While already known for its restaurants, retail and public art, Palo Alto's California Avenue is ready to reboot as a live music scene on the third Thursday of every month, starting May 18.
Third Thursday will kick off its inaugural event with six bands, a student art contest and opportunities for people to browse stores while enjoying California Avenue's offerings of restaurants, cafés and bars. "I wanted to bring the community together through joy and happiness. And I want to be part of supporting economic vitality for businesses in our town," said Carol Garsten, the event's producer.
Inspiration for regular live music on California Avenue came from Garsten's longtime involvement with the First Friday music scene in Los Altos — a downtown fixture that features 18 bands and performers every month. Garsten wanted to bring something similar to Palo Alto, a place that she has called home for 20 years and deeply connects with as a Barron Park resident and a former small business owner in Town & Country Village.
California Avenue already hosts a live music scene, one that popped up during the pandemic with the support of restaurant owners. Garsten envisions Third Thursday as a continuation of what already exists, just on a larger scale that involves more local musicians, businesses and community participation.
The closure of California Avenue to cars also makes it an ideal location. While the first Third Thursday will start with six bands, Garsten plans to expand it to the train station and park so people are immersed in music right when they step off the train. "It's such a great opportunity to really activate the entire street," she said.
To help Third Thursday get off the ground, the city of Palo Alto and Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce provided $6,000 in seed money. "We're hopeful that it will ultimately become a self-sustaining enterprise, where people recognize the value of it and are able to contribute funding," said Steve Guagliardo, assistant to the city manager. Garsten anticipates attracting corporate sponsors in the future. Ideally, she would like to provide an honorarium for the musicians who are not paid.
At this time, the event has a permit to take place in May, June and July, according to an email from Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, chief communications officer for the city of Palo Alto.
For Russ and Sonia Kao, playing for the community is what draws them to perform on the streets. The husband-and-wife team regularly play at First Friday in Los Altos and plan to debut at Third Thursday with their band, Wandering Acoustics. "It's just about connecting with people, having a good time, bringing joy wherever we go," Russ Kao said.
Singer-songwriter Joanna Finnis, who has lived in Palo Alto for 20 years, emphasized the unique opportunity for community members to come out and enjoy a range of musical talents while also supporting a revived arts and culture scene on California Avenue. "We're artists and so we want people to hear us, but we're also bringing music to people that maybe can't get opportunities to hear live music and hear different things," she said.
The first Third Thursday will showcase a diverse range of musical genres, from classic rock, pop and country to opera, blues and jazz.
"It will have something for everybody," said Maico Campilogno, co-owner of iTalico and Terún restaurants. Third Thursday also is an opportunity to promote businesses on California Avenue, Campilogno said. "I love music surrounding people on the street. After you're done with dinner, you take a walk and spend time looking at those retailers who are open. Music makes people happy to spend on something special," he said.
Several stores plan to stay open late and offer promotions. Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery, hopes the event will attract new people to California Avenue. "I think a repeat event on the street is helpful for getting people outside of the area to know this is happening down there, every third Thursday," she said, adding that even if people didn't buy anything, they might want to come back to California Avenue another time.
Along with live music, Third Thursday will feature student artwork in stores and restaurants, a direct nod to the designation of California Avenue as "Palo Alto's Avenue of the Arts." The attention to art — and youth's contributions to it — also is seen in the Third Thursday logo, designed by Gunn High School student Austen Cho who created an acoustic guitar in the image of the number three. Garsten wants to bring in other forms of creative expression for future events, including local theater groups.
Live music, however, ties it all together. "After being sequestered for a while from the pandemic, just coming together, maybe putting our cell phones down a little bit, just being present and out on the car-free street meeting up with friends and family, let's celebrate the joy of live music," Garsten said.