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Coastal Commuter

Digging the roots in grand ole fashion

For many years, a chain restaurant used the advertising slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family.” That’s canny salesmanship for a business eager to project a warm, cozy, inviting image, but I know of a weekly club within a club in Los Angeles where that motto and the accompanying sentiment feel very real. That would be the Grand Ole Echo — a live Americana music series that happens at the Echo on Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park most every Sunday between 4–8:30 p.m. from spring to fall.

GOE is a free-before-5 p.m. extravaganza with four acts each week — bands and solo performers playing in a swath of styles that generally are rooted in the country & western, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll traditions (with a little soul thrown in now and then). Three of the acts perform on the club’s stage while the fourth can be found on the adjacent outdoor patio (where pulled-pork and bratwurst sandwiches are for sale) to keep the fun going between the main room sets. And this big-city honky-tonk is the most gracious gosh-darned gathering that I’ve come across on the Left Coast.

I learned about the Grand Ole Echo because of a show I saw back in 2007 at the Hotel Utah — the unpretentious San Francisco bar and intimate concert space at 4th and Bryant that’s still a holdover from SoMa’s bygone days as an underground arts hub rather than a real-estate developer’s dream. My comrade Wes encouraged me to join him at the Utah to see Leslie & the Badgers, a Los Angeles country-rock band that included his friend Charlene Huang on fiddle. That night, I fell in love with their music. Truth be told, I tumbled for the entire ensemble led by singer-songwriter and all-around sweetheart Leslie Stevens, who now juggles a solo career and a bluegrass-influenced vocal trio with the occasional Badgers reunion concert.

BADGERED INTO A DISCOVERY

I’m happy to say that my acquaintance with the members of the Badgers grew into genuine friendships over the years. When I began spending more time in Los Angeles, Leslie and Charlene both encouraged me to see them play a Sunday funfest at the Echo that they insisted was a fine time for all. Thus, I attended my first Grand Ole Echo show, and was hooked. Since then, I have seen a wealth of extraordinary L.A. area musicians at the GOE, whether newbies on the rise or highly-respected perennials, as well as representatives of other thriving Americana scenes, including the alt-country outposts Nashville, Austin, and Texas. The list is impressive, starting with I See Hawks in L.A. and Old Californio in my early days at GOE, and continuing on with Tony Gilkyson (of Lone Justice), the Paul Chesne Band, Gospelbeach, Mike Stinson, Rosie Flores, Austin McCutchen, Dear Lemon Trees, Brian Whelan, Elijah Ocean, Marc Ford (of the Black Crowes), Justin Townes Earle, and many more.

So the Badgers’ bass-player was and continues to be the rangy, genial Ben Reddell — a hell of a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in his own right who works with a variety of players and ensembles, including the roadhouse-ready Ben Reddell Band. And these days, Ben is also the booking agent and manager of the Grand Ole Echo. He’s been doing those jobs — together with the charming Jocelyn Romo, who handles the series’ marketing and social media — for a couple of years now. He started alongside Matt Farber, who took the reins a few years earlier when co-founder Kim Grant decided to concentrate on her PR firm; she had been involved with GOE since its inception in 2005 as a much-needed local showcase for the sort of roots-oriented music she loved.

Ben’s shift into running the show was a natural progression, and his philosophy regarding the GOE is, like Matt’s, in line with that of Kim, her two co-founders Liz Garo and Pam Moore, and her subsequent booking partner in the series, Julie Richmond. “This is all about building a community, making young musicians feel comfortable in the L.A. scene, giving them a chance at exposure, and connecting them with those who have come before,” said Ben.

GOE FORTH

Sure enough, people flock to the Echo to catch the sounds Sunday after Sunday. They hang out on the patio, sipping longnecks, getting social with old friends, meeting new ones, and bopping to the music. Not incidentally, the acts doing the patio are getting serious exposure to appreciative audiences that are often hearing the performers for the first time. It can be a revelatory experience, as it was on a recent Sunday when I was blown away by Ivory Deville, an ensemble that mixed the rustic with a rock rumble, staying tuneful while still jamming like the dickens.

A few weeks back, I stopped by the GOE for a bill that featured four eclectic woman-fronted acts: Banta (debuting new material at the nexus of folk, rock, and country), Brea Burns & the Boleros (in from Arizona like a rockabilly whirlwind), Mara Conner (dreamy singer-songwriter), and on the patio, Maesa & the Whole Damn Fam (a veritable revue, complete with a sax-player and a handful of guest performers). Every set on the schedule was top-notch. At one point, I stood outside in the crowd of music heads, Silverlake hipsters, and urban cowpokes, and I felt myself beaming as Maesa sang a tipsily seductive cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” It was as fine a version of the song as I’ve ever heard. I looked to one side and saw the Badgers’ wry drummer Travis Popichak standing there, beer in hand. He nodded at me and smiled.

In the words of Ben Reddell, “The Grand Ole Echo does feel like a family, but our doors are open to anyone who wants to join in.”

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s “David Feldman Show" and on "Michael Snyder's Culture Blast," via GABnet.net, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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