At times, Santa Rosa seems a sleepy little rural town, a regional center almost by accident, built through decades of accumulated suburbs.
At other times, it feels loud as hell, especially when folk-punk rock bards The Crux are playing. This year, The Crux turns 15, with a show scheduled to celebrate their anniversary at McNear’s Mystic Theater in Petaluma on Dec. 17. It also happens to be the 40th birthday of singer, songwriter, guitarist and art-scene catalyst Josh Windmiller.
I sat down with Windmiller for a chat under the condition that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, but screw that. You see, I am a HUGE fan of the band and his. It has taken me years to stop bouncing up and down in his presence. Now that I’ve calmed down, it feels that we are becoming friends. I suspect a lot of artists around the region feel that way.
Indeed, Windmiller is more than a frontman of the most interesting band in the North Bay. He is a dedicated professional community organizer whose efforts have brought such jewels to Santa Rosa as the Railroad Square Music Festival and the Lost Church, both endeavors that lift up local artists, expanding the available cultural options for residents of the city. This whole ethos is baked into the wacky-weird beauty of The Crux.
Traveling Band That Stays Home
It might help to get a picture of the band in action, lest my praise come off as hyperbole to the uninitiated, the unconverted, the not yet saved. With the full band playing in the pure white of a gospel choir while clanging away on the full range of Americana instruments, some possibly hand-made inventions, Windmiller has indeed been on stage in character as a snake oil salesperson, a frontier preacher and a contortionist starting shows chained in a box below center mic. These are factual descriptions, y’all.
My personal favorite incarnation is the old west circuit gospel faith healer, supposedly just rolled into camp to uplift the poor souls of the audience. As Windmiller booms a sermon between tunes, lost souls stagger up from the audience to place their foreheads into his outstretched hand and “Hallelujah!”, they are healed and raise their voices to the heavens before joining the band on stage. This is how the backup singers are introduced, through the grace of God.
Throughout the show, members join and leave the set. “The original idea behind The Crux in many ways was inspired by the idea of a traveling show,” Windmiller told me. “The idea of rotating groups of people is important to that. [Our shows have] that feeling of momentum. I want, when people go to a Crux show, to feel like they’re transported somewhere.”
Santa Rosa Arts
In a way, momentum is what Windmiller’s work is all about.
Even though he has a fascination with the idea of travel, Windmiller said, “There’s something about my approach to the arts that’s very much rooted in the local.” That contrary nature shows up in The Crux. “It’s at one point about characters and stories and movement, while at the same time, you know, being about your neighbors and your neighborhood.”
Indeed, The Crux began all those years ago in neighborhood living rooms and barns around Santa Rosa, shows where the boundary between the audience and the players was a permeable thing.
It was the kind of scene at the time that seemed a launching board to that travel, the movement elsewhere, yet was rooted right there in Santa Rosa. “Sometimes it’s been hard to reconcile. I never really planned on being, you know, in Santa Rosa all the time.”
Yet, Windmiller’s presence is foundational in the local music scene. As development director of the Lost Church, and co-founder of the Railroad Square Music Festival, he has poured his heart, soul and sweat into building momentum for artists and concert-goers in Santa Rosa.
For those not yet familiar with the Railroad Square Music Festival, the annual event pulls in 6,000 attendees to see dozens of bands right in the square.
“One of the main things behind the Railroad Square Music Festival is to make a music festival that you could wander into by accident. It’s right there in the heart of Santa Rosa,” said Windmiller about the free event. “We try to make it as accessible as possible.”
The Lost Church, tucked away in the back of the Press Democrat building on Ross Street at Mendocino Avenue, is a funky little spot custom built for intimate shows. A branch of the Lost Church non-profit out of San Francisco, the venue exists for the purpose of maintaining the sustainability of a community stage that is open and accessible to the community.
“I never thought I’d be a venue guy,” Windmiller laughed nervously. “Venues are such a big task.” Pulling on his antiquely-styled beard in thought, he noted that these days it seems that music is so often tied to events, rather than just a thing to go out and do.
The median age in Santa Rosa is 35 years old, with a lot of families. Having music just in bars and clubs that play until midnight is not going to work for a lot of people. Windmiller and the teams behind the Lost Church and the Railroad Square Music Festival are committed to being more inclusive. Shows at the Lost Church are all ages and always end by 10:30pm.
Time to Celebrate
To have a band with a strong local following for 15 years is quite a feat. “It’s nice to have a history,” said Windmiller. “We’ve created a history together, and we’re growing together.”
The show at the Mystic will feature the return of co-founder and early days co-lead singer Tim Dixon, and of course a rotating cast of local music characters gathered to celebrate the achievement of these beloved local folk-punk freaks.
“I’ve just had the fortune of working with incredible musicians and artists of all kinds,” said Windmiller, reflecting on the depth of the local scene and his roots in Santa Rosa. “I’ve tried to live this life the way I want to. I’ve [considered] moving a few times, but then, you know, before I can pack my bag, I’ve got [to run to] a coffee date with a local piano player. “
The Crux plays with La Gente SF at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma on Dec. 17. Tickets available online at mystictheatre.com. Learn more about the Lost Church at thelostchurch.org. Musicians interested in playing the 2023 Railroad Square Music Festival can contact [email protected].