Starry Nites Music And Arts Festival: DAY TWO (2017)


MICHAEL & THE MACHINES at Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

Yawning and stretching out of the tent for day two of the Starry Nites Music And Arts Festival, I was greeted cheerily by my fellow campers. This was by no means out of the ordinary, for throughout the weekend, I would experience nothing but friendly kindness from those around me. There were never any bad or uncomfortable vibes, no violence or douchebaggery. Even the security guards joked around and seemed truly glad to be keeping us safe.

Also, to my welcome surprise, we the people were even given a chance to show how talented we are. Sponsored by Roland, a “jam tent” had been erected and filled with every conventional instrument you could want to play. And many of the people who did play were downright excellent. Playing covers, jamming the blues in the key of E, everybody seemed to always be having a good time.


SKY PARADE at Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

I even hopped on drums for a few songs, and let me tell you, going from spectating to actually playing music is just about as immersed as you can be at music festival. I sincerely wish every festival provided this opportunity, and I hope this one will continue to do so. It made for a truly cherished and unique experience.

Okay, so back to the bands at hand. One band I must absolutely address was the very first one to play that perfectly sunny, Sunday morning, and they go by the name of MY DALLAS TEENS. Performing on the stage reserved for lesser-known acts, the band performed on a small little platform amongst some patchy grass behind the jam tent area. The whole area made it feel like being at a local backyard show down the street from your friend’s house. However, I like to think this was done deliberately, as the humble setting ended up setting the stage for an alarming contrast. The bands here played with such raw talent and intensity that their stage presence exploded well beyond the confines of the “backyard” they were in. As I stood in intimate witness of this energy, it felt like being at a series of exclusive warm up shows for a group of festival headliners.


LEVITATION ROOM at Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

My Dallas Teens seemed determined to leave it all on the stage. Whisking us away on a series of mystifying solos, hard, dirty, groovy, psychedelic rhythms, the musical journey was like a shot of espresso to the senses. Even when they played their softer songs, the wall of sound they created was so complete and enveloping, that it was as captivating as it was relaxing. Without a CD or any merch, this band is at the beginning of what I expect to be a fruitful and joyous endeavor. Keep an eye out for these folks.

One after another, the bands at this stage played as though to outdo one another. MICHAEL & THE MACHINES, LEVITATION ROOM, AND JESIKA VON RABBIT all brought their unique brands of escapism to our eager ears. At the end of my stay here at this stage, I walked away knowing these bands would soon be melting minds on the main stage.


JESIKA VON RABBIT at Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

I was especially impressed by the onstage antics of Jesika Von Rabbit’s dancers, who came out half naked and donning realistic masks of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. The image of Donald Trump wearing a bra and pantyhose is just so gleefully bizarre that I would be remiss if I had not mentioned it. Thanks for the strangeness, Jesika. And thanks for combining that strangeness with powerfully groovy music.

Back at the main stages, I was waiting eagerly for LUMERIANS when all of a sudden, the lights went out completely. Right away, I knew something was up. Until now, none of the other acts performed in complete darkness, so my mind was primed for the unexpected. Even then, I was still surprised to see four hooded figures walking out from the darkness of the backstage. Amidst the “ooo’s” of the crowd, purple lights began to shine their way into a dim existence, revealing a band wearing cloaks made entirely of sequined material. As each member looked up, our eyes met not with their faces, but with the haunting glow of red LEDs affixed to pitch black masks. Sensual discombobulation was complete; my body was ready for takeoff.

The band didn’t waste any time, splitting the cool night air with an enveloping fuzz and insatiable rhythm, catapulting my body and mind into the depths of musical bliss and beyond. The whole set played out like a dream, with each song more engaging than the last. Their jams seemed to go on for hours, the repetition of their chord structures masked by the truly epic soundscaping and dynamic chemistry of the band. Thankfully, I found a group of people just as captivated as I was and we proceeded to spin and thrash and march around like we were possessed. Even Jesika Von Rabbit jumped in for a mosh or two, elbowing me firmly in the arm, which all but commanded me to lose myself in danceful worship.


