Watch Kurt Spataro and Kitty O’Neal play in their rock band
The lead singer for Skyler’s Pool, a band that has played at high-profile events such as the Sacramento Music and Farm to Fork festivals, looks and sounds familiar. Her dulcet tones, and her guitar player’s equally assured alternative-rock riffs, suggest a long collaboration.
Although both band members are well into their 50s, the catchy songs they play are not their old hits. Because they never had hits. Nor does the set list for Skyler’s Pool, led by NewsRadio KFBK afternoon anchor Kitty O’Neal and her husband, Paragary’s corporate executive chef Kurt Spataro, follow another common route for more mature bands, into a parade of Quarterflash and Pretenders covers.
O’Neal and Spataro write original material for their not-yet-2-year-old band. This makes them unicorns on the local music scene. Or at least rare, as artists revisiting songwriting and performing after 25 years of being largely musically dormant.
On Friday, Skyler’s Pool will celebrate the release of its first EP, “Under the Wire,” at Harlow’s nightclub.
“We feel like we are getting into the music scene just under the wire,” O’Neal said during a joint interview with Spataro at a local coffeehouse. They’re doing so gracefully, with a breezy alternative-rock sound, thoughtful lyrics and live shows that are energetic yet dignified, with drummer Ben Harvey, bass player Bob LoRusso and backing vocalist/keyboard player Lori Sacco-Nelson (O’Neal’s former KFBK colleague) rounding out the lineup.
There are no “Ricki and the Flash”-style illusions here. Spataro and O’Neal, who met in their 20s while playing in local cover bands, have revived their one-time rock ’n’ roll dreams only as a sideline to their current careers. But a sideline that is “exhilarating and fulfilling,” O’Neal said.
The lyrics O’Neal writes for Skyler’s Pool are more “retrospective and introspective” than what she was singing about in her 20s. “I don’t want anybody to think, ‘What is she trying to do?’ ” in fronting a rock ’n’ roll band today, O’Neal said. “I want them to think, ‘OK, I get it. This is what she has to say.’”
The band’s name, though immediately suggestive of outdoor high school graduation parties, is rooted in adult struggles. It comes from the character of Skyler White (Anna Gunn) of “Breaking Bad.” Spataro and O’Neal had been been binge-watching “Bad” just as they were trying to come up with a band name. O’Neal was taken by a scene in which an overwhelmed Skyler walks, fully clothed, into her swimming pool.
“This was a challenging time for me personally – my mom wasn’t doing great,” said O’Neal, whose mother died in 2015. “I found solace in the band. It was a really lovely distraction. … And I said to myself, this band is kind of an escape, like Skyler’s pool.”
O’Neal further explores human struggles, and buoyancy, in the Skyler’s Pool song “On Your Side.” “I’ve seen you bruised, I’ve seen you bleed”/“You take all the time you need,” O’Neal sings, her phrasing gently encouraging. “But in the light of the new day, try one more time.”
“In my business as a newscaster, I read the most horrible things,” she said. “That song was kind of an empathetic response to the people who have been victimized in so many ways … a hand on the shoulder.”
The band’s “Will I Ever Fall?” with its fat guitar chords, lush harmonies and relationship-woe theme is purely infectious, melodic pop rock suited to any age of singer. It makes one wonder what Spataro and O’Neal were like in the 1980s, when Spataro’s group, Secret Service, played the same clubs as O’Neal’s cover band, Ian Shelter.
“There was a really vibrant club scene back then,” Spataro said. “Probably six or eight clubs had music six nights a week. You could make a living at it, and we did.”
Spataro was wowed when he first saw O’Neal on stage – “Yeah, me and every other guy in the room,” he said with a laugh.
O’Neal eventually joined Secret Service, and the pair became a couple. The band regularly traveled to gigs in San Francisco and Reno/Lake Tahoe. Spataro, always interested in cooking, would take a wok on the road, making healthful meals for the group. He would read aloud to O’Neal from an Alice Waters cookbook, the way some men woo their beloveds with Pablo Neruda poems.
