From backing players to Shoestring Trio

Shoestring Trio.
Shoestring Trio.

The guys in Shoestring Trio had just finished a gig backing Los Angeles-based songwriter Jessica Fichot at a festival in Arles, France, when the organizers insisted they continue playing.

They couldn’t continue at the festival, though, so someone suggested another venue: the historic church of Saint Barthelemy.

“The mayor of the town said, ‘I think I can open it for you,’” said Robby Marshall, sax and clarinet player with the trio.

When the church doors opened, 250 people filed in to see the trio perform an unscheduled additional set. And as the trio performed in this surreal, aged building, they figured they were onto something.

“It was kind of our ‘ah-ha’ moment,” said Marshall, whose trio performs at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo Saturday. “It’s moments like that that are available if you take a chance and go on the road.”

Before performing with Shoestring Trio, Marshall’s path seemed headed in a different direction. Having taken up piano at an early age, then saxophone, then clarinet, then the cajon, he was one of many talented musicians trying to make a living in Los Angeles. He had performed session work for Michael Buble, Carlos Santana and Bobby McFerrin when he eventually clicked with two other musicians — Michael Papillo and Antoine Salem.

“We were all sidemen in other projects,” Marshall said.

The three met for the first time while performing with Fichot, who was originally from France. With an affinity for gypsy jazz, tango, samba and chanson, the trio realized they were more than a backing band. 

“It was almost like the band started before we even realized it,” Marshall said. “And all of the sudden, we were, like, ‘We need a name. I think we’re a band now.’ ”

They named themselves after shoestring fries — a favorite snack from the South Beverly Grill, where they had performed with Fichot — and set about getting gigs. Since their instrumental music catered to a European feel, they started making plans to go overseas.

“The first summer we did it, we were couch surfing a lot of the time,” Marshall said. “We had maybe 10 gigs booked and ended up playing 25 shows.”

This summer they will embark on their fourth European tour.

While the trio’s commitment to the group has grown, it has come with a sacrifice: Each musician had garnered work in Los Angeles in the past.

“When you’re doing sessions, the sessions are always going to pay this much,” Marshall said. “And if you do that for 10 years, it gets to feel like a day job. It’s a cool day job, but it can still feel like a day job.”

While the trio has been known to perform recognizable songs, such as “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Night in Tunisia,” they are currently planning on an album of original music.

“Everybody longs to do something like this,” Marshall said. “And we may not do it forever. But right now we realize that we’ve got something special.”

They hope to create music for movies or commercials eventually. But now they’re hoping to continue touring, building their audience at home and abroad.

Marshall still plans to work for other musicians. But he will put more effort into Shoestring Trio because it affords him more artistic freedom. 

“It takes a leap of faith, and it takes a long time to grow,” Marshall said. “But you own it.”


Shoestring Trio

8 p.m. Saturday 

Steynberg Gallery, 1531 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo


547-0278 or www.steynberg-events.com

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.