ASTEROID at Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

I must say, Lumerians were far and away the trippiest, cosmically insane band to play the whole weekend. They uprooted my entire being from reality and threw it into another dimension. That may sound like just a bunch of fancy talk, but don’t let it fool you into thinking it is mere exaggeration. These guys were the real deal, and they deserve your presence should you ever get the opportunity. Believe me, you won’t remember your name or know what year it is by the time they walk off the stage. In a good way.

It being a Sunday night, the three hour drive back home was beginning to loom over me as I waited for the headlining act, the ALAN PARSONS LIVE PROJECT. It had apparently loomed over others even more, with the crowd thinning out to maybe just a couple hundred people. To think I was considering walking alongside those deserters, what a fool. What ended up happening was beyond words, really. The music that Alan Parsons played with his band was so spectacularly performed that I found myself lost in awe and ecstasy long after the show had already ended.


ALAN PARSONS LIVE PROJECT at Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

Having heard earlier that he worked as a sound engineer for Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon, I had expected the music to be good. But as an ignorant millennial, I had never even heard of Alan’s name, let alone the music from his project. So I really did not expect it to be so good that I would find myself declaring the band to be the most impressive and entrancing performance of the whole festival. I was just so magnificently wrong.

Setting up microphones for each member of the 8-piece band, the vocal harmonies were angelic choruses, touching on every sonic frequency that my brain could physically process. And not only could they all sing like demigods, but they’re command of each respective instrument was staggering. Here are men who have been dedicated to music for decades, and it showed. As I found out first hand, Alan Parsons had composed many taut, intricate, syncopated, booming, larger than life songs throughout his career, and so it was only natural that he chose only the best of the best to bring those songs to life. With flawless sound engineering, a captivating light show, and a performance worthy of Wembley Stadium, my time at the Starry Nites Music And Arts Festival ended with a magnificent, resounding boom.

Having spent a weekend reveling in the sounds of music, dancing amongst the trees, stars, and fresh mountain air, I can tell you with smiling confidence that the good people of Desert Stars Festival & Starry Records knew exactly what they were doing.

Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

Starry Nites Festival; photo Joey Pedroza

Aside from a few technical hiccups here and there, which are to be expected, the whole festival experience was a joyous journey of music, nature, and comradery. And in spite of it now being reduced to an afterthought, just know that the choice of food trucks was also very much on point. Just, delicious. Also, in regards to the surprisingly meager attendance, I expect that this is just the beginning of something big. The groundwork has been laid, and I would not be surprised to see this festival grow to great heights in the years to come.

Beach Goth Day 2: The Music Saves A Rainy Day

Beach Goth Day 2

Beach Goth Day 2 festival grounds; photo Reuben Martinez

For the uninitiated, Beach Goth is a two-day festival put on each year at The Observatory in Santa Ana by surf-garage kings The Growlers. It’s a hedonistic, grimy (in the best way), mutant display where people dress up in gory costumes and groove along to diverse lineups that always have a sense of humor (Devendra Banhart after Gucci Mane, anyone?). Let’s just put it this way, it’s held in a parking lot, and you’re not gonna see any damn flower crowns.

Before departing for Beach Goth Day 2, I spoke to a friend of mine who went the previous day (headliners: James Blake, King Krule, Bon Iver), and heard the usual complaints: oversold, overaggressive security, and hot as hell with no relief. These are things patrons have been complaining about for the last four years, so I was expecting them. I might even say, prepared for them. Not even close.

11:25am: I arrive. The line to get in is so long it’s offensive and it’s sprinkling. “It will let up,” I think. “It never rains all day in Southern California.” After all, I had dutifully looked up the day’s forecast and was promised a steamy 80 degrees for most of the day, so I dressed appropriately, i.e. sandals, a tank-top, and my soon-to-be-crushed naiveté.

