Rooney Pitchford ‘15 is a rock star. Or at least he was on Saturday night, when he performed for a sold-out crowd at the Milk Bar, a cozy Haight Street dive that was packed wall to wall with fans, friends and family coming to see his homecoming return.
Since graduating from Stanford in the spring of 2015, Pitchford has been working full-time on promoting his well-studied blend of country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll music. During that time, he’s played small-time gigs across the country, found some radio play in New Orleans and established a presence in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. He’s also built up a small online following that supports him on Patreon and tunes in to his weekly Friday afternoon Facebook Live events, which he films in his backyard.
Saturday’s San Francisco gig marked a triumphant return home for Pitchford, who spent most of his life in the Bay Area before leaving for Texas. He benefited from a decidedly friendly crowd that, by the looks of it, consisted mostly of his class of recent Stanford grads and old fraternity brothers. Hours before Pitchford even took the stage, bellows of “Rooney!” rang out sporadically while the rest of the crowd chattered amongst one another, catching up with old friends and remaining indifferent to the two opening acts.
A little before midnight, Pitchford came out to raucous applause, totally at ease in a venue that – let’s face it – had basically taken on the buzzing atmosphere of a frat party. He laughed as friends in the crowd shouted inside jokes and did a little jig when they yelled his name. While his five-piece band finished setting up, he turned to the keyboardist Jacob Wittenberg ‘12 with an ear-to-ear grin and shouted, “Play to the best of your ability!”
In reality, there was no pressure to excel, so it’s a credit to Pitchford and the motley crew of Stanford alums backing him that they did anyway. For all the audience cared, Pitchford could have ditched his stratocaster, emptied his Red Stripe over the crowd and tried his hand at Tuvan throat singing – the applause still would have been deafening. Luckily, he played a set that consisted of just about every track from his 2016 debut “Familiar Places,” along with a handful of new originals and a Rolling Stones cover.
For those familiar with Pitchford’s recorded music (and many in the crowd were), it was an evening of straight hits. The most devoted sang along loudly to tracks like “Becky” and “South Side of Austin,” and others continued to shout Pitchford’s name and compete for his attention from the front row.
Although Pitchford’s lyrics tend to land on the more wistful side of things, even the most heartrending tracks, like “Familiar Places” (“I’m alone inside, with nothing on my mind/Except the Sunday morning last that you were here”), felt celebratory, largely due to Pitchford’s roaring guitar solos and the unrelenting energy of his band: Chris Davis Ph.D. ‘18 on bass, Jacob Wittenberg ‘12 on keys, Carlos Cabrera M.S. ‘18 M.B.A. ‘14 on drums and Kyle Tessier-Lavigne on rhythm guitar. It doesn’t really come across on the album, but Pitchford can shred with the best of them.
The band only got louder as the night went on, and the crowd hollered to the point where my ears were still ringing well into the next day. While some songs, like the finger-picking ditty “CD Jam” and a new ballad called “Down the Line,” might have been better appreciated in a quieter atmosphere, the rest of the set sat well with the high energy of the room, and the night reached a fever pitch with the heavy-handed blues waltz “Eulogy for B.B. King.”
After packing up his equipment and saying his goodbyes, Pitchford returned to Austin to get back to work. On Thursday afternoon, he streamed a live acoustic session from his backyard in order to promote a Friday night gig at The Rattle Inn. It’s a shame that he won’t always be playing gigs where everybody knows his name, but I have a feeling that someday, he might not have to come all the way home to find the right crowd. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday night, then soon enough, they might just start flocking to him.
Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.