Coastal Commuter

The Coastal Commuter

Recently, a colleague directed my attention to an organization called Groupmuse, which is dedicated to bringing classical music to people’s homes in the Bay Area via intimate concerts. As I understand it, the deal is that you sign up at the Groupmuse website to attend or perform or host a concert, and it’s all for free (although tipping the musicians is suggested). It sounds pretty fantastic in theory, and when I’m in town, I’ll try to get in the middle of it.

Knowing as many musicians as I am fortunate to know, I’ve had the privilege of enjoying some amazing performances at private parties in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. But my time in Los Angeles has brought me even more audible pleasure at various gatherings. Imagine the delight I felt when I attended a holiday party at a friend’s house and watched and listened as the wonderful, jocular opera tenor Carlos De Antonis sang the exquisite aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s deathless Turandot. He electrified the guests — and literally rattled the windows. It was like one of those things that you see in some 1930s movie about high-society people in a Manhattan townhouse, and never believe that you’d actually experience. But there I was.

A few years ago, I motored to a Fourth of July party in a bunting-strewn Pasadena neighborhood that looked remarkably like the cozy, idealized middle-American town of Mayberry. The usual barbecue specialties and craft-brewed beer fueled the fete, which also boasted a backyard bill of roots-rockin’ bands topped by a personal favorite of mine from L.A.’s Americana music scene, Old Californio. The whole shebang made me proud to be an American with music-loving pals who could throw a bash like that.

With such a massive talent pool, it’s understandable that Los Angeles house parties might very well feature spontaneous (or preplanned) entertainment of a high order. That brings me to one of the most delicious and frequent musical treats I’ve been enjoying in L.A.: the Under a Bad Sign jam sessions occurring on numerous Saturday nights in a congenial house located high in the Hollywood Hills.

The Bad Sign is the renowned Hollywood sign that’s been a landmark in Southern California since it was erected in 1923 as an oversized advertisement for the Hollywoodland housing development in the hills above the city. Production designer Robert de Vico and screenwriter, model and actress Pamela Dickerson host these parties that have been happening at their place for years. A talented, warm-hearted and spiritually enlightened couple, they open their hearts and their home to musicians and music-lovers alike — and the impromptu performances, held on a poolside patio by a fire pit, are invariably astonishing.

Robert has been shooting a documentary about the jams. Last month, with a full moon shining down, we basked in the sound of an ensemble that featured an electric mandolin and a marimba in addition to the usual drum, bass, sax, and guitar. The groove was stellar. As the group explored its evolving soundscape, Robert explained the philosophy behind the performances. “My one simple rule has always been, ‘No covers.’ I wanted the music to always be new and original.” As such, that night’s offering was a sinuous blend of smooth jazz, Latin rhythms, soulful scat singing from a variety of vocalists, and some spontaneous spoken-word poetry. And it all went down with the Hollywood sign looming above and glowing in the moonlight.

The first time I attended an Under a Bad Sign soiree, I was dazzled by the ambiance, the guests (who ranged from artists and authors to politicians and entrepreneurs), the good feelings in the air, and, of course, the musical skill on display. After all, L.A. remains a nexus of pop-music and soundtrack recording with numerous showcase clubs and dives that feature live gigs — despite the crippling blows the Digital Revolution delivered to the music industry. Whether before, after or between sessions, there were so many accomplished players who showed up at the house with their respective instruments (and the random bottle of wine) that a progressive rotation kept the lineup changing while the music never flagged from 10 p.m. to around 3 a.m. It might have been exhausting if it weren’t so energizing.

After that initial exposure, I looked forward to the next time I’d have the opportunity to drop by and immerse myself in the magic — and the next and the next. Alas, Robert told me that the final jam is forthcoming. He and Pamela are planning to relocate in the near future. Wherever they end up, I’m certain that their patronage of music will continue in one form or another. In the meantime, I plan to keep showing up at their get-togethers when they happen, as long as they happen — and as long as I’m welcome. Might as well enjoy the home cooking and the sonic buffet when hot and cool sounds are on the menu.

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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 Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster