By Bruce Porter | May 15, 2012 3:07 PM
There’s no blueprint for a musician. They come from all walks of life. Put two in the same room, and there’s every chance they’ll disagree on any given subject. There is, however, one common thread that runs through all of them.
Musicians—the dedicated, driven ones—have to play music. Sure, it would be nice to headline at the Hollywood Bowl, hobnob with celebrities and have a summer villa in Majorca. But there is no formula for the complicated set of factors that go into stardom, which, as it turns out, is good news for local fans.
Many of these gifted and underappreciated musicians live in and around Newport. Some are on their way up, and some just didn’t catch that lucky break. Some never cared one way or the other—the size of the stage was never part of the equation.
“It’s something we do because we love it,” says Steve Carson, the singer and guitarist for local favorite, Echo Echo (featured above, photo by Gary Carson). “It’s definitely not a hobby. This isn’t a bowling league or poker night for us. As far as the art form, the performances, we take it very seriously.”
In October 2005, Echo Echo, then known as the Steve Carson Band, opened for the Beach Boys at Newport’s Centennial Celebration. Nominated for best live act last year and best rock band this year at the Orange County Music Awards, Echo Echo plays original material that sounds like a distillation of the last 50 years of American music into a potent yet thoughtful vision.
“Everybody wants to make a living; it was always the hope,” Steve reflects. “But as you get older, you start to realize it should be more about the integrity of the music, how it makes you feel. I can’t imagine not doing it—never even considered stopping. I think it’s the same way for everybody in the band. Everybody does it because that’s what we do. We love performing.”
Steve grew up in the area. He got a drum kit at age 8 and a few years later started playing the guitar. “I wanted an electric guitar, but my parents said the only way they were going to do that was if I took lessons,” he says, grinning from an armchair in the band’s Santa Ana studio. “I started playing in a band in eighth grade. From that point on, I’ve always been in bands. There’s never been a time I haven’t been playing or recording.”
Over the course of his career, Steve has toured the country several times, mostly from the back of a cramped van. The majority of his gigs, though, as part of various band lineups, have been at local venues. “When we started out, there was the Gypsy Lounge—that was our OC home,” he says. “We enjoy playing locally because the majority of our fan base is here.”
Although the Lake Forest lounge has since closed its doors, others have opened in its place. Steve rattles off a handful that Echo Echo play regularly, including House of Blues in Anaheim and La Cave restaurant in Costa Mesa. “Just in the last couple of years, we’ve met a lot of great people,” he says. “There’s a bigger sense of community going on in the OC music scene.”
Foster the People at Detroit Bar, photo by Leslie Kalohi
Music for Every Taste
One of the most exciting developments in recent memory has been the evolution of Club Mesa, which once featured suspect punk and heavy metal bands, into the eclectic Detroit Bar. “We just celebrated 10 years,” general manager, Jason “Huey” Husted, says. “We’ve added and replaced quite a few things with our sound system. It’s the best it’s been, and we’re still not done.”
It’s no longer necessary to trek up to LA to catch “the next big thing.” What was once a nightmare local dive bar is now a hip club featuring some of the most hotly tipped indie acts from around the world. Deerhunter, Autolux, the Antlers—bands who normally command far bigger stages in far larger cities—have all played here. “Last January our resident band was Foster the People,” Huey recalls. “It was the same time their song (the viral phenomenon, “Pumped Up Kicks”) blew up. The first few Mondays were normal, with about 100 to 150 people. The last night we had a line of 400-plus by 9 o’clock.”
Other Detroit Bar residency bands, who play on Mondays over a four-week stretch, have included the likes of Cold War Kids and Young the Giant before they became top-selling sensations. “The talent buyer changed about four years ago, and we got more aggressive about getting bigger and better acts,” Huey explains.
Young up-and-comers such as the New Limb, winner of best indie band at the 2010 OC Music Awards, have also enjoyed the boost of the resident slot at Detroit Bar. “That was one of our first really big breaks,” guitarist and vocalist Dan Perez says. The band, now based in Los Angeles, congregated in Costa Mesa from various parts of Southern California to refine their chops and hone their sound. “We were kind of orphans in the OC music scene,” he adds. “We didn’t grow up here, so we didn’t have a lot of friends from high school who would come to shows. Then we started playing Detroit Bar and other places, and it was really exciting.”
The Blue Beet, near the Newport pier, hosts a variety of genre-specific bands. R&B cover band L.A. Sound Project play here every few weeks. Members of the band all pursue impressive work outside of the band. The bassist, Ben Eisen, will soon embark upon a U.K. tour with his wife in an electronic band called Lovers and Poets. The guitarist, Eric Desiderio, contributed to the music score for the film “Immortals” and currently works on the Showtime production “The Borgias.”
“We love Orange County. The people are nicer,” L.A Sound Project singer Yaze says, with a big smile, probably only half joking. “LA’s a tough crowd—they are not nurturing people!” The remark is surely self-depreciating because the band puts on an immensely entertaining show, opening with a nifty version on “Knock on Wood,” a song that’s been covered by everybody from Otis Redding to David Bowie, and following with Motown classics like Smokey Robinson’s “Get Ready” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The dinner crowd is reserved at first, but by the time the band reaches the middle of their set, the Blue Beet is a packed house of dancing bodies.
Anita and the Yanks at Muldoon’s, photo by Scott Sporleder
Sunday afternoons are a terrific time to scout out local talent. Muldoon’s Pub at Fashion Island offers an array of suitably Irish-accented bands. “Muldoon’s is a special place for us,” says Anita Mansfield of Anita and the Yanks. “It has so many good memories, and there’s a lot of support for us there.”
Anita, who was born in Waterford, Ireland, originally emigrated to Boston, but for the past 10 years she’s lived in Southern California. Although she has been writing songs since her early teens, it took some time to work up the courage to perform her own songs in front of an audience. “I had a lot of fear surrounding it,” she confesses in a charming brogue. “But it became more and more painful not to do it. Finally, I said, I’m going to give it five shows.”
Nowadays, Anita and the Yanks are typically booked for a dozen shows a month. They’re cutting two records, one of traditional Irish music and one of Celtic rock ‘n’ roll, which, if their live show is anything to go by, will combine the swagger of Fleetwood Mac with the quiet intensity of Cat Power. Delicate mandolins and expressive fiddles are a keen reminder of the band’s Irish heart, though it’s the cleverly crafted rhythm section and Anita’s impassioned vocal range that will inspire listeners to sing along. “We work hard and play a lot,” Anita says of the band’s burgeoning success. “It’s a labor of love.”
Muldoon’s isn’t the only place to find engaging live music in Newport on a Sunday afternoon. A growing number of locals jump from venue to venue. “People seem to like to change it up,” says 3-Thirty-3 manager Paul Ankenman, who currently rotates two bands in this time slot. “People will go from restaurant to restaurant. They’ll go to one place for an hour, then come here for a couple of hours. There’s a whole group of people in Newport Beach who like to travel around on Sunday afternoons.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Diana Grace of Hollywood Blonde, who plays at 3-Thirty-3 every other week. At three o’clock in the afternoon, it’s near standing room only. They blast through an energetic set of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s pop songs, from Van Morrison to No Doubt. The crowd steadily becomes more responsive, and by the end of the show, half the audience is dancing and shouting out requests. “We try to mix it up, so we can please everyone,” Diana adds.
Local and Live
Just minutes outside of Newport’s city limits is a venue that has been hosting some of the top talent to come through Orange County for more than 30 years. San Juan Capistrano’s The Coach House (thecoachhouse.com), owned by Gary Folgner, gives patrons the chance to see iconic musicians like B.B. King, Violent Femmes, Debbie Reynolds and Willie Nelson without the inconvenience of an amphitheater-sized crowd.
“We offer a unique experience as a music venue because we have tables surrounding the stage providing guests with an intimate concert experience that you just can’t get anywhere else,” says The Coach House spokesperson Sara Ostrovitz. “It’s very hard to find venues in California, let alone Orange County, where you can be up at the stage next to performers.”
An eclectic mix of artists such as Ben Kweller, Donovan Frankenreiter, Ted Nugent and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are set to take the stage this spring and summer as the venue shows no signs of slowing down.
“It’s important for us to book great music that people want to see,” Sara says. “You can go to a concert anywhere, but it’s the experience you have seeing live music that makes you want to come back for more.”
Listen to the Music
3-Thirty-3 Waterfront, Sunday (Top 40), 949-673-8464; 3thirty3nb.com Back Bay Bistro, Fridays (acoustic), Saturdays, 949-729-1144; backbaybistronewportbeach.com Bayside Restaurant, Nightly (piano/vocalist), 949-721-1222; baysiderestaurant.com The Blue Beet, Nightly (jazz, various), 949-675-2338; thebluebeet.com Brasserie Pascal, Thursdays, Fridays (acoustic), 949-640-2700; pascalnpb.com Commonwealth Lounge & Grill, Mondays, Tuesdays (jazz), Wednesdays (summer), select Sundays, 949-675-4444; commonwealthlounge.com Detroit Bar, Sundays (karaoke), Mondays (residency), Tuesdays (local), Wednesdays – Saturdays (touring), 949-624-0600; detroitbar.com Durty Nelly’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, Fridays (karaoke, blues), Saturdays (karaoke), 714-957-1951; durtynellysoc.com The Harp Inn, Thursdays (country), Fridays – Saturdays (’80s, Top 40), Sundays (Irish, classic), 949-646-8855; harpinn.com La Cave Restaurant, Most nights (various), 949-646-7944; lacaverestaurant.com Landmark Steakhouse Sundays (singer-songwriter), 949-675-5556; landmarknewport.com Mastro’s Ocean Club Nightly (piano bar, acoustic), 949-376-6990; mastrorestaurants.com Muldoon’s Irish Pub, Most nights (Celtic rock, reggae), 949-640-4110; muldoonspub.com Palm Terrace Restaurant, Fridays, Saturdays (Top 40), 866-554-4619; theislandhotel.com The Quiet Woman, Tuesdays (country rock), Wednesdays (classic), Thursdays – Saturdays (Top 40), 949-640-7440; thequietwoman.com Siena Italian Restaurant & Bar, Select Sundays (summer), 949-675-6400; balboainn.com Shamrock Bar & Grill, Fridays, Saturdays (Top 40), 949-631-5633 Skosh Monahan’s, Thursdays, Sundays (acoustic), 949-548-0099; skoshmonahans.com Sol Grill, Sundays (acoustic), 949-723-4105; solgrill.com Woody’s Wharf, Tuesdays (karaoke), 949-675-0474; woodyswharf.com