They eventually tired of the cover-band grind. “We said, ‘If this is ever going to go anywhere, we’ve got to quit traveling, start writing music and really focus,’ ” Spataro recalled. They took day jobs – O’Neal an entry-level position at KFBK and Spataro his first cooking job, at a dessert cafe. They wrote songs together at a rented downtown rehearsal space. But their new musical project never materialized in any meaningful way, partly because “we became too successful at our day jobs,” O’Neal said.
Over the years, they played together at one-off charity events. A few years ago, they performed a Secret Service mini-reunion show at Old Ironsides. It led to a U2 cover band, called Blood Red Sky, with Spataro, drummer Harvey (who first played behind Spataro when both were teenagers) and bassist LoRusso.
“I was having a ball,” Spataro said of playing with Blood Red Sky. His joy inspired O’Neal to want to be in a band again, and the formation of Skyler’s Pool, with close to the same cast as the U2 band. It started out playing Red Hot Chili Peppers songs and other 1990s hits.
“For me, quickly, it was like, ‘Been there, done that,’ ” O’Neal said.
But they wanted to keep playing, so O’Neal and Spataro buckled down and wrote a batch of songs, despite Spataro at times working six days a week overseeing all the Paragary’s kitchens, and O’Neal emceeing events and making other public appearances when not behind the KFBK microphone.
“Thirty years ago, we had nothing but time, and now we have no time,” Spataro said with a chuckle. “That’s the challenge.”
Spataro keeps guitars throughout the couple’s Curtis Park house, to pick up when the spirit moves him to compose a musical snippet. O’Neal comes to him with lyrics and ideas for melodies.
“I always think of Kurt as kind of (like) a punch-up guy in comedy,” O’Neal said. “ ‘Why don’t you do this here?’ ”
O’Neal is a natural on stage, her movements fluid, her between-song banter as smooth as her on-air delivery. But the band’s overall polish seems to stem from Spataro, its de facto musical director as well.
“He was always driven to learn the songs perfectly,” drummer Harvey said of Spataro, his one-time teenage band mate.
It makes sense that a guy who teaches the staffs of some of Sacramento’s best-known restaurants how to drizzle a sauce onto a plate just so would care about presentation.
“Cheffing and working in a restaurant have a lot to do with with show business,” Spataro said. But the reserved Spataro is not the typical brash “rock star” chef, even when playing actual rock on a stage. Though he jumps around a bit, he mostly seems intensely focused on the music.
Music “allows me to express myself in a way I could never express myself by talking,” Spataro said. “I am drawn to cooking for the same reasons.”
Spataro used pedals and other effects to re-create the Edge’s playing for Blood Red Sky, and brings a textured guitar sound to Skyler’s Pool.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but he’s a really good guitarist,” said veteran Sacramento event producer Jerry Perry, who is helping Skyler’s Pool put on the Harlow’s show. Perry first saw Spataro play with Blood Red Sky, and hired Skyler’s Pool to play last year’s Chalk It Up Festival at Fremont Park.
“They are undeniably talented people, and I love it when people kind of find their way through things but can still come back to music,” Perry said.
The band will play 10 originals at Harlow’s. But it is not above playing covers on occasion. It recently performed on a bill with several other bands as part of the Sacramento Bacon Fest “Kevin Bacon Soundtrack Tribute Show” event at Sacramento’s Torch Club. Skyler’s Pool played “Tainted Love” and “Crimson and Clover” to an appreciative audience that included Paragary’s restaurant pastry/executive sous chef Jodie Chavious, who came to see her boss rock out.
The kitchen crew had teased Spataro at work earlier that day, she said: “We said, ‘You need to hydrate,’ and, ‘Why aren’t you wearing your leather pants?’ ” Spataro wore black jeans and a T-shirt to the Torch Club. “Kurt doesn’t really have leather pants,” Chavious confided. “But Kitty does.”
Playing music together has helped rejuvenate a connection that started all those years ago when Spataro and O’Neal watched each other perform.
“We don’t have children, we don’t have grandchildren – we don’t have the responsibilities that most people our age do,” Spataro said. “So we can take this project and devote a lot of passion to it. I think that’s good to have, because we don’t have a ton in common. I like to surf and she likes to … what is the opposite of surfing?”
“Staying on dry land?” O’Neal offers helpfully.
Music “is one thing we have in common,” Spataro said.
Or as O’Neal put it: “When I see him up there playing guitar, I fall in love with him all over again.”