For the past few years, due to professional and personal considerations, this dedicated San Francisco resident has had the distinct pleasure of splitting his time between the City by the Bay and the City of the Angels (and Angles, as I like to say). Pleasure? Los Angeles? Indeed.
People ask me why a devout San Franciscan would so love living in Los Angeles. Make no mistake. I still identify as a San Franciscan when I’m in the Southland, I detest the Dodgers, Angels and Lakers, and I make damn sure I have MLB.TV on my computer for Giants games and the NFL all-access TV package for Niners’ games. But L.A. is, in its way, a wonderland, with a remarkably friendly and engaged populace.
To be honest, Los Angeles is still truly the Entertainment Capital of the World, and the fountainhead of America’s (albeit, economically-challenged) film and television industries. It’s a company town and an artists’ colony – and, from Pasadena to Santa Monica to the San Fernando Valley to Anaheim, on studio lots and on location, it’s an open-air museum of show business history. As an arts-and-media guy, it’s a constant joy, even as I deal with freeway traffic, the callowness and fleeting beauty of Young Hollywood, the arrogance and profligate extravagance of Nouveau Riche Hollywood, and the wealth and smug, insular presumption of Old Hollywood.
Then, there’s the nightlife. Consider a show I attended last month at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. The venue itself is unique: a working guitar store with instruments, accessories, and a selection of recordings and books for sale in the front — and a cozy but comfy performance space in the back. And there are actually guitars on the walls of the show room, enabling the audience members to browse and even make purchases before and after any concert.
As for the gig itself, it began with a rare and exquisite performance by legendary polyphonic composer/producer/keyboardist/singer Van Dyke Parks. This guy has worked with such significant musicians as Ry Cooder, Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman, and Ringo Starr during a five-decade career, as well as songwriting and recording with that SoCal icon/Beach-Boys-driving-wheel Brian Wilson.
Parks, on vocals and piano, was supported at McCabe’s by a terrific ensemble that included a harpist, a cellist, a stand-up bassist, and a drummer, plus on back-up vocals, the lovely post-mod chanteuse Inara George of the art-rock duo The Bird & The Bee. (George is, in fact, a legacy talent — the daughter of the late, lamented rock singer/guitarist/composer Lowell George of the awesomely clever, eclectic and instrumentally-deft L.A. rock band Little Feat.)
Selecting some choice items from among his six incredibly idiosyncratic yet compelling studio albums, Parks was in fine form, providing a wealth of tongue-in-cheek anecdotes and asides. He even did a whimsical rendition of the quasi-rustic tune “The All Golden” off his 1968 debut Song Cycle — a groundbreaking album offering a baroque blend of pop, folk, classical, psychedelic, and rock music. As a special treat, George sang a solo vocal on Harry Nilsson’s soaring love song “He Needs Me.” A treat? Nay, a dream!
Parks and company — old-timey, elegant and yet fresh as tomorrow morning — were followed by New Orleans piano wizard Tom McDermott, whose set of ragtime, Brazilian choro music, and jazzy hybrids was nothing short of astonishing. As far as these genres go, McDermott put on a clinic when he wasn’t making with the droll asides.
The extremely enthusiastic audience included The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening; close-up magician/card sharp/character actor Ricky Jay (who is the subject a new documentary, Deceptive Practice, opening in mid-May); the insightful actor/satirist/broadcaster/musician/Spinal Tap bassist Harry Shearer and his wife, musician Judith Owen; and keyboardist/singer Jeff Young of Jackson Browne’s band and the Song & Dance Society (a terrific pick-up band of top-drawer session musicians who jam a couple of times a month at the restaurant/nightclub Genghis Cohen in L.A.’s Fairfax District).
On stage, musicians who are beloved by the cognoscenti played with élan as appreciative, creative insiders and fans watched and listened — and it all happened in a venue unlike any other. Nights like the one described here are rare indeed, but I’d venture to say they happen more often in Los Angeles than anywhere else on the planet.