[UPDATED] A bell rings in Humboldt

Beth Isbell. JV | Union

Beth Isbell with books she's written and edited in Humboldt. JV | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Author, musician, hostess, caregiver, DJ and former attorney Beth Isbell needs more hours in the day.

She has worked all day at her job for HCAR, helping developmentally challenged adults move into the world that seems easy to navigate for most of us. She’s passionate about that job because her civil rights law background helped her to see the larger picture of disability rights.

“When I was a lawyer, the biggest part of my practice was representing disabled clients. You just have a different lens,” she said. “It’s eye-opening to gain a different perspective.”

Now she deals with the day-to-day routines and the nitty-gritty, walking and taking the buses with her clients.

After that gig ends, she still has energy to lead the popular open mic Thursday nights at Blondies Food and Drink in Arcata. She does the sound for the whole night. “I try to make everybody sound as exceptional as I can,” she said.

Every musician gets “15 minutes or three songs,” Isbell explained. “We give them the choice of signing up for position. Not everyone wants to go first.” Sign-up is at 6:15 p.m. and the show runs from 6:30 to 10 p.m.

A recent Thursday night at Blondies was standing-room-only, with every seat in the house filled. A few of the audience members even sat on the floor. The parking lot overflowed and a large crowd stood outside as well. The place was hopping.

“It’s  really the best open mic north of San Francisco,” she said. “There are so many talented college kids and young people traveling through. It never ceases to amaze me, the level of talent.”

Thursday is a long day for Isbell, as she drives to Redway where she’s the late evening DJ on KMUD. She hosts The Flower Power Hour (a psychedelic music show) every Thursday night – really early Friday morning – at 1 am. And on the first Friday of the month, she hosts KMUD’s best indie and alternative rock as well as a countdown of Musical Possibilities during drivetime from 3 to 5:30 p.m. No wonder she’s in tune with the young musicians who throng to Blondies!

She’s a natural fit at KMUD. “It’s the first station I heard when I drove into Humboldt the first time,” she explained. “The Cannabis Consciousness Hour was on and I thought, Wow! What an accepting place.”

And she finds time to write songs, edit an anthology of poetry and photographs, write her own poems, practice with other musicians, and perform at a variety of venues herself.

It’s hard to figure out where the woman finds enough hours in the day.

Maybe it’s because she is used to working “24-7 for a trial” when she was a civil rights lawyer. “My favorite part was research and writing briefs,” she said. That kind of work was intense and led to many victories for her clients. Isbell has the bragging rights to “winning more Supreme Court decisions” than most folks. Many of the cases were about age discrimination. She even won a case in which topless dancers were being discriminated against because they were considered too old.

She knows about discrimination herself. After she transitioned from male to female, her law career ended. “I used to do civil rights law,” she explained on her website, BeThisBell Art Collective. “Then I transitioned from male to female. That was a hard decision and a very costly one. I was no longer able to find a  job, even among firms that specialized in civil rights law, because they feared that a jury or clients might not be as open-minded as they claimed to be. But I am who I am and like who I am ...”

“Somebody in Humboldt is missing a tremendous opportunity at not hiring me to be a brief writer for them,” she said with a wry smile. (She’s not able to practice law in California until she passes the bar, which takes money and the time to study for it.) But Isbell, or Beth Bell as she’s known when she performs, keeps on moving on.

She was accepted at the prestigious Berklee College of Music but without a scholarship, so she ended up earning a bachelor’s degree from the Academy of Contemporary Music in Oklahoma in 2013.

She could add that to her resume of a bachelor’s in business management and marketing and a law degree as well.

“I have a dogged determination to stick with the music thing,” she said. “That’s why I went to music college. I was getting better but not good enough. I learned a lot about how to perform and music practice.”

Isbell, herself, has overcome a “tremendous stage fright, like panic attacks.”  Music college helped her through that.

And the welcoming audiences of Humboldt have continued the process.

“I love the Humboldt audiences. They are so encouraging. That’s a huge difference from Dallas or Oklahoma.  It’s soul crushing when people put you down. Out here it’s so loving and accepting.”

Isbell is talking not only about herself but about other musicians, including the young ones at Blondies. “It really helps an artist to develop and flourish,” she said.

Flourish she will, with a host of albums and EPs of her music published. The latest, Shine On!, was released in February and is essentially a compilation EP, she said, featuring the opening or closing tracks from her original full band studio album, We Are The Gods! (2013),  Work It Out (2015), and the 2015 EP.

"I was trying to create something uplifting and without all the cuss words to showcase my work," she wrote. "The EP turns out to be a really nice listen and introduction.”

She’s right. The EP features some tasty guitar work and the lyrics are both clever and inspirational.

With one band, Bell played a show in New York last October. “They picked us out of a couple hundred acts,” she said.

With another band, the P.M. Band, she’ll be playing the PRIDE Festival on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 1 p.m. in Halvorson Park.

You can also hear her with various bands on YouTube and SoundCloud.

But for the full BeThisBell (a play on her name), catch her in person.

As she says about doing her own material, “You are putting your heart and soul out there.”

Shine on, Beth Bell!

For more info and links to Beth Isbell's many, many projects – including her space cow comedy blog – visit bethisbell.com.

[This article was updated on Sept. 9 to correct the night of the Blondies open mic, which is on Thursday evenings, not on Wednesdays as was previously reported.]


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