Vinyl guitarist Billy Frates pulls off a sterling Santana impression on Flea Market


By Steve Newton

Inside Flea Market, the latest CD by Bay Area jam band Vinyl, there’s a gatefold reproduction of a painting by friend Neil Osborn (not the 54•40 guy) that depicts the titular open-air bazaar, with hippie types setting up shop in front of old vans and buses to sell musical instruments, hats, antiques, and bric-a-brac. If you look closely you can see a couple of wooden boxes containing vinyl albums, and if you look even closer you might recognize the cover artwork of Yes’s Close to the Edge and Santana’s Caravanserai, which were both released in ’72.

There’s a song on Flea Market, “Espacio”, on which guitarist Billy Frates pulls off a sterling Carlos Santana impression, but nowhere on the disc will you find an homage to Yesman Steve Howe.

“God, I would love to fit that in there somewhere,” says Frates, on the line from his home in Mill Valley, California. “I just don’t think Steve Howe’s playing really comes off into my style so much. He is definitely an influence, though; that whole era is an influence.”

As music-hungry kids in the days of flared jeans and 8-track tapes, Frates and other members of his eight-piece group actually visited the outdoor swap meet depicted in the CD’s black-and-white cover photo.

“That [photograph] was in homage to the flea markets that have now been paved over and made into strip malls,” notes the 38-year-old Frates, whose rhythmic playing bolsters Vinyl’s instrumental groove-funk vibe. With its freewheeling musical approach, the band has drawn comparisons to other improv-oriented acts such as the String Cheese Incident, Garaj Mahal, and Widespread Panic.

“We never planned on getting hooked into that,” relates Frates, “but that’s kind of a phenomenon right now. I’m hearing the term jam band a lot in mainstream media, which tells me that it’s still growing.”

Local fans of the genre can check out Frates and friends when they play the Fairview on Saturday (April 19), or head up to Whistler for gigs at the Boot Pub on Sunday and Monday (April 20 and 21). Like their jam-happy colleagues in the String Cheese Incident, the Vinyl guys treasure the white stuff.

“I actually had my honeymoon at Whistler,” explains Frates. “My wife taught me how to ski, but then I got more into ’boarding.”

Since its inception in ’95, Vinyl has played more than 800 concerts and sold out many of the Bay Area’s top venues, including Santana’s old haunt, the Fillmore Auditorium. The group currently has three indie CDs available via the Internet ( and doesn’t feel much need for major-label distribution.

“That’s never been a real big focus of ours,” offers Frates. “Through the years we’ve met friends and families and people involved that have helped this thing along, and so far so good. I mean we haven’t made the big time big time, but we’ve kind of held our ground as being a grassroots kinda thing.”

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