12:20pm: I head over to the smaller of the two outdoor stages to see The Frights. On my way, I pass booths peddling merch, tantalizing fried chicken sandwiches, and whatever the girls in black t-shirts and no pants were promoting. I stop by The Growlers tent and pick up a “City Club” shirt for a reasonable 25 bucks. Reasonable in that it would save my life in about four hours.

The Frights

The Frights – Beach Goth Day 2; photo Reuben Martinez

12:35pm: The Frights went on right on time and slayed. Their high-energy, surf-punk songs about hating your parents and making out were a perfect kick-off. They sounded great, and got into the spirit of the festival by dressing up as characters from the Netflix show Stranger Things.

The lead singer was dressed as Eleven, complete with a nosebleed and Eggo waffles that he tossed out to the crowd, while his bandmate, dressed as Hopper asked the crowd, “Can anybody tell me where the fuck Will Byers is?” Oh, and they did a killer cover of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.” The rain had stopped, the sun was coming out, and I was in a state of bliss as I headed over to the Observatory stage for the next two sets.

1:20pm: There are two stages indoors, the tiny Constellation Room stage, and the larger Observatory stage. I head into the latter with no issue. It’s full, but not stifling, and I can hear the hum of an air-conditioner. I hunker down and get comfy, thankful that I’ll be out of the sun for the hottest part of the day (Oh, blissful ignorance). Smooth as clockwork, freak-folk outfit Timber Timbre went on at 1:35, and cast a spell with their spooky, moody magic. I was entranced by the dark atmosphere inside the venue, accented with red lights and Taylor Kirk’s demented gyrating.

2:35pm: BRONCHO, Ohio pop-punkers responsible for the di-di-di-di-di ear-worm “Class Historian,” were up next. I’ve seen them before and here’s the thing. I love their albums, but the way they mix their live sound, it winds up sounding like mush. There’s no distinction, and Ryan Lindsey’s nasally gurgle of a voice can barely be made out. The same thing happened this time around, but the songs are so good, that it’s still powerful and high energy…when you can tell what song it is.


BRONCHO – Beach Goth Day 2; photo Reuben Martinez

3:10pm: My stomach had started to growl during the BRONCHO set, so I decide to forgo Tops in the Constellation Room and head back to that tasty fried chicken tent I saw earlier. As soon as I exit the cozy darkness of the Observatory, all hell breaks loose. It’s raining. Hard. The exit reads “No Re-entry” and the surly security guards staring at me wordlessly enforce it. Besides, I’m hungry, so I take a deep breath and step outside. “This isn’t so bad,” I think as I purchase my chicken sandwich. I ravenously tear into my food, crouching over it so the rain doesn’t make it soggy. “I’m having a good time.”

3:20pm: I take respite in a port-a-potty. Sad, I know, but I gotta pee and write down some of my notes. I enjoy the dryness for longer than anyone should be in a port-a-potty and head back out into the wet.

3:55pm: Devendra Banhart starts his set at the larger of the outdoor stages. “You’re gonna get wet, but you can keep each other warm,” he tells the soaked crowd. For the current downpour situation, Banhart is the perfect medicine. His feel-good, latin-infused, psychedelic folk music makes me actually enjoy the rain. It’s soothing, cleansing, instead of the reason my toes are going numb. He plays songs off of his new album, Ape In Pink Marble, as well as old favorites that keeps the audience swaying as the rain came down even harder.

4:45pm: At this point, I’m soaked to the bone, freezing, and wanting shelter. Problem is, there’s absolutely none. Also, the number of people in this joint has increased, it seems, ten-fold. I can barely walk without stepping on someone. Add to that the confusion of the rain, and I’m surprised I didn’t get an eye taken out by all the drunken umbrella holders. I make an executive decision. I’ll miss out on some other acts so I can go back inside and camp out for The Buttertones at 6:15. I wait in the enormous, mob-like line to get indoors, putting on my new Growlers shirt in hopes it will stop my shivering.

