I like to get excited about music. I mean, really excited; like “tell everyone else about it, can’t wait for the show, want, no, need the new record right now,” kind of excited. Whether it’s the Beatles, Bowie or Iggy Pop; punk rock or bar bands; the Rolling Stones in a football stadium, Elvis Costello in a theater or the Dead Boys at CBGBs, I’ve usually been able to find something to be thrilled about. But lately, it’s been getting really hard.
Radio is useless. Even here in SoCal, where we have as many options as anywhere. We have a Classic Rock station with an “expanded playlist,” which means one in twenty songs isn’t completely predictable. The alternative stations have an even more limited playlist, and when did “alternative rock” turn into some bizarre mutation of folk music? (I blame Mumford & Sons.) We do have some good public radio stations, but they spend far more time talking than playing music. And when they do play music, it’s dependent on the taste of the individual DJ, which is great in theory, but doesn’t always make for radio I want to listen to. I’ve taken to tuning in the Spanish language stations just to get something new.
The internet has the opposite problem: too many options. How could anyone even sort through it all? And when you do find some band you really like, they’re probably from New Zealand, or Slovenia, or some such. So you’ll probably never get to see them live, never get to hold their CD.
Luckily, I have found a band I can really get excited about. In fact, a bunch of them. Right down the street in my neighborhood bar. Yes, I’m talking about your local music scene. This is where I have found my favorite music over the past couple of years: in grungy dive bars and hippy-fied coffee houses. Playing in street fairs and even people’s garages.
Every town has a scene, and yours is probably more exciting than you imagine. Chances are that you can find musicians as good as (and more interesting than) ninety percent of what you will hear on the radio. It may be some hotshot shredding his guitar in a cover band, or a high energy punk band, or some totally twisted jazz combo – or maybe all three – or maybe it’s a long haired woman in the local coffee shop writing songs so achingly beautiful everyone in the crowd is falling in love right now. This is music which is not going to get played on the radio. Their formats are too narrow, the powers that be are too invested in their own creations, and the odds are just too long against any individual artist.
Of course, if your favorite local does make it big, you get major bragging rights. “I used to see that band in this bar all the time” is the sort of statement that many people tend to wear like a badge of honor.
A while back I wrote about the joys of bar bands. This time I’m referring to those musicians (bands and solo acts) playing original music. They may be a bit harder to find than the average cover band, but they are out there.
I will admit that I am lucky to live in Long Beach, CA, which has a thriving local scene; probably bigger than many other cities. It does help that we are a mid-sized city (population somewhere around half a million) which sits right next to Los Angeles; which means that bands can take advantage of everything L.A. has, yet still exist within their own scene.
Long Beach does have great venues of its own, too. There are venues like Alex’s Bar (www.alexsbar.com ) and Dipiazza’s (www.dipiazzas.com ), which offer local bands the opportunity to open for national acts such as Jello Biafra and Mike Watt. Dive bars like the Prospector (www.prospectorlongbeach.com ), Que Sera (www.thequesera.com ), and (across the harbor in San Pedro) Harold’s Place give punk bands and prog-rockers alike a raucous and welcoming atmosphere. There are coffeehouses like Viento y Agua www.vientoyaguacoffeehouse.com ) – a personal favorite – and Portfolio (www.portfoliocoffeehouse.com ), which provide mellower acts a comfortable place to play, and usually have an open mike night for those still honing their talents. Live music is even welcomed in retail establishments like Fingerprints Records (www.fingerprintsmusic.com ), who have hosted in-stores by acts such as the Foo Fighters and Yo Lo Tengo, but also often feature local bands, and Gatsby Books (www.gatsbybooks.com ), which has a monthly series of experimental music showcases.
And the above are just my favorites out of the multitude of places to play the city offers.
And the music is as varied and widespread as the venues. Just to give you an idea of the variety, here are my top favorites: Free Moral Agents (www.fmaofficial.com ), who play spacey yet funky prog rock (okay, headed by Mars Volta’s Ikey Owens, they are pushing the definition of “local”). White Murder (www.facebook.com/tworedstars ), a punk band with dual female vocalists who like to wrestle each other while they sing, somehow never missing a beat. Feral Kizzy (feralkizzy.com ) ,who play hard-edged new wave music, with a another fearless frontwoman, who spends as much time out in the audience as on stage. Halimede (www.facebook.com/halimedeband ), who somehow occupy a space where pop, folk and R&B all intersect. Mr. Moonshine (mrmoonshie.com ), classic rock in (usually) a minor key, who also sometimes act as the house band for a burlesque troupe (who can beat that?).
Then there are the singer/songwriters. Tops among them is Alyssandra Nighswonger (alyssandranighswonger.com ), a true musical force in the local scene. Not only does she write and sing amazing songs on her own, she also harmonizes with the heavenly Dovelles, hosts a weekly open mike, books the musical acts at Viento y Agua Coffeehouse, and occasionally puts on large scale variety shows in a local theater. Other notable singer/songwriters include Sean Blake, Ellen Warkentine, Brenda Carsey (who also plays keyboards in Feral Kizzy), and Victoria Bailey.
Again, this only scratches the surface of the musicians in town (and apologies to all the ones I didn’t mention). Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I am, at the least, acquainted with all of these artists, and some of them are very good friends of mine. But that is another advantage of the local scene. You can actually get to know the musicians. They are (usually) happy to talk to fans after a show. Knowing the people onstage adds another level of enjoyment to a show. And, as I mentioned before, if they do make it big – bragging rights abound!
Further, this gives you a chance to support your favorite musicians in a truly meaningful way. If you spend ninety-nine cents on a song on iTunes, how much of that goes to the artist? Even if you spend ten dollars for a full album, it’s not much. And, if you’re buying on iTunes, chances are the artist doesn’t really need the money anyway. But if you buy a CD at a show for five dollars, the artist gets it all. And they can probably use every penny of it. And trust me, just the act of handing over that five dollar bill feels good for both parties involved.
Even if they only have 45s, and you don’t have a turntable (yeah, 45s are cool these days, and no more expensive for the band to produce than CDs, especially as they only need to record two songs), chances are that they have the tunes up on Bandcamp, or some similar site, so you can still get your songs, and still support the band.
Just showing up is supporting the band too. Looking out into the crowd and seeing familiar faces makes a band feel good. They know you made the effort, left your house and TV, drove across town, probably paid a cover charge, to see them play. Musicians appreciate that. That’s what they’re out there playing for.
Let me be clear. I’m not trying to brag about how great the Long Beach music scene is. I’m especially not trying to claim that Long Beach is the next big scene, just waiting to explode. Quite the opposite. There are bands like this in your city, wherever it is. And they are just waiting for you to go out and find them. Then you can be just as excited about the city you live in, and it’s local music scene.[adrotate banner=”4″]