By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Around 10 musical acts performed Saturday night at what may be the most unique venue in the western United States.
The Range, located on Slab City's main drag in Niland, is the site of "Free Music Under the Stars," a weekly open-mic event where anybody can sign up to play music, sing or showcase other talents.
Neil Mallick, a musician who spends his summers on the road and winters at Slab City, gave the estimated crowd of 80 a history of rock and roll with a dose of attitude, starting with solo performances of the Beatles’ “In My Life” and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Castles Made of Sand,” through a Led Zeppelin tune from the ‘70s and Pixies and Weezer classics from the ‘90s.
“This monkey’s gone to heaven,” he sang.
Mallick purposely left out music released “in the zeros,” he told the crowd, referring to theperiod between 2000 and 2009 where bands like Mudvaine were king.
If you build it they will come
The Range is an outdoor venue that would not look out of place in a post-apocalyptic flick.
The stage is constructed of plywood, presumably donated or repurposed. Lighting, strung overhead, is a series of light bulbs housed in lamp shades made of buckets. Seating is a ramshackle collection of couches. "The Range" is painted on a backdrop of plywood. Slab City is off the grid, so the venue--from lights to amplifiers--is powered by a generator. The whole thing is the brainchild of "Builder" Bill.
Builder Bill was homeless, living on the streets and beach in San Diego before he took up residence at Slab City about 15 years ago. Citizen band radios were a more popular means of communication back then, and his "handle" was "Builder Bill.” It stuck.
Slab City was fairly quiet when he moved there, and he wanted to do something about it, he recalled.
"I thought I'd stir it up," he said with a smile as a gravel-voiced solo guitar player tore through drinking songs on stage.
Builder Bill began by building the stage, and financed the initial stages out of his own pocket.
"People started making donations when they saw what I was doing," he said. The project grew organically, and "Live Music Under the Stars" became a weekly staple.
"I didn't think I'd be doing it for 10 years," he said.
Builder Bill's management of the event, although loose, is fairly organized. He encourages everybody and anybody to get on stage and perform.
"All I have is an acoustic guitar," said Colin, a musician who was waiting his turn on stage.
"We'll work it out," Builder Bill replied.
But when Colin's turn on stage came up, he was nowhere to be found.
"Colin? Colin!," Builder Bill barked into the microphone. "You're up!"
Builder Bill would like to see "Live Music Under the Stars" gain a measure of legitimacy, as measured in the more conventional, buttoned-down world just outside the boundaries of the Slabs.
"I'm looking to become a non-profit organization," he said. "Maybe replace the benches with something more durable.”
This story first appeared in the Imperial Valley Press, Jan. 9, 2013