5:10pm: Finally, I’m about to get inside. Sweet victory. Hallelujah. I can feel the welcoming dryness beckoning to me. I’m practically inside. BOOM. Huge Samoan security guard barrels into me, shoves me out of the way so hard that I nearly lose my balance, and cuts off the line, slamming the door shut. “No one else is getting in here,” he bellows. Shit.

Beach Goth Day 2

Beach Goth Day 2 festival grounds; photo Reuben Martinez

5:30pm: Back in the port-a-potty. Did I have to pee this time? No. Did I have to wade through ankle-height puddles that have made the main drag of merchandise booths look like Venice, Italy? Yes. People are huddling around food trucks for warmth, poor girls who spent hours doing their makeup (bloody gashes included), huddle sadly under upheld sweatshirts. I walk back toward the smaller outdoor stage. This seems to be the only place where there’s actual breathing room, so I take a seat on the cold, wet ground.

5:45pm: A lovely gay couple wanders over and we commiserate. We realize the stage has been shut down and they won’t get to see their beloved Grimes, the reason they bought their tickets in the first place. I won’t get to see The Drums, one of my favorites. We exchange condolences. The sounds of Unknown Mortal Orchestra waft over to us from the main stage. I tell them my plan to stick it out for The Growlers and then get the hell out. We part ways.

6:40pm: After one more expedition to the port-a-potty—during which I saw one poor girl lose her balance and tumble into a huge puddle, as well as a security guard slamming a seemingly innocent man’s face into a taco truck—I head back to the main stage where Future Islands is finishing up. Alas, it has finally stopped raining and I’m enjoying the communal heat of the crowd.

8:10pm: After a 40-minute delay—they had to put in a new soundboard—The Growlers finally take the stage. “Sorry we made it rain,” Brooks Nielsen explained, thanking the crowd for hanging in there through a brutal day. Dressed in matching burgundy suits, the band served a crowd-pleasing mix of new City Club tracks, plus perennials like “One Million Lovers” and “Someday.”

Nielsen is a happy host, part Willy Wonka, part carnival barker, genuinely happy to be there. “This is our festival, but it’s also all of yours,” he said.

As I swayed along to the music, I didn’t care that my toes were numb, that I missed half the acts I wanted to see, that I would probably contract pneumonia in the next few days. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.

Beach Goth Day 1 (2016)


The Growlers, Beach Goth Day 1; photo Lauren Ratkowski

The thing about lines is, if you’re bothering to wait in one in the first place, chances are it’s because you really want the thing at the end of it. And so the line really becomes an understood low before the high, a necessary part of the prize-getting process.

As I stood in various amounts of lines at the Observatory for the first day of The Growlers’ annual Beach Goth festival, I further thought to myself, “You know what? You can’t even have a high without a low anyways. That’s just bad science. So in a way, it’s good that Beach Goth is incredibly, inescapably crowded.” And then I continued to stand there, now smiling confidently, wherever I was lucky enough to be, as the bands, the crowds, and the donut-ice-cream-sandwiches being sold at the Afters booth reminded me what it’s like to relish the gift of life.

(That’s all I’m going to say about how crowded it was. So just know that it was, that I wish it wasn’t, but that it also by no means stained the experience.)

Speaking of which, you can’t have crowds without people, and the people at Beach Goth were pretty cool people. Like a tame version of what I imagine Burning Man to be, there were bizarre/sexual/hilarious costumes galore. The amount of Halloween spirit was enough to keep me occupied whenever I decided to peruse my surroundings, and I was able to have friendly conversations with literally everyone I stood next to throughout the day. To my great pleasure, I quickly found common interests and established a rapport with everyone I met, and even befriended a contextually rare, 50 year old couple (but they were younger than ever, let me tell you).

As for the lineup of artists, it was quite an eclectic mix. There was not a single genre of music overlooked, and I found myself with plenty of options to satisfy whatever sonic craving I had.

ames Blake, Beach Goth Day 1

James Blake, Beach Goth Day 1; photo Lauren Ratkowski

My day started with the talented quartet of adorable Spanish chicas known as HINDS. As per usual, they played their songs with their trademark brand of infectious, playful, honest joy and passion. Claiming to have been “hungover”, their taut, energetic performance suggested quite otherwise.

