Is it just me, or is this year's crop of Christmas parties a real bust?
I hit the streets of the San Fernando Valley on Saturday night in search of the ghost of Rock 'n' Roll Christmas Present. I wound up at the Blue Saloon's monthly Acoustic Night. (The word "acoustic" is used loosely here.) But like Christmas parties, "acoustic nights" also aren't what they used to be.
Don't get me wrong, I like the Blue Saloon. It's the kind of a place where you can ask for one bottle of nonalcoholic beer with two glasses and not get the hairy eyeball from the bartender--definitely low key, with no attitudes on exhibition. The primary concerns here are pool and music--in that order. Which is not to say that it's a bad place for some bands to perform.
On the contrary, what makes the Blue Saloon a really good place to perform is the great new sound system and a sound engineer named David Swan Montgomery. For one thing, Montgomery is a musician himself; until recently, in fact, he was the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Finn Mac Cool. And instead of just putting in his time, Montgomery obviously cares about his job.
For another thing, Montgomery has a great ear and is able to balance the levels of each instrument. The end result is that each act has a transparent sound in which one can hear every instrument and distinguish it from the others.
But, the new sound system at the Blue Saloon is also powerful enough to make even the softest guitar chord sound like thunder. Anyone expecting to chitchat with friends while some sensitive type shares his or her musical angst by strumming softly on an older brother's Yamaha will be sadly disappointed. Once the music starts, communication is achieved only by hand gestures and lip-reading.
When I arrived, the band on stage--whose name I didn't catch--was playing covers of Doobie Brothers and Don Henley hits. Up next was the Cindy Alter band.
I've written about Ms. Alter before. The South African performer is an emotionally powerful singer who writes songs that are interesting both lyrically and melodically. She's much better live than on her recordings.
The dance floor at the Blue Saloon is small. During Alter's set, only two young women were moving to the rhythms. One was dressed as if she had come from an office Christmas party that turned out to be a real bust. The other was made up like one of Santa's helpers.
I stayed for most of Alter's set and then left. Out on the street again, still searching for that Rock 'n' Roll Christmas spirit, I made my way to the Hot House, a funky little coffeehouse with lots of books and posters. On the wall are images of such characters as Jack Kerouac, Lonesome George Gobel, John Steinbeck, Johnny Cash and Lenny Bruce. In addition to coffee, the place serves food, including over 20 varieties of chili.
Coffee and chili: Wow! That's a combination for those of sturdier metabolic mettle than I.
But, my biggest complaint about the Hot House is that the music ends too early. I got there at about 11:45 p.m., just in time for the penultimate song of the evening.
Weird. Especially considering that after all that coffee and chili, most of these people are going to be up for hours.
* Chuck E. Weiss plays Friday and Lawrence Juber plays Saturday at the Hot House, 12123 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood. No cover. Call (818) 506-7058.
Back at the Saloon: 88 Crash, a band I heard in November, will be at the Blue Saloon tonight. They have a modern '90s rock sound that combines power with a twisted sense of humor. I asked lead guitarist Lino Alessio last week if the name referred to either a Steinway or an Oldsmobile? He told me the name really means nothing at all.
"We didn't want to say anything deep," Alessio said. "We tried to think of something clever, but, ah . . . "
The band has been doing the L.A. club scene and recording a CD--entitled "Thanks for Breakfast"--in Van Nuys, he said. Alessio and lead singer Stu Saddoris are the songwriting nexus of the band.
Alessio was a history major at University of Ohio at Miami and Saddoris was a house painter in Oklahoma. They both made their way to L.A. and about two years ago and were introduced through mutual friends. But they've recently changed their musical direction.
"We decided to be a garage band again," Alessio said. "Our old sound was very polished music that took a lot of time fixing."
Singer Saddoris lists Sting, Peter Gabriel and Robin Zander as major influences, but quickly admits you'd never know it.
"I don't sound much like Peter Gabriel," Saddoris said. "More like his grumpy older sister."
* 88 Crash plays tonight at the Blue Saloon, 4657 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. $5 cover. Call (818) 766-4644.