Joe Leonardi celebrates birthday in Sisters

Music community honors longtime Central Oregon artist

By Brian McElhiney, The Bulletin

What: Joe Leonardi birthday bash featuring Cuppajoe, The Wychus Creek Band, Anastacia, The Natives of America

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Belfry, 302 E. Main Ave., Sisters

Cost: Donation suggested

Contact: belfryevents.com

By Joe Leonardi’s count, it’s been about five years since the muses came around.

The bassist, singer-songwriter, videographer and artist has experienced multiyear spurts of creativity throughout his life, he explained while sitting in his geodesic home in Sisters recently. One of these surges led him to create a musical/rock opera with his friend, New York City playwright Chris Meredith, while living in Colorado in the ’70s. Another one, the most recent, lasted for about seven years, during which time Leonardi wrote a batch of songs that makes up the bulk of his performing repertoire today.

“It’s interesting when the muse comes around, because all of a sudden, I just can’t stop writing,” Leonardi said. “I went through — it was one period of about six years, maybe seven, that every day I was writing, it was there, it was there.”

Leonardi has written a handful of songs in the last five years — the bluesy rock ballad “Confidence,” from local rock quartet JZ Band’s 2016 album “Sauce,” is one of his more recent compositions. But in his mind, that writing doesn’t compare to the stuff he’s created when the muses hit him.

“You talk to so many songwriters, and everybody, including myself for sure, say(s) that some of their best work comes as a gift to them,” Leonardi said. “It’s all done — the whole music, the lyrics, everything is all there — and they just grab it physically and work it out physically and there it is. And some of the best songs, they’re always so simple. Simplicity is beautiful. … And then there’s the stuff that you have to really craft and work at. And you know, you can get some good stuff out like that too, but not nearly as good as the stuff that comes from up there.”

Leonardi, who turns 73 on Monday, has called Sisters home for more than two decades, during which time he’s played in numerous bands while running his digital video production company, Leonardi Media Arts, out of his home. His influence on Central Oregon’s arts and music scenes will be celebrated at a birthday party Saturday at The Belfry, featuring performances from Leonardi’s bands Cuppajoe and Wychus Creek Band along with sets from The Natives of America and Leonardi’s daughter Anastacia Armstrong.

Michael “Doc” Ryan, frontman of Wychus Creek, started the formal birthday bash for Leonardi last year at HarmonyHouse. Before that, Leonardi hosted an informal event at his Sisters home that would usually turn into a jam session, Ryan said. The two musicians met about five years ago at the Sisters Folk Festival’s Americana Song Academy songwriters camp, and have been playing together pretty much ever since.

“For the people that know Joe, people have this feeling, he’s super sincere about the art he’s doing, the passion that he puts into his music and then his lifestyle,” Ryan said. “He’s just one of those great guys that cares about people, and he cares about the environment. Joe doesn’t fake it, that’s just his world.”

Leonardi was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, New York. He began playing guitar as a teenager, inspired by groups such as The Young Rascals, Vanilla Fudge and The Vagrants, but eventually switched to bass when he joined his first band at age 16.

“I was the least good guitar player of everybody, so they made me play bass,” he said, laughing.

While in his 20s, he moved to the East Village in Manhattan, where he was exposed to the burgeoning rock ’n’ roll scene and saw musicians such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix perform live. He left with his wife for California in 1968, but spent much of the ’70s touring Colorado with his country-rock band Yukon Railroad Company.

It was during this time Leonardi met author, inventor and designer Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the geodesic dome that Leonardi used as a template for his Sisters home. Fuller’s ideas about environmental sustainability, synergy and metaphysics would have a huge influence on Leonardi’s music and art, eventually leading Leonardi to co-create his rock opera, “Autona.” The story, which encompassed 22 original songs, featured a male and female lead who were different versions of the same person from parallel universes.

“We were gonna have dancers in the show, this whole multimedia pop music/opera show, and that’s as far as we got. We recorded the synopsis, and my co-writer buddy went back to New York to try and dig up some sponsorships — some investors to put it on — but it just didn’t quite make it over that hump,” Leonardi said. “… But I’m certainly glad that I did it. It was just really inspiring. These muses, creative muses, were just flying around like crazy. Every morning, I couldn’t wait to — the both of us couldn’t wait to get up and start writing.”

The multimedia nature of the show ended up influencing Leonardi’s Media Mania shows at the Domino Room in Bend many years later. Beginning in 2000 and continuing for the next seven years, Media Mania combined live music, dancing, video projection and live filming, and featured performers such as Mosley Wotta and Leonardi’s daughter Armstrong.

“It was a real work of love, and I still see these artists around town, still saying, ‘When are we gonna do another one? It was the greatest experience,” Leonardi said. “It was a real give-and-take kind of thing; it was really cool.”

Leonardi purchased land in Sisters in the early ’80s to build his geodesic dome, which he finally moved into in 1996. He said he “became obsessed” with finding property there after visiting a friend who had also moved to the city from California.

“When I left California, L.A., people down there were saying, ‘You’re going where? To Sisters, Oregon, to do video? What are you, … nuts? Where the hell is Sisters, Oregon?’” Leonardi said. “But I just knew. I knew that the potential was here. And back then it was like three people doing video production. Now it’s like, I don’t even know.”

Armstrong, who grew up in Southern California with her mom after her parents divorced, said Leonardi was the main inspiration behind her own music. She’s also based in Sisters, having followed her father up here after a stint living in Australia, and sits in with her father’s bands regularly.

“I think that gives him more joy than anything, is to play music with me onstage,” Armstrong said. “When we play for people, I just — the love that pours out of his eyes is like the most beautiful gift I could ever have from a parent.”

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