There’s something special about a duo. More than a band, where it’s easy to replace a weak or insane link (usually the drummer), a duo has to have complete trust and respect in each other to work. There’s no replacing anyone in a duo, and the fragile nature of that relationship is what can create powerful music and performances. From Lennon and McCartney to Simon and Garfunkel to The Captain and Tennille (well, maybe not the Cap), when a duo works, it works on an entirely different level than a band or a solo artist. If there’s anyone on the local scene that subscribes to and demonstrates that fact it’s Bill Rotella and Amber Olive, better known as Amber and Smoke.
Scene from an Italian Restaurant
Like most life changing moments, it happened in a place you would least expect, at an Italian restaurant in Moorpark. When Bill Rotella was playing a low-key solo background gig at a cafe, he was approached by a patron, Amber Olive, who asked if she could join him on a song. Rotella obliged but wasn’t holding his breath that the young lady was going to be anything special. In fact, he was just hoping it wasn’t going to be embarrassing. Well, after literally stopping the restaurant in its tracks with an impromptu performance of “Proud Mary,” Rotella rightfully thought there was something very special about his set-crashing new friend.
Rotella, a lifelong musician best known for his previous band Dakota, which had recently hung it up after 27 years of an “almost made it, not quite, came close” career, was working on his solo record and immediately asked Olive, a Simi Valley resident, to join him on a few tracks. There was chemistry in the studio and on stage, and when he brought the record to some industry contacts in Nashville, it was clear to Rotella which songs were making an impact: the ones that he and Olive did together. Rotella returned to California, and he and Olive officially formed Amber and Smoke, with the name also being the title of Rotella’s solo record.
Where There’s Wine, There’s a Way
That was a little over a year ago. Since then the Thousand Oaks-based duo has been doing what seems to be increasingly difficult for new acts to do in the current musical landscape — gig. While Ventura County used to be a hot bed of venues with live acoustic music and listening rooms, Amber and Smoke found a new world in which to hone their set — and it’s all about the vino. Be it wine bars, cafes or vineyards, Amber and Smoke have been playing the circuit and bringing down the house (or garden, if you will). With a mix of California singer-songwriter folk and old-school soul — think Tina Turner fronting the Eagles — Amber and Smoke have enough energy to keep wined-up crowds grooving and moving without the “turn it down, please” that most full bands deal with in similar scenarios.
As their first year comes to a close, there is legit buzz on Amber and Smoke. People are actually turning up to shows. Some come for their fun take on the covers while others are more wisely there for the surprisingly strong originals that were released to the world Dec. 15 on the duo’s first full-length release, Riverbound.
Trust in the Process
To say Rotella is excited is an understatement. Where most musicians his age are frankly bitter, jealous or just plain over it and going through the motions, the lifer is downright jubilant when talking about his new project and partner in musical crime.
“We know something is happening,” explains Rotella. “We’ve been hearing the buzz. There’s not a show we . . . do where someone [doesn’t] come up and ask about Amber. She turns everyone’s heads and ears when we play. She just has that something special. She’s a tremendous singer and performer. I’ve been doing music all my life and I’ve never felt this type of electricity. We’re just gonna trust in the process, continue playing together and make people happy — which, no matter what happens, is really what we love doing anyway.”
Amber and Smoke perform on Friday, Jan. 19, at Relm Wine and Beer Bistro, 2390 Las Posas Road, Camarillo. The duo’s debut album, Riverbound, is out now. For more information and music, visit www.amberandsmokemusic.com.