Echo Park's Club Bahia has a new dance partner: Live Nation

Club Bahia's dance with Live Nation raising eyebrows in Echo Park

Brandon Lavoie always wondered about Club Bahia.

The Latin music venue, on the southeastern end of Sunset Boulevard at the juncture of downtown and Chinatown, stood out for its neon-airbrushed murals of DJs and dancers. "Everyone knew of this place," said Lavoie, a talent buyer at Live Nation in L.A. "All my friends would tell me the same thing — 'I've driven by it a thousand times, but I've never gone inside.'"

The 40-year-old Club Bahia is, of course, no mystery to the Echo Park salsa, bachata and cumbia fans who pack its Latin music showcases. But now, the 400-capacity venue is also hosting live sets booked by Lavoie and promoted by Live Nation, the international concert juggernaut that books concerts at the Wiltern, the recently renovated Forum in Inglewood and the new Made in America festival in downtown's Grand Park.

Nightclubs change hands and shift focus all the time. But local music fans are asking what this means for Echo Park.

The new era for Club Bahia affirms that corporate entertainment companies are eyeing L.A.'s historically Latino, increasingly bourgeois eastside neighborhoods. It's not just Echo Park — protests against similar gentrification trends have roiled the Highland Park and Boyle Heights neighborhoods too.

However, Live Nation did not purchase the venue. It still belongs to Michael Higgins, whose grandfather built it in 1974 and whose family has run it ever since. The venue's weekend Latin music nights will continue as they always have, with Live Nation shows scheduled on previously dark weeknights. The longtime bar staff will serve the new crowd as well as the old.

"We have a lady who came in the day it opened, and she's still coming here," Higgins said. "Couples who met here have spent their 30th anniversary here. Everything's going to stay the same, but this is bringing in a whole new group of people, and it's going to be a great benefit for us and for local talent."

On a cold, rainy Thursday night in December, Club Bahia's first show of the new era drew a busy crowd of svelte young locals. They danced to neo-disco tunes from rising locals De Lux and Gavin Turek while fighting off the chill outside with $8 well whiskey. Live Nation had installed a new sound system and had helped expand the stage, but it had otherwise left the room's sultry neon signs, dining tables and hand-sprayed murals intact.

People in the crowd cracked sheepish, self-aware jokes about their role in gentrifying the neighborhood.

"Thanks for coming to this new venue that was already here," De Lux's droll frontman, Sean Guerin, said during his band's set. Outside on the smoking patio, the crowd had mixed opinions about the new Live Nation era.

"It's indicative of a larger gentrification," said Scott Dittrich, a musician in the local indie band Brett. Live Nation's move is "parallel to rising house costs pushing out people who lived here for 30 years."

"I've been looking for a place over here, and I can't imagine how anyone can afford it on a musician's budget," he added.

"It's over," said Mike Richardson, who plays trombone in a local Afro-Cuban band. He's a regular at Bahia's cumbia nights. "People who actually live here enjoy music that's relevant to their culture, rather than a lily pad for [Live Nation's] national system.

"Live Nation is the devil, but they're a symptom, not the cause."

The moves come at a tense moment for Live Nation in Los Angeles. The company is pushing to take over bookings at Los Feliz's beloved Greek Theatre and has faced criticism over the L.A. edition of its Made in America festival, which was headlined by Kanye West and Imagine Dragons. The two-day Labor Day weekend concert used city resources (and downtown's marquee public park) for an event that, critics said, took place without much public input.

Others felt more optimistic.

"Just because it's Live Nation, that shouldn't discourage you from going to see an artist," said Victoria Steger, who works at the music streaming service Pandora. Live Nation "doesn't have that [experience] in the indie scene. But once they get their feet in the water, they can do good things."

Lavoie said that although he understood the mixed message of Live Nation booking shows at an independent Latin music club in Echo Park, fans should see a set before assuming anything.

"The main thing was not messing with the organic vibe of the place" said Lavoie, who lives downtown and who previously booked indie shows at such Westside venues as Central SPAC and the Mint before moving to Live Nation. He saw Bahia's friendly dance floor and un-glitzy aesthetic as assets reflecting the neighborhood. "The murals were brought up when we were talking about renovations, and all of us immediately said 'no, we can't paint over this.'"

Days after the De Lux show, a tightly packed Saturday night crowd of Latin music fans didn't seem upset by the changes at Bahia.

"It's fine," said Carlos Beltran, an Echo Park resident who shrugged off the prospect of incoming hipsters at Bahia. "As long as they still play good salsa music, I'll keep coming."

"I feel like most of us younger Hispanics won't mind" the newcomers, said Joanna Garcia, a cumbia fan from East L.A. "It's a new experience, and I think people are more OK with mixing cultures today."

Echo Park has been a musicians' neighborhood for nearly a century, from Woody Guthrie's home on "Red Hill" in the '30s to exiled Cuban composer Aurelio de la Vega mingling in what was called Little Havana in the '60s. Jackson Browne and the Eagles shared an apartment on Laguna Avenue in the '70s, and in the '90s and 2000s, Echo Park became home to countless indie rock acts and new clubs like the Echo.

Brian Smith, a lead talent buyer for Live Nation in Los Angeles, has seen this neighborhood music-scene cycle before. He previously booked shows for Goldenvoice and clubs like the Roxy, the Viper Room and the Troubadour before coming to Live Nation.

For him, Bahia is an opportunity to put on smaller, adventurous shows in a neighborhood full of songwriters and clubgoers. But he understands why Echo Park music fans might be suspicious of Live Nation moving into the neighborhood, where longtime working-class residents and musicians are being pushed out by rent increases.

"Is there some master plan for Live Nation to take over the east side of town? No," Smith said. "I get the curiosity about a big company going into this neighborhood. But there is no larger strategy here than just doing good shows correctly."

Smith's vision for Bahia was inspired by Echo Park's independent promoters, but he added that "there was never a moment where it was like, 'OK, now Live Nation is cool.'

"Will House of Blues programming work here? Absolutely not. What we're going to be doing is not really any different than what my friends Mitchell [Frank] and Liz [Garo] are doing at the Echo and the Regent."

These new shows at the Bahia will be a boon to Higgins and his staff, which will use the upgraded sound system on non-Live Nation nights too. The venue's new higher profile might also encourage local indie rockers to hang out on weekends and take in a cumbia set (and vice versa for bachata fans on an electro-disco weeknight).

For now at least, there's still room for everyone at Club Bahia. After all, people have always misconstrued the place based on how it looks.

"People always think one of three things when they first see it," Higgins said. "One, that it looks exciting. Two, that it looks dangerous. Or three, that it's the best strip club ever."

august.brown@latimes.com

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