With a unique blend of harmonies, angst, melody, and garageness, their songs beg to be moved to, moshed to, sway to, and many other verbs of this nature. Even the relentless beating of the sun couldn’t keep the crowd still, with the Hinds’ staple closer, “Davy Crockett,” sending the audience into a crowd-surfing, mosh-pitting frenzy of spirited joy.

And because good things sometimes happen, the offensively skillful, CHICANO BATMAN followed Hinds. Taking the stage in identical, fitted blue suits, their collective cohesion seemed to exist on a whole other level. And if you’ve listened to their songs before, you know that each instrument, and respective musician, seems to be battling one another in an epic duel for supreme musical glory. For this reason I felt as though they were the most technically impressive performance of the day.

Their stage presence was just so tantalizing and engaging. Frontman Bardo Martinez for instance, when he wasn’t inducing crowd-wide swoons with his serene, soulful, pitch-perfect vocals, played his keyboard with reckless abandon, throwing himself on its keys with a deep, awe inspiring fervor for musical expression. It seemed like their whole set was a sing-along experience, all of us brought together collectively as one, drunk off of their audial divinity. As they left the stage, I made a solemn, unbreakable promise to myself: I will see them again as soon as I am able. For my health.

The next band to completely overwhelm me with sensation was VIOLENT FEMMES, whom I have been waiting to see since the early days of my music-listening career. As one of the stagehands brought a charcoal grill onto the stage to serve as part of the drum set, as well as what looked like the largest brass instrument I’ve ever seen, I knew that this long, 10-year buildup would go on to have exactly no let down. When the band kicked things right off with their radio anthem, “Blister in the Sun,” it became clear that I was right.

The crowd sang along loudly and lovingly for most of the set, as the band effortlessly shredded all the songs you would have wanted them to play. And they were just as weird as you would have hoped, with Gordon Gano often deliberately, tastefully playing wrong notes or dissonant chords, and Brian Ritchie embarking on some truly, unconventionally spectacular bass soloing. In a lineup full of younger acts, this band of 50 year-olds played with more energy and vivacity than most of them combined. Go figure.

Patti Smith, Beach Goth Day 1

Patti Smith, Beach Goth Day 1; photo Lauren Ratkowski

While on the topic of older acts blowing it out of the water, PATTI SMITH was a force to be reckoned with that night. Starting off with a tight, spritely performance of “Redondo Beach,” she made it immediately clear that she doesn’t age like other human beings. There was a youthfulness to her stage presence, an outright refusal to bend to the weight of time.

She and her band played with a strict adherence to perfection, jamming out often intricate compositions with expertly assured ease. It’s also worth mentioning that her discourse with the crowd was the most intimate of any act I’ve seen.

She talked to us with a sense of learned wisdom and a lust for life, at one point demanding we raise our hands high into the air, and proceeding to yell at us, with soul-shaking passion, to treasure the lives we have, not because of what they consist of, but because we get to have them at all. I looked around to proudly see not a single phone in the air, a wholly, unique concert experience in this, the age of Snapchat. She, a 69 year old human being, managed to pull an entire crowd with a mean age of 19, into the pure bliss of the present moment, where social media couldn’t possibly even exist. And not just with the vigor of her words, but with the sounds of her art.

On the heels of her boisterous rant about life, she closed her set with a rambunctious, highly relevant cover “My Generation,” for which she swapped the usual acoustic for an electric guitar, and proceed to belt out a raunchy, fuzzed out, soul-f*cking solo. Truly a sight to behold.

