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click to enlarge PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE WOODY
  • Photograph by Dave Woody

WEDDING ENTERTAINMENT CAN BE A DICEY and uncertain place in which to set up a career. Tastes change over the years, and any DJ or working musician in these venues will tell you finding a crowd-pleasing mix between classic, time-tested songs and new dancefloor request numbers can be daunting. As you break into the industry, it can also prove tough standing out as a fun choice, while still projecting professionalism and flexibility. Here in Humboldt, the market is even more niche and fickle — offbeat tastes can clash with tradition. The Blueberry Hill Boogie Band has a more than a few weddings under its belt and it shows. Just ask frontman Daniel Nickerson, who's been at it for over a decade.

Starting with his very first wedding gig in his hometown of Sacramento at the tender age of 18, Nickerson knew that live performance and music was his calling.

"I spent some years in Portland getting college educated and ended up playing banjo in a bluegrass band called Max's Midnight Kitchen," Nickerson says. "From 2013 to 2015, I played probably 20-plus weddings and special events with that group."

Moving to Humboldt County in 2015, Nickerson set himself up at Arcata's beloved artist residency spot, the Sanctuary, where he helped run the music venue, art space and recording studio for the next five years, all the while honing his craft. He spent the period from 2018 to the 2020 pandemic playing with the James Zeller Trio, where he cut his teeth in the Humboldt live music scene, playing more than 100 live shows and restaurant dinner gigs, both around the county and down in the Bay Area. He also managed to work on his special events CV, playing, by his estimation, between 40 and 50 weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, holiday parties and birthdays.

"I love playing weddings or any sort of celebration," Nickerson notes, when asked about hired specialty gigs. "My favorite type of gigs are when the band isn't the center of attention, but is part of a social gathering, providing the soundtrack to a bunch of people eating, drinking, talking, dancing and reveling ... sharing the things that make us human."

click to enlarge PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE WOODY
  • Photograph by Dave Woody

By mid-2020 it became obvious that, with the live music scene all but disappeared due to the pandemic, Nickerson had time to work on a new act, something with the novelty of audience interaction turned up — something to bring out when shows started coming back. So began the Blueberry Hill Boogie Band, an "ideal event band" that would incorporate "elements of object play and audience participation." The centerpiece of that participation is called the Boogie Box, a homemade jukebox featuring more than 200 songs (although the end goal is to get to at least 300) the audience can request. Digging into his past work in stage and puppetry with his partner and bandmate Tayloranne Finch, Nickerson designed the Boogie Box as a way to beat the pandemic doldrums, while tapping into his lifelong obsession with creating mixtapes and playlists. Joined by bassist Cyrus Smith and Ms. Finch on the musical saw, Nickerson plays guitar, croons and even hits a snare and bass drum with his feet on occasion. Depending on the nature of the gig, the group has also brought in additional musicians, including a drummer and a second guitarist, and can play as raucous or as intimate as the event requires.

"The goal of selecting the songs," Nickerson says, "has been to find a balance between the recognizable and the well-written, which doesn't always go hand-in-hand in the world of American pop music."

A quick scan of the tunes on tap confirms this. Nickerson keeps an updated playlist on Spotify for potential clients, as well as his own edification, with songs from artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Aretha Franklin, Kate Bush, Fats Waller and Tears for Fears. The scope of the project is impressive, with a list of tunes spanning more than 50 years, from the 1930s through the 1980s, across diverse genres. Nickerson also strives for an element of narrative in his song selection, something that he has honed in his work as a DJ, both for live events and his time as a roving substitute and slot-filler on local radio station KMUD.

While relatively new to the scene, the Blueberry Hill Boogie Band has already played a fair number of live gigs, including weddings in the summer of 2022, and is hoping to book more for this wedding season. These events are more than just a profession for Nickerson, they're a personal passion.

click to enlarge PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE WOODY
  • Photograph by Dave Woody

"I think of music as a social service: to put people in a good mood, to ease anxiety, to offer folks the opportunity to express themselves through dance and play at gatherings," says Nickerson. "Before recorded sound, a party wasn't a party until people started jamming."

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Collin Yeo

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