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Healers Give Fans Good Dose of Music


The Borderline in Malibu is the place where, as the line goes, "The boots meet the beach." A big metal structure in the shape of a cowboy hat hangs over the dance floor, harnessing the flashing lights and the mirrored disco ball.

It's got everything you expect from a nouveau country bar: dance lessons, a singing contest with tasty prizes, cameras on the dance floor so you can watch yourself in motion--the whole shootin' match.

That's where you'll find Sarah Pierce and the Healers, come Wednesday night talent contests, egging on would-be country singers of all talent levels. When the band peels into its own material, anyone who cares to notice will hear one of the hottest bands in the area.

Last week, the Healers played a set before launching into the singing contest, and Pierce amply demonstrated how it was done. She has an impressive instrument, as they say, potent in force but also no stranger to nuance.

This night she dug sleekly into a Pam Tillis tune, "Feeling Is Believing," and then belted out the emotive waltz, "Two Cigarettes in an Ashtray" with an intensity that may have been lost on the crowd.

But such is club life in the current country boom. It's a double-edged sword. While there is more work for country musicians, most of the club patrons are there to get dance crazed and not to notice the musicians hard at work.

The core band, featuring a taut rhythm section of bassist Don Paddock and drummer Merel Bregante (who is also Pierce's husband), and the dazzling guitarist Lee Rollag, gives Pierce a support system to die for.

Pierce and Bregante hail from Santa Barbara, Don Paddock and Lee Rollag from Ventura, but they avidly travel the circuit--"from Buellton to Anaheim," as Pierce said.

It shouldn't be hard to find them in a given week. They're working and playing up a storm on the club circuit. But such work is a means to a greater end.

"Our goal certainly has nothing to do with being in clubs," said Bregante, an expansive behind-the-scenes leader who has been in various phases of the music business for 30 years. "We work all that we can, and we're going into the studio and cutting whenever we can, and showcasing whenever we can.

"We play every chance we get, because truly we have no option. We have to make a living and we choose to make a living as musicians rather than having day gigs. Actually, the only person in the band with a day gig is Sarah."

Her day gig is, aptly enough, as a healer. Pierce, who grew up on cattle ranches throughout the United States before winding up in Colorado, has a master's degree in medical science from Emory University. She works as a physician's associate, a practitioner who sees patients but under supervision of a doctor.

It was there that her interest in singing blossomed, thanks to her bass-playing stepfather, who gave her her first stage shoes. "When I was 12 I sang in this nice bar in Colorado, singing 'Help Me Make It Through the Night.' The whole time, they were just sitting there, staring at me. When I was done, they clapped, and that was it."

Her stepfather imparted on her the wisdom of having a job to fall back on. "He was the one who said, 'You've got to have a job or you'll starve. Go to college.' "

She did, served a residency in Atlanta, and then practiced for two years in Denver in neurotology, which deals with disorders of the ear and inner ear, before the call of music struck again.

"Practicing for a couple of years while I was starting to sing was a good thing," she said. "Surgery did a lot for me, psychologically, to see the humanity and the frailty."

Her mother had taken a class in engineering from Bregante, who was then living in Phoenix, and suggested that Pierce call him for advice. There began a budding love affair from afar.

"What happened was that we fell in love over the phone," said Pierce. "Finally, after five months of talking on the phone, he came out, we met and were married just a couple of months later."

In Phoenix, the couple called Bregante's old bassist friend Paddock, who was in New York and, in 1990, started the Healers. The band worked thereabouts for a couple of years before deciding to make a career step by moving to Los Angeles. Santa Barbara was close enough.

When they first got to the area, Pierce and Bregante played with that trusty, journeyman country band, Sky King. It was only in January that the relocated Healers kicked into gear again.

While they continue to audition for a fifth member of the band to complete the permanent line-up, the list of temporary Healers has included such Ventura music scene stalwarts as keyboardist Ken Stange and guitarist Jimmy Monohan, who was on the job at the Borderline last week.

Masterful players both, Monohan and Rollag are daredevils and smooth talkers on that country guitar vehicle of choice, the Fender Telecaster.

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