From Silver Lake to Boyle Heights to Agoura Hills, jubilant clubgoers celebrate L.A.'s reopening
His face slicked with sweat, the middle-aged guy dressed like David Lee Roth — dirty-blond hair, sleeveless denim jacket, black-leather trousers with the leopard-skin crotch — bent toward the stage, then straightened back up, a lacy red bra dangling from his fingers.
“It’s good to be back,” he said, “in the rock ’n’ roll capital of the world — Agoura Hills!”
Most nights, that title would represent a stretch for this sleepy Los Angeles suburb. But as the first weekend got underway after California lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions, singer Ernie Berru’s words didn’t feel too far off to the several hundred music lovers packed into the Canyon Club on Friday for a gig by Berru’s Van Halen tribute band.
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“To be out and watching a band again — it’s just so freeing,” said Ellen Ferro of Oak Park, who sang along and danced with her husband, Joelle, as the group called Fan Halen ripped through note-perfect renditions of rock classics including “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Runnin’ With the Devil.” Joelle had been skeptical about the show; he’d gotten accustomed to listening to CDs at home, and he and his wife had perfected their own martini.
“Then we got here, and I realized everything I’d been missing,” he said, happily hoisting a drink.
The scene of jubilation was one of countless such displays across L.A. over the weekend as live music began its return to the city’s clubs after COVID-19 quieted them more than a year ago.
At downtown’s busy La Cita, where the wait for a drink stretched to 30 minutes on Friday, the East L.A. cumbia-rock band Spaghetti Cumbia played a spirited, punk-infused set that mixed Mexican standards and a Spanish-language cover of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart.”
And at Sound in Hollywood, the Martinez Brothers spun deep, Latin-tinged house music to a capacity crowd of sopping dancers — dudes in V-necks and leather jackets and women in lingerie-for-outside-wear — smashed cheek to cheek.
Kevin Lukes, a security guard at the club, said, “It feels like everyone is trying really hard to be on their best behavior tonight.” Friday was Sound’s first night open since March 2020, and Lukes said he’d been counting down the days.
“It was pretty surreal to get the call that we’re back,” he said. “But I’m so glad there’s a lot more to come. It’s a relief.”
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Spaghetti Cumbia’s vocalist and güiro player, 44-year-old Marcel Campos, delivered groceries and stocked shelves at Costco during the worst of the pandemic.
Berru, who’s 55 and lives in the Inland Empire, said Fan Halen played a couple of shows on Zoom. “But there’s a level of ceremony involved when you’re trying to recreate something like this,” he said of his act. “You have to be in there in person to capture it. On a screen, it’s like looking at cheesy wedding photos.”
After opening in December, Noa Noa Place, an LGBTQ bar in Boyle Heights, recently introduced a popular series of limited-capacity drag nights in which hyper-glam queens perform to Spanish- and English-language pop songs from behind protective face shields. On these evenings, patrons are asked to spend a minimum of $40 at the bar, or pay a $35 entertainment fee, to keep the party going.
“Latinos are very ingenious,” said bar cofounder Luis Octavio, whose staff is priming the space to host an extensive Pride month celebration on June 27. “You give us a lemon, we don’t make lemonade; we make a michelada.”
Yet nearly all agreed that Friday felt like the beginning of a welcome new era.
“We came here at 9 because we didn’t want to get caught in a line and we just had to get tickets,” said Carolina Bonilla, 27, of Calabasas, as she hung out on Sound’s outdoor patio. “This is my first time back at this club, and there’s so many people I want to see. It’s my home club. I’m so glad this place survived.”
Across the patio, Jonas Schumann, an electronic-music agent with William Morris Endeavor, looked ecstatic to be working the room again. Even seasoned artists were reeling at the idea that a night out was an option again.
“I was a resident DJ when this place opened,” said Lee Wells, a fixture on the L.A. tech-house scene since 2011. “This whole last year, there’s not been too much to do — just a few streams here and there. But this is intense. I’m actually pretty emotional right now. I’m so happy to be here.”
Later Friday, Darrell Vetter, 60, echoed Wells’ words as he sat on a stool greeting clubgoers — including one man with a female friend perched precariously on his shoulders — at Silver Lake’s beloved Akbar.
“This just makes me so damn happy to see,” said Vetter, who called Akbar a lifeline for him after a divorce. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight here. Hell, I don’t know what anyone is anymore. But I lost family over the last year, and this place has showed me new ways that love and community are possible.”
Harrison Kallner, 22, lives nearby, and though he’d found clandestine pockets of social life during the year of shutdowns, he said Akbar was part of the central nervous system of being young and queer in L.A.
“I came here all the time before,” he said. “It’s been such a hard year; everyone’s so happy to be back.”
Back in Agoura Hills, Canyon Club manager Elijah McEvers said he was heartened by the walk-up business he was seeing: Friday’s show had sold only about 50 tickets in advance, he said, and now the place had about 300 people inside.
Last week a small group of anti-vaccine demonstrators rallied outside the club before a sold-out performance by Foo Fighters, who’d said only vaccinated fans would be allowed in. McEvers said he had no problem with the group’s requirement — “If they said you had to wear a pink tutu to come, we’d have done it,” he joked — yet no such policy was in place Friday night.
A small sign on the venue’s front door said unvaccinated guests were required to wear a mask; virtually nobody inside had one on.
Berru, the Fan Halen frontman, said he felt perfectly safe performing inside and that he’s looking forward to a July of solid bookings.
“People are learning how to do this again; they’re stumbling a little, but they’re so excited, like newborn giraffes,” he said of the concert-going public. “They’re slowly getting their groove back.”
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