Coming Full Circuit

Idaho Songwriters Association hosts Sandpiper Circuit Reunion


In 1975, Steve Eaton was at loose ends. He'd moved back to his hometown of Pocatello from Nashville, Tenn. His band, Fat Chance, had broken up. He'd spent a year playing guitar for garage-rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders, but left because, as he put it, "I loved the group, but they just never would go to sleep." The Carpenters were preparing to record his song "All You Get from Love is a Love Song," but he didn't know that at the time (the single would drop in 1977).

Then he got a call from a young musician named Billy Braun, who'd been playing at a Pocatello restaurant called the Sandpiper.

"He called me up and he asked me if I could come down and play," Eaton said. "And I said, 'Sure.' Because I'd just got married in '72 to this girl and we were trying to raise a family. And I'd been living in L.A. and I did this thing with the Raiders and all that stuff, but I was still trying to keep working."

That phone call helped Eaton weave music back into his life. He recalled that he and the other Sandpiper musicians--who performed on a circuit of the restaurant chain's locations in Pocatello, Boise, Idaho Falls and elsewhere--played three or four nights a week and made at least $150 each night.

"It was like a living wage," he said. "There's hundreds of us that raised our families and paid car payments because of [those gigs]."

The benefits weren't just financial.

"It was like a lifestyle," Eaton said. "People would go up there and [there'd be] somebody playing, and people just could not believe that something that was that cool could be in the town. I mean, [the Sandpiper] practically ran every other restaurant out of business."

Eaton and his friends will give Boise a taste of the old days on Friday, Nov. 22, and Saturday, Nov. 23. The Idaho Songwriters Association--a nonprofit founded by Eaton in 2010--will hold the two-night Sandpiper Circuit Reunion at the Riverside Hotel's Sapphire Room. Performers include Eaton, Rebecca Scott, Gayle Chapman, Jeff Tauge, Jon Faulkner, John Hansen, Pinto Bennett and more

Opened by Bob Angell and Peter O'Neill in 1971, the Sandpiper chain was founded in Boise and expanded to five restaurants in Idaho and Oregon. The growth occurred during the tenure of Paul "Pug" Ostling, who would go on to open Grape Escape and the Noodles restaurants in Boise and Nampa, and who played a prominent role in the creation of the Boise City Department of Arts and History's Fettuccine Forum, the Gene Harris Block Party and Alive After Five.

In the early '70s, Ostling was living in California, pondering a move to Australia, when a friend invited him up to Boise to check out the Sandpiper.

"He said, 'Before you make an expensive mistake like Australia, why don't you make an inexpensive mistake?'" Ostling said.

Flying up for the weekend, Ostling arrived in Boise on Sandpiper's opening day. He started as a performer, became manager and eventually bought into the restaurant.

"I didn't have restaurant experience, but I'd been around it," he said. "I knew what it was supposed to be. And in those days, enthusiasm and knowing what it should be was enough."

The Sandpiper restaurants quickly attracted high-caliber performers."It was like Idaho's version of the Troubadour or something," Eaton said. "It got to the point [where] it didn't matter who was playing; they always had a crowd because everybody thought, 'If somebody was playing here, they must be good.'"

After he'd become manager of the Boise Sandpiper, Ostling got word of a kid who played all kinds of old pop standards.

"I knew [Braun] wasn't 19, so I'm going, 'I'm not even going to ask,'" Ostling said with a laugh. "You had to be 18 to play in a bar. But goddamn, he's a talent. And what a handful."

The success of the Sandpiper restaurants also attracted copycats and emulators. Eaton remembered how people "would come in and sit in front of the bar, writing notes down like, 'Oh, they have this kind of a wine selection and this is how they look.'" He added that Boise's Sandpiper became "a launching pad for every other venue around here." Pengilly's and Tom Grainey's, for example, started hiring musicians who played the Circuit.

"What Pengilly's did was they doubled the money," Ostling recalled. "Which is great for the musicians, but... when you have Bob Angell and Pete O'Neill looking over your shoulder at the numbers, it has to work."

In Eaton's view, the ISA--which encourages its audiences to maintain a respectful silence during performances--inherited something of the Sandpiper Circuit's spirit as well.

"We're not paying our musicians [to perform at the monthly Songwriters Forums] because we can't," he said, "but they're all so willing to come down because they just love a venue like what we used to have here--to come, plug their guitar in and sing."

According to Rich O'Hara, ISA's head of artists and repertoire, plans are already in place for future reunions. The idea with this first set of shows is to "make this as joyful an event as possible so that people who are reluctant [to attend] for one reason or another [will hear], 'Hey, we had a hell of a time in Boise. Don't miss the next one.'"

The ISA has big plans for the future. O'Hara said that the organization recently applied for 501(c)(3) status in the hopes of winning grant funds later on. The ISA also met with the Idaho Historical Society to discuss starting an archive of original Idaho songs.

In the meantime, Eaton looks forward to honoring the Sandpiper Circuit.

"People just don't really know the impact [or that] the Sandpiper was not just a great restaurant," he said. "It was more than that. There's so many musicians that are even here now as a result of this huge launching pad.""But also, it was a kickass good time," Ostling added.