In compiling a list of the 1987 pop music highlights in Orange County for last Sunday’s Calendar, I included shows by some widely known performers (Neil Young, Chuck Berry), some lesser known (Joe Ely, Crowded House) and some virtually unknown to the general public (Jonathan Richman, Nigeria’s Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey).
The most glaring omission in the list was the name of even one Orange County musician. That exclusion was a conscious one, but I was concerned that it might be taken as a summary statement that the county had produced nothing worthwhile during the year.
One question frequently asked of music critics is “What is the best part of your job?” and my answer is always: “The thrill of walking in on a band for the first time and detecting some spark of original talent.”
But when it comes to making up Top 10 lists, the sad truth is that most acts that play original music operate under conditions that almost automatically prevent them from sizing up favorably to the touring groups that play the large clubs, theaters and amphitheaters.
Other than some exhilarating shows by the James Harman Band and the Wild Cards, I’ve heard few performances by county bands that were unequivocally great. Local bands spend most of their time battling inhospitable to downright hostile environments as they try to get their music across.
Small, hot, crowded clubs with poor visibility, unflattering lighting, atrocious sound systems and indifferent audiences rarely inspire performances of the caliber that end up on Top 10 lists.
Yet despite these obstacles--or perhaps like the persistent mustard seed, because of them--Orange County still boasts a remarkably diverse musical populace.
As 1988 begins, I would recommend that music fans take a chance on local talent. A fan of virtually any musical genre can find a county performer worthy of attention and record-buying dollars.
Fortunately, a representative, though far from exhaustive, sampling of the talent emerging from this county is available on record. It’ll be worth the extra effort to find an independent record store that specializes in small-label releases. Music Market in Costa Mesa would be a good starting point for most of these albums.
--"Those Dangerous Gentlemens,” the James Harman Band (Rhino): Roots-music fans who enjoy Los Lobos, the Robert Cray Band, Z.Z. Top or the Fabulous Thunderbirds should check out Huntington Beach’s own James Harman Band. This debut LP taps the group’s considerable range, from the soulful “Won’t Be Going Again” to the backwoodsy “Goatman Holler” to the incendiary “Kiss of Fire.” And keep your eye out for the band’s forthcoming “Extra Napkins” LP on Rivera Records, a more traditional blues album that scorches.
--". . . ‘tween the dark and the moon,” Medicine Man (Hanging Tree): Few bands on major labels, minor labels or any labels turned out records last year with as much full-throttle energy as you’ll find in this Joe Ely/Neil Young-influenced roots-rock band from Fullerton.
--"Mom’s Home,” El Grupo Sexo (Dr. Dream): Unfortunately, recordings may be the only way anyone will ever again hear this theatrically zany, musically anarchistic punk-funk-jazz group that recently disbanded. Sexo’s second album is due in the next few weeks, but its 1987 debut was impressive for so successfully capturing the humor and askew viewpoint of the county’s answer to Captain Beefheart.
--"Mask and Marquee,” Blue Trapeze (Fullspeak): This Fullerton trio shares an uplifting spiritual perspective and compelling, forceful musical foundation worthy of the same mass pop audience that has taken so heartily to U2.
--"The Dancers Let Me Down,” Nick Pyzow Band (AsFab): For those who enjoy folk singer-songwriters of the Bob Dylan-cum-John Cougar Mellencamp school of rock poetry. The best moments in Pyzow’s second album demonstrate him to be a skillful lyricist and increasingly catchy melodist and arranger.
--"Fiesta en la Biblioteca,” Pontiac Brothers (Frontier): Another Fullerton-based band, the Pontiacs have a gritty, snarling sound that should appeal to fans of the Rolling Stones’ nasty, swaggering R&B-laced; rock.
--"Last Laugh,” Doggy Style (National Trust): Like El Grupo Sexo, this band, now known as Double Freak, relies on a no-holds-barred stage show. This album would be at home in any record collection that includes the Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C. or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
--"Ann DeJarnett” (Dr. Dream): A classically trained violinist and former leader of Mnemonic Devices, DeJarnett has long seemed destined for stardom. This recent mini-LP, despite its glossy fashion model cover, shows her as a haunting singer and an observant, intriguing songwriter.
--"The Love-In” (Love Chain): This winsome trio sings catchy songs with thought-provoking undercurrents that should win followers among the Crowded House-Bangles camp of contemporary pop-rock.
--"Jackson Street Beat,” John Anello Jr. (Cexton Records): Anello is the mellow and tasteful jazz-pop guitarist who would fit perfectly on a bill opening for Earl Klugh or George Benson.
--"Boogie Woogie Rhythm and Blues,” Sandy Owen (Ivory): Some of the other albums by Balboa Island-based pianist Owen’s would blend unnoticed in a stack of Windham Hill new-age jazz LPs, but this record has a bit more kick and rhythm that might also find favor with lovers of rootsy Professor Longhair-styled New Orleans jazz.
--"I Love You So Much,” George Butts (K-Star Productions): All those who have been swept away by the suave saxophones of Kenny G. or David Sanborn will find a sympathetic soul in the slow-groove instrumentals and vocals of county lounge veteran George Butts.
--Kerry Getz: I’ve included Getz because she is typical of the local performers still struggling to get their music on record. Getz is a literate songwriter and powerfully expressive singer, and anyone who bought either of Suzanne Vega’s albums, or still pulls out their ‘70s-period Joni Mitchell records, would be amply rewarded from a trip to one of the local clubs that Getz frequents.
If more people started paying attention to their records, perhaps home-grown talents like these will soon find the improved performance conditions they deserve and a better shot at 1988’s Top 10 list.