.  Asked if she wrote songs using these strategies she looks startled, as though the idea suggested the taking of liberties. “I’m a pretty honest songwriter,” she says, and the songs bear this out.  “If” is about a serious relationship, interrupted when she moved to Sacramento.  “What’s Your Name?” details Berger’s fascination with a stranger.  “Okle my Dokle” riffs on familial sayings, and features recordings of Berger’s grandparents on the record.

“Okle my Dokle” is an interesting choice for a track on a contemporary pop record.  Reminiscent of “Old Friends” from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, the song is almost painfully heartfelt, seeming corny on first listen, terribly sad on the tenth.  Either way, it would probably never see much radio-play… a rarity on an otherwise radio-friendly album.  Berger is a savvy critic of her own work, and her decision to include the song is a message that she is looking for more than just hits.

And while “If” may be the critic’s choice for the album’s ‘hit’, it is “Michael’s Song” which has generated the most plays on Berger’s Myspace site.  This is perhaps unsurprising given that it is the most contemporary sounding song on the record.   Here Berger gives in momentarily to the popular tendency to ‘oversoul’ (think Edie Brickell channeling Sade) with the result that this is the least subtle song on an otherwise very subtle record.  But, if the song may not please the critics it is exactly the sort of performance that would appeal to the millions that tune in to American Idol each week.

Most of the album’s tracks are quirky understated gems, bringing to mind the best of Jonathan Richman, Astrud Gilberto, or local legends Daisy Spot.   And though producer Ricky Bell’s work is superb and adds much, this is Berger’s record.  Her compositions seem like standards, vaguely remembered hits from the classic vocal era of the mid twentieth century.   Her melodies succeed by following the classic formula that has bred hits as long as there has been pop music: they are simple enough to be catchy, subtle enough to be original, and complex enough to bear up to repeated listening.  Her lyrics are honest and charming, and, most important, well suited for her voice and singing style.  But these components are buttressed by the strongest weapons in Berger’s considerable arsenal— a mean ability to work and the strength of vision to ruthlessly self-edit.

Berger was recently rewarded with a Sammie nomination for Ricky Bergerbest Folk/Songwriter– no mean feat for a twenty year old who began performing only two years ago. And though the album hasn’t even been released yet, reviews like this one (from local tastemaker Jackson Griffith) are already beginning to appear:

“…I’m no psychic, but I have learned enough to spot someone with major star potential. And I did get a vision of the lovely Ms. Berger shyly shaking hands with David Letterman before leaving the studio audience and Paul Shaffer dumbfounded by her charms. Stranger things have happened, right?”

Griffith is by no means alone in his visions of stardom for Berger.   “The A&R weasel in me would pitch her as the ‘total package’,” says Chris Macias, the Sacramento Bee music writer whose Sunday Single feature, a series which showcases a different local performer each week, gave Berger her first wide exposure. “She’s a beautiful young lady who writes some stunning songs, and she’s crafted a really unique musical world… I think Ricky has some serious star power in the making. It’s just a matter of time before people outside of Sacramento catch on.”

And yet, despite the hype, Berger has no management, no record label, and drives herself from gig to gig in a ten-year old minivan. While she would love to take that next step—management, a label, touring—she is determined to wait until she finds just the right fit.

Not that there hasn’t been some attention. Berger has been approached by people intent on bringing her music to a wider audience, just not the right people.  She bristled when recalling a recent meeting with an unnamed industry insider who invited her to lunch and told her, “There are a million pretty girls who can play the guitar.”    She was right to bristle.  While she is a pretty girl who can play the guitar, she is quite clearly more than that as well.

There are many who see stardom for Ricky Berger—certainly her fans are already convinced.  Her talent is self-evident– almost physically palpable in a way that is extremely rare.  Still, the combination of youth, talent and determination is no guarantee of success. But, tellingly, she has convinced her most skeptical audience– her parents.  Seeing her captivate an audience at the Crest Theater last year was a turning point, and they now support her decision to follow her dreams.  They realized that she is doing what she needs to do. 

Ricky Berger is still inventing herself, creating the persona she wants to be. “I love the Wizard of Oz,” she says, and it is clear that she, like Dorothy, is looking to find a way over the rainbow.  From her Garland-inspired wardrobe to the songs in her set, Berger is a work in progress.  Her development as a performer—and a personality— is easily seen when contrasting recent performances with those from only a year ago.  Caught between youthful exuberance and the determination to become professional, Berger is literally evolving in front of our eyes. Whether she takes her career to the next level or not, this—the exact moment in which she is finding herself as an artist—is to be savored.  For better or worse, she will never be here again.

Ricky Berger will perform at her CD Release party / Ice Cream Social at Bricka Bracka, 2114 P Street, Sacramento, on Saturday June 28.  $7, all ages, admission includes ice cream, 7PM. Also on the bill are Liz Ryder and the gypsy jazz group the Chuck Botelho Quartet.  For more information go to:

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