As the bass player for the Movies, an indie rock band out of Silver Lake, I thought I had played just about every hole in the wall in Los Angeles with every no-name performer in town.
So it came as a surprise when, having been asked to seek out the best unknown musical acts and venues in the area, I found a seemingly endless assortment of places and faces that I never knew existed.
FOR THE RECORD:
Music in L.A. —In today's West magazine article on the best unknown musical acts in L.A., one of the websites given for Christina Vierra should have been www.mamapearlmusic.com.
Some of the musicians and scenes I stumbled upon may break through one day. Most won't. They've long been obscure to nearly all but their most hard-core fans. That's just fine; fame is often fleeting anyway.
FOR THE RECORD:
Busdriver show —An article in Sunday's West magazine on the best unknown musical acts in L.A. listed the date for a show by rapper Busdriver at the El Rey as Feb. 16. It is Feb. 17.
But greatness is not. So next weekend, when the spotlight on the Grammys has dimmed, head to one of these haunts or track down these artists—the cream of what I discovered during my search for backwater bars and below-the-radar bands—and listen for yourself. Then you'll hear a remarkable sound: music made for music's sake.
The Cowboy Palace SaloonThe Chatsworth air smelled of damp leaves and a cool breeze blew as I pulled into a dingy strip mall and parked in front of a coin-op laundry with fake wood paneling.
Bordered by Bully's Billiards, a strip club and a liquor store, the Cowboy Palace Saloon calls itself "the last real Honky Tonk," and it's true to its word.
Pushing through swinging Old West-style doors, I emerged at the edge of a large wood dance floor. A five-piece country band, Debra Lee & Trigger Happy, was tearing it up onstage. "Here's something you can two-step to," said the feisty Lee, as a middle-aged woman in a pink blouse swished past me, arm in arm with an old man in a bolo tie. I sidled up to the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary. The Asian cowboy beside me played a harmonica softly to himself, and a man in Wrangler jeans and a 10-gallon hat strummed air-guitar on his pool cue.
For the next couple of hours, I sat back and listened to some of the most enjoyable lap steel-driven melodies I had heard in a long time, including old favorites by Patsy Cline. When I finally got up to go, a little man with the biggest mustache and the saddest eyes in the world asked me to dance. "Sorry," I said. "I'm on my way out." Then I turned and pushed my way into the sweet night air, still whistling "Dixie."
The Vitals: 21635 Devonshire St., Chatsworth; (818) 341-0166; http://www.cowboypalace.com . No cover, full bar, free barbecue on Sunday and free dance lessons nightly. Highly recommended: a Bloody Mary made by Irene. Performances to catch: Terry Hanson & the Westerners, Gary Hill, Chad Watson and the Wednesday night talent contest.
BusdriverOn a Thursday night at Echo Park's club du jour, the Echo, I came across an articulate, rapid-fire underground rapper named Busdriver. With a powerfully resonant voice and lyrics that speak to a world beyond bling, he, well, transported me.
As he performed—I looked over your rap, and saw several grammatical errors on my first proof read, that's why my catalog is what your merch booth needs—Busdriver stalked across the stage with the mic cord thrown around his neck. Something in his delivery reminded me of Public Enemy's Chuck D, but Busdriver has a fresh, direct style all his own.
The air hung heavy with sweat and the smell of pot mingling with bubblegum. A quick glance at the packed crowd revealed a remarkably diverse audience: white kids with dreadlocks, black kids in baseball caps, a girl in a veil and a group of Latinos grooving to the infectious beat. As the bespectacled Busdriver explained to me later, this motley crew made perfect sense: Underground rap is about acceptance.
In grade school, he formed a group called 4/29, named for the start date of the 1992 L.A. riots. "We were two black kids and a Korean kid," said Busdriver, who now is 28. "We thought we were so positive, bridging the gap." But ultimately, he said, underground rap is just another avenue in the sprawling grid that is hip-hop. "If you're black and grow up in a black neighborhood, rapping is essential," Busdriver explained. "In essence, it's the last folk music."
