Eugene Weekly : Music : 3.4.10

A Sweet, Long Ride
It’s been 20 years for the Sugar Beets
by vanessa salvia

How long have you been in Eugene? Sugar Beets guitarist and vocalist Marty Chilla says many of his conversations these days lead off with friends calculating their number of years in Eugene and remembering when they first saw the Sugar Beets. Eugene’s perennially popular folky jam band is now celebrating 20 years, and Chilla says the milestone kind of snuck up on them. “I’ve just been looking forward to the next show, playing on the next thing and the next song and the next album,” he says, “and all of a sudden we’re pulling out the photo albums. It’s like, how did all of this happen? Yeah, it has really been that long.”

While the band has nurtured a generation of music lovers, the members have grown up too. Lead vocalist Megan Bassett was 19 when the Beets first started jamming together in 1990. “We’ve grown up as much as we’ve been there for other people growing up,” she says, and they’ve all experienced real-life, adult concerns. Chilla has undergone cancer treatments twice over the past 20 years. Bassett has borne three children, the youngest with special needs. But they never imagined not playing anymore. “The band has gotten us through the hardest things in our lives,” Bassett says. “We’re each others’ best friends.”

Their pace has slowed down a bit. They’re now playing up to 15 shows a year, down from about 80 during their height 10 years ago. “We’re making the shows more special,” says Chilla, “and they don’t have to be as often.” The band is playing more early and all ages shows these days. “Tons of our friends have little kids,” says Bassett, “so now we play at 6 or 7 o’ clock. That’s not something we would have done before, but tons of people come out. It fits our lifestyle, so that’s what makes sense now, not some big goal for the future.”

The Sugar Beets have enjoyed a remarkably steady lineup over their 20 years, but every past member will join in, in various combinations, on the three full sets of music they have planned for the anniversary show, including Bassett’s sister Brianna, also a vocalist; fiddler Tanya Bunson; drummers Jarrod Kaplan (of Trillian Green and Cirque du Soleil) and Matt Butler (Jambay and Everyone Orchestra); Paul Biondi on saxophone and flute; and Mina Wegner, teenage daughter of the Beets’ mandolin player, Jeremy Wegner, who occasionally sings with the band. “It seems to matter to people,” Chilla says.  “They say, ‘This is a special thing and we’re coming.’” 

The group is marking the occasion with commemorative tickets and T-shirts with artwork by Eugene artist Shanna Trumbly, featuring two heart-shaped beets. The band will also have a limited number of CDs of their 2000-01 New Year’s concert at the WOW Hall. The Beets have some other surprises in store, but you’ll just have to be there to find out what those are. Many of the band’s friends are helping out and contributing. “The show has become a real community effort. It’s a heart thing,” Bassett says. “Everybody who’s involved really loves to be involved. It’s gonna be amazing.” The Veterans Memorial Building features the second largest floating dance floor in the state, so bring your dancing shoes, get a babysitter and slip back in time. 

The Sugar Beets 20th Anniversary Celebration. 8:30 pm Saturday, March 6, Veterans Memorial Building Ballroom. $10 adults; $5 kids ages 4-12, 3 and under free (all ages, 21+ for bar area).