At several points during her set, she split the night with the declaration, “This is the coolest fucking festival ever!” And you know what, after having reeled in the splendor of its lineup and atmosphere, I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

The English Beat Rocksteady At The Coach House

Dave Wakeling, The English Beat

Dave Wakeling, The English Beat; photo Jackie Butler

“There’s a new dance called the tolerance,” Dave Wakeling sings in the English Beat classic “Sole Salvation,” which he played toward the end of their set at the sold-out Coach House last Saturday night. The relevance of his words were not lost on the audience who responded with a roar of approval. After an election so venomous and so polarizing, and probably more than a few Thanksgivings spent arguing, an evening full of feel-good hits like “Save It For Later,” “Hands Off She’s Mine,” and “Too Nice To Talk To” provided a much-needed escape.

Whether you call it, Ska, Rocksteady, or just plain Reggae, there’s something about its syncopated rhythms and breezy vamping that melts everything else away. Add an invigorating jolt of punk energy and attitude like the Beat did, and you’ve got music made for dancing. Wakeling and the rest of the band put on such a good show, that the Coach House clears out some of its signature tables for a designated dancing area. It was put to good use during favorites like “Twist & Crawl,” “I’ll Take You There,” and the one-two punch of “Ranking Full Stop” and “Mirror In The Bathroom.”

Though Wakeling is the only original member, his beautifully diverse band reflects the message of unity and love that the Beat and the reggae genre have come to represent. Besides that, these guys can play. In their matching Ska polos, they proved a formidable force, from the raging sax solos on “Hands Off,” and “Wine And Grine/Stand Down Margaret,” to the unstoppable groove provided by the dual keyboardists, to the off-the-charts energy of Wakeling’s young toaster. Obviously Ranking Roger can’t be replaced, but this new guy’s a charmer, pulling a less-than-amused little girl on stage during “Hands Off,” and a much more amused middle-aged man after he wouldn’t stop requesting “Ackee 1-2-3.”

As for Mr. Wakeling, he sounds exactly the same, his honeyed, crooner vocals surprisingly intact. He cuts quite the figure with his signature teardrop guitar and his goofy mugging, clearly having a great time on stage. The crowd was even treated to a couple of new tracks off an album set to be released next year, as well as the rest of their favorites like “Tears Of A Clown,” before which Wakeling joked, “It’s not a party until you’ve ruined a perfectly good Motown song…Sorry Smokey!”

The highlight of the night proved to be “Tenderness” which Wakeling actually recorded with General Public, not the Beat—not that anyone cared. An adorable little girl and her mother were pulled up on stage, and everyone was on their feet. No one in that whole room was thinking about anything other than the good time they were having, and everyone left feeling a whole lot lighter.

Where is the tenderness? Go and see The English Beat and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find it.

Fruit Bats Are Anything But ‘Absolute Losers’ At LA Show

Fruit Bats

Fruit Bats played Bootleg Theater Sep. 29, 2016; press photo

Over the course of five albums, Fruit Bats have perfected rootsy, feel-good, country-tinged pop, taking up the flame lit by the “cosmic American music” of Gram Parsons and his buddies. After a five-year hiatus, Eric Johnson and Co. came roaring back with Absolute Loser, which served as the anchor of their lengthy setlist at the Bootleg Theater.

“I hope you’re enjoying this assemblage of, uh, mid-tempo, uh, toe-tappers,” Johnson self-deprecatingly said to the packed crowd, after running through standouts off the new album, “Good Will Come To You,” “From A Soon-To-Be Ghost Town” and “My Sweet Midwest”.

Johnson, whose nasally voice perfectly crowns the sense of humor and authenticity that permeate his songs, hasn’t lost a step. His voice along with the accompanying harmonies, were locked in all night, over the length of a 21-song, two-hour+ set.

Though dressed in a wrinkly linen jacket, Johnson could probably get away with wearing a rhinestone Nudie suit, thanks to the Americana spirit and big-blue-sky guitar breaks that permeate Fruit Bats’ music.

“None of Us” was a highlight of the show’s first half. A gently-driving, warm breeze of song, that had Johnson singing to the spellbound patrons of his hope that all their “wishes come true,” was perfect for the intimate setting. Johnson, picking up on the good