Hansen: Music is Laguna's artistic stepchild

We have more art festivals than we know what to do with. We have fancy food festivals, world-class theater, legendary surf competitions and dozens of other Laguna Beach events.

But no festival for popular music.

Little Dana Point, only slightly bigger than Laguna, has two major festivals — Doheny Days and the Blues Festival — along with several other smaller events. The lineups are stellar with bands like Weezer, Ben Harper, Cake, Ziggy Marley and Donavon Frankenreiter.

Granted, Dana Point has a state park right on the beach, so the venue is very conducive, but we have a beach. We have two festival grounds, an amphitheater and, with a little imagination, enough open space to host Coachella West.

But for many reasons, some murky and prejudicial, a major music festival in Laguna is unlikely. Rick Conkey, founder of HelpBlueWater.com, is a local music promoter who has tried off and on over the years to get music more established in Laguna.

"Music is a controversial part of the arts scene," he said. "It's never been recognized."

Conkey said it's ironic, given the city's long-standing arts history.

"Laguna Beach has always been known as an artists' town, but music has always been left out of the equation," Conkey said. "The music scene has always been here and might be one of the most powerful parts of the arts scene but never been acknowledged."

When asked why, he basically said people are afraid of it.

"Music is a lot more spirited, and it creates a lot more energy and excitement that surrounds it," he said. "It's like people are afraid to acknowledge it or put their minds around it."

Conkey did manage to throw a local party in 2005 at the Festival of Arts with the "Blue Water Music Festival."

While somewhat successful — it broke even financially — there were challenges and sniping from various locals.

The major problem in getting a legitimate festival is a venue. The obvious choices, the Sawdust or the Pageant, are problematic.

"We started with strolling minstrels and worked up to the bands but never had a concert," said Tom Klingenmeier, general manager of the Sawdust Art Festival.

Klingenmeier said it's largely because of timing and logistics. Between the summer and winter festival, there's little time left.

Nonetheless, Conkey is optimistic that he can resurrect the Blue Water Music Festival at the Sawdust.

Years ago, the site was considered as a possible location for a new music venue, according to Klingenmeier.

"Our grounds, where the waterfall is currently, was going to be an open amphitheater, kind of like the Hollywood Bowl or Red Rock in Denver or something to that effect, but it never materialized, mostly because of the neighbors and sound ordinances," he said.

Indeed, music has sound, which proves to be a challenge for people who like quiet.

It's no secret that local nightclubs have made significant, ongoing investments to keep their neighbors happy: Mozambique, Marine Room, White House, Hennessey's and the now-closed Royal Hawaiian.

In many cases, however, it is working. Mozambique has recently brought in marquee diverse talent like Macy Gray, George Clinton, Bill Medley, the English Beat and members of the Rolling Stones. Marine Room showcases strong, emerging independent artists, anchored by the very popular local band, The Missiles of October.

In addition to the clubs, clearly there is other music in the city, with local parks and other sites hosting small events. But on a festival level, Laguna Beach is not on anyone's radar, except maybe Conkey, who continues to plug away and even pulls together private home concerts "to promote outstanding musicians in an intimate atmosphere."

Getting anywhere from 35 to 250 people, Conkey usually wraps a local worthy cause around the effort to help provide an additional incentive. He is gearing up for another local concert on July 15 at the Cliff Restaurant that he's calling "Music Matters."

"I think the town's becoming more conservative," he said. "I think we're turning into Carmel very quickly, and the history of Laguna Beach is not like that. This is a town that has a history of music and the arts."

Music matters to Conkey. It matters to a lot of people but not enough, apparently, to do it big. Not enough to complement Doheny Days. Not enough to complete the artistic of picture of Laguna Beach.

It's as if we are looking at a beautiful plein air painting of Main Beach, but the water is missing.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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