A drive through this sleepy seaside town on a recent Sunday night seemed to confirm its reputation as a village without much night life. But all the sidewalks hadn't been rolled up yet.
Inside the Old Jail House Restaurant on the Old City Plaza, singer Micki Rhyne was tearing it up. Backed by electric piano, guitar, bass and drums, she was putting her vivacious, scat-sprinkled style to work on the old Bobby Troup favorite, "Route 66." While she spun variations on the lyric's east-to-west geography, a few couples swirled on the new dance floor. Others sat back with their drinks and enjoyed the sounds.
Later, folks sat at the bar, at tables or on divans near the fireplace, listening as Rhyne, backed only by guitarist Doug MacDonald, sang Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile" in warm, expressive tones.
Earlier in the evening, Old Jail House owner Peter Tepfer had mentioned that he wants his club to present music that's suitable to the lounge's comfortable intimacy, music not so loud that it will discourage conversation. But Rhyne was working up so much intimacy of her own that the audience, for the most part, sat rapt with attention. And when she whipped up a lively version of "Stormy Monday," her musicians took smart solos that were far removed from the lounge-act category.
Rhyne and company's indefinite Saturday-Sunday-Monday engagement is part of a new seven-day-a-week live music policy at the Old Jail House, a restaurant/lounge/wine-tasting bar that opened in December. Rounding out the February schedule will be saxophonist Ira J. Raibon's rhythm and blues band on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and keyboard player James Harris' dance band, with Harris' brother Gerald on guitar and sister Julie adding vocals, Thursdays and Fridays.
Rhyne, a veteran of such venues as Lunaria in West L.A., the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica and Monteleone's West in Tarzana as well as the Dana Point Resort, has been based in San Clemente since moving from Los Angeles in August.
She counts Merv Griffin among her fans. They met in 1986 when her brother Chris "was Merv's piano player, and he asked Merv to come down to where I was singing. He hung out and really loved it, and asked me to come on his show."
Since then she also has appeared on the pilot for Griffin's big band variety program "Coconut Ballroom" and has worked his Resorts International Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. She's booked to go back there for the first three weeks in April.
Rhyne's backup musicians are first-rate. Guitarist MacDonald has just returned to the L.A. area after a two-year stint in New York (he has released a new album on Cexton Records, a label based in Santa Ana). Pianist Marc LeBrun has worked extensively with Diane Schuur and Tom Jones. The bassist is Jack Prather, an Orange County resident whose group Bopsicle plays throughout Southern California. On the Sunday night we dropped by, Burt Shur was playing drums.
The dancers were happy that night, and the drinkers were happy and the music fans were happy. Sounds like a sure recipe for success.
* The Old Jail House Restaurant is on the Old City Plaza at 111 W. Avenida Palizada, San Clemente. Music Sundays through Fridays from 7:30 p.m., Saturdays from 8 p.m. No cover or minimum. (714) 498-4800.