The Vitals: http://www.busdriversite.com . Busdriver's albums can be found on his website and at independent music stores. See him Feb. 16 at the El Rey with Aceyalone and Rjd2, 10 p.m.
Il CorralNestled in an unassuming brick building covered with lush green vines not far from Los Angeles City College, Il Corral is an iconoclast's oasis.
"Noise is the new punk rock," its no-frills website proudly proclaims. Inside, I quickly learned that this was no mere slogan: Youths with spiked hair and gaudy accessories writhed in unison to the musical stylings of a charmingly atonal three-piece rock band called the Pencils.
A climbing rope, affixed to the ceiling, swung in the mob's center, while off to one side a DJ booth was propped on a plywood board and sawhorses. Several tattered couches of thrift-store lineage lined the walls and continued into the cluttered back room. There, the occasional reveler rested his head, perhaps for the night.
Watching them, it hit me: Il Corral is not so much a place to be as it is a place to belong.
The Vitals: 662 N. Heliotrope Drive, Los Angeles. No phone; http://www.ilcorral.net for show listings, http://www.seancarnage.com for information, news and photos. Because this is an art space/residence, not an official venue, a $5 donation is suggested. Highly recommended: swinging on the climbing rope during a raucous noise/sound art performance. Performances to catch: Night Wounds, Moth Drakula, Obstacle Corpse and Privy Seals.
The Back Room at Henri'sI entered this candle-lit establishment on a lazy Tuesday night and listened to the three lone occupants by the piano discuss the writing and selling of songs.
All the while, I pictured myself sitting quietly in the corner, smoking a cigarette and wishing for snow. Housed in the side room of a diner in a mustard-yellow building in Canoga Park, the Back Room at Henri's is the closest thing I've found in L.A. to a proper Manhattan jazz bar.
At one point, a trim, white-haired man said something inaudible to the waitress. "You musician, you!" she replied. She wasn't kidding. Soon the man picked up a guitar. It was John Chiodini, a seasoned jazz musician who has played with Maynard Ferguson, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett.
Chiodini strummed with solemn concentration, his left heel tapping ever so slightly, his head bowed over the neck of his guitar. Later, he told a story about performing in Lapland. A local band played "Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington. "They were murdering it—but the fact that they were trying to play it" was what really blew him away, Chiodini recalled. "This music that is so native to America— we were all sitting there crying."
The Vitals: 21601 Sherman Way, Canoga Park; (818) 348-5582. No cover, full bar, diner fare. Highly recommended: arriving alone and making friends with one of the fascinating jazz enthusiasts who frequent the place. Performances to catch: John Hammond Trio, John Chiodini Trio.
Christina VierraOK, I sort of cheated on this one. Vierra doesn't count as a new discovery. I first met the brazen, fiercely proud and slightly wounded singing virtuoso six years ago when we both were waitresses at the Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake.
Her voice—a rich, smoky commingling of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner—shoots from her small frame with the sudden power of a back draft. Sometimes she would sing with the piano player at the bar, and I'd sneak from my post and stand on the dark stairs watching her, rapt.
Vierra was signed to Warner Bros. Records in the '80s. She has a picture of herself, in a tube top and corkscrew blond curls, sitting on the desk of the label's president. But a skirmish with Madonna over the right to sing "Papa Don't Preach" ultimately torpedoed her deal.
Still she persevered, eventually sitting in with funk heavy-hitter Rufus, as well as with Joe Sample and the Jazz Crusaders and members of the Wailers, among others. These days she's revving up her latest project, Goldilocks and the Big, Bad Woof.
"I know people feel me," she said after a recent performance at Harvelle's in Santa Monica, "cause, for better or for worse, I put myself out there."
The Vitals: http://www.christinaandthewhippingboys.com and http://www.mamapearlmusic.com . Her music can be found at online retailers such as CD Baby. See her With Blowin' Smoke, the second or third Saturday of every month at Harvelle's. Also look for upcoming gigs at Cozy's and B.B. King's.
Panamerican Night Club"Meet me on the corner of Temple and Rampart," might not sound like the most auspicious invitation. Unless, of course, you're going to the Panamerican Night Club.
The corner, a mere block from the notorious Rampart police station, is home to one of L.A.'s most underrated Latin dance clubs. As I sat at the bar on a Wednesday night, white skin gleaming in a sea of brown faces, the bartender didn't mince words. "People like you," he said, with a rich Mexican accent, "they don't want to go dancing here. But we are trying to change that."
I'd driven by the Panamerican a million times and had always been curious. Once inside, I found it low key and friendly. The night I was there, a pulsing Honduran band called Bambu seduced the crowd, which whirled around the spacious dance floor. The engaging punta and soca rhythms warmed me, and I watched contentedly, knocking back a few drinks and dreaming of sunny days on a distant coast.
The Vitals: 2601 W. Temple St., Los Angeles; (213) 386-2083. No cover except Friday and Saturday nights. Highly recommended: sipping a Tecate with lime while admiring the fancy footwork on the dance floor. Performances to catch: Bambu, Grupo Amigo.
Bruce Burton w/ King SizeGreat music often sweeps in on the tails of reinvention. Enter Bruce Burchmore, who was born in Bangkok, moved around a lot and eventually landed at USC to study music history. He mastered the lute before heading off in a new direction—starting a successful Pilates studio. A little more than a year ago, after a painful breakup, Burchmore took his guitar to Manhattan, where he holed up in a hotel for 10 days, writing music and wallowing in melancholy.
When he emerged he was Bruce Burton, country singer, and he had in his hands the makings of a fine album. Back in L.A., he assembled the skeleton for Uncle Cowboy, a band of uncanny talent, which has since been renamed King Size. "I'm in a place in my life where I can't waste time on anything that lacks promise," Burton explained.
The band's music is back-to-roots country, rife with longing and old-fashioned heartbreak and a driving sound that would feel right at home over the hill in Bakersfield. Burton's voice cracks with barely contained emotion.
But he isn't the only member of King Size who takes his sorrow straight up, without a chaser. Witness an early memory of Easy Pickens, the band's charismatic guitarist, who as a teenager lived in a basement in a bad Vancouver neighborhood. "I'd just put on a Hank Williams record," he says, "skip all the happy songs and drink myself to sleep."
The Vitals: The music of Bruce Burton w/ King Size can be found at http://www.bruceburtonmusic.com . See them Feb. 10 at the Hotel Cafe, 10 p.m.
Eagle and TalonI caught up with the women of Eagle and Talon relaxing at Paru's Indian Vegetarian restaurant.
"I want a bowl of chickpeas," proclaimed Kim Talon, the band's disarmingly charming singer. Meanwhile, drummer Alice Talon, whose wry frankness borders on the hilarious, was explaining why she's no longer a vegetarian: "I'd rather be a heathen than something in between."
Alice grew up in Cleveland and studied English lit in college before moving to Taiwan, where she learned Mandarin and took her first drum lessons. Several years later she felt like an "expatriate languishing," so she relocated to L.A. That's when she met Kim, a recent arrival from Winnipeg, Canada, by way of New York, who was trying to start a jazz trio and writing simple pop-punk songs on the side. "I was 16 or 17 when I started writing songs on the guitar, which I didn't know how to play—which I still don't know how to play," Kim said, giggling. "But if you had taken lessons," Alice interjected, "your songs wouldn't exist."
This is surely true. The music of Eagle and Talon is wonderfully underproduced. The hollow, tinny notes of a child's Casio keyboard swirl around choppy guitar licks and no-nonsense drumbeats. Kim's voice, sweet and strong, braves the rapids of this melodic current with powerful self-assurance.