Tahoe City's Purple Curtain is steeped in legacy. A true homegrown Tahoe band, its three members share more than 50 years of experience playing music around the lake. Guitarist and singer Matt Axton also happens to be a third generation songwriter, heir to a remarkable legacy of American music.
Playing Saturday night at the Hacienda del Lago in Tahoe City, Purple Curtain is Axton, Ken Bocland (bass), and Craig Harriman (drums). Fans have described the band's sound as somewhere between the Doors and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Axton said. He personally called it "good rocking country-blues stuff."
The trio has been playing together for audiences around Lake Tahoe for the last few years. Each of the three has a lengthy musical history, having played in numerous bands. In Axton's case, that history goes back two generations.
His father, the late Hoyt Axton, was an American folk musician, singer and songwriter who wrote the Kingston Trio's big hit "Greenback Dollar" and other well-known tunes like "Joy to the World" (hint: Jeremiah was a bullfrog) and "The Pusher." He also crossed over to acting, appearing in "Bonanza," "Gremlins," and "The Black Stallion," along with numerous other films and television programs.
One generation prior, Matt Axton's grandmother, Mae Boren Axton, co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel," Elvis Presley's first big hit.
"I grew up around music my whole life, it was just there" Matt Axton said. "I'd go on tour with my dad on summers and vacations. I'd go all over the world with him. It was a very unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not many people get to do that kind of stuff."
His mother also is a musician, a pianist who met his father on the Tahoe music circuit.
"My mom is a classically trained pianist. She was my dad's piano player, that's how they met," Axton said. "She was playing in bands up here in the late '70s and he was like, 'Hey, I need a piano player,' and that was it. So on one side I have this country bumpkin goofball songwriter as my dad and then I have this classically trained amazing musician as my mom. I like to say I'm somewhere right in the middle."
Despite growing up in such a musical family (or perhaps because of it), Axton was not very inclined toward music as a child.
"Music was just always sort of there. It was never something that you either did or didn't, it was just always sort of around," he said. "I never wanted to be particularly a rock star when I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a football player or basketball player."
That changed as Axton got older. After an abandoned attempt at a college degree and several relocations, he returned to Tahoe and picked up the guitar.
"I was like, 'wow, this is pretty easy,' in a way. I'm not saying I'm out there like shredding just anything, but it was really natural to write songs, and to pick up a guitar and sing," he said. "I just sort of ran with it."
The aspiring musician played with a number of hard rock bands for a few years before moving away from the genre.
"It just eventually started getting heavier and louder," Axton said. "I don't mean the music wasn't good, it's just that's not the music really for Tahoe. In Tahoe, you know, at the fancy restaurants, they want to be able to eat their steak and drink their wine without having to worry about you being too loud. It was a learning lesson, and it was awesome, I loved doing it. But for me creatively it wasn't the thing that I wanted to do."
That was when Axton joined up with Harriman and Bocland, longtime North Shore musicians who'd played in a number of local bands.
"They've been around, they're embedded I guess you could say," Axton said.
Harriman and Bocland were founding members of a Tahoe band called Fire Chicken.
"Ten or fifteen years ago they were pretty much the pre-eminent party band over here," Axton said. "They were the drummer and bass player for that band. I guess back in the day they went down to San Francisco and opened up for Jerry Garcia. That was like the big North Shore explosion at the time."
Axton was friends with Harriman's younger brother, through whom he knew the drummer. Harriman introduced Axton to Bocland, and the three started playing music together.
"We started jamming, probably like three and a half years ago, started building up a couple of songs," Axton said. "We played at a lot of house parties, a couple bars, little things like that. Over the last couple of years we've really started honing our craft, really buckling down."
Purple Curtain has worked on a few demo cds, but has yet to release a feature album.
"We don't have anything official, any big CDs, but we definitely have the material to do it," Axton said. "It's something that's always on our minds."
Like his family before him, Axton is a dedicated song-writer. He estimates that he's written around 250 tunes to date. One musical goal of his is to strike the right balance between artistic expression and the expectations of the audience.
"For me, I think music is something you have to push yourself as a musician but you don't want to make it so out there that the audience can't connect with it," he said. "You've got to find that good middle ground. When you find it, as a musician, that's it. It's like the holy grail, it's like a drug, something that transcends languages and ages and everything."
Hacienda del Lago has played home to Purple Curtain for some time.
"Over the last year or so, that's been sort of our home base," Axton said. "It has great acoustics, the size of the room is just perfect for live music in general."
If you go
What: Purple Curtain
When: 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23. Doors open at 9 p.m.
Where: Hacienda del Lago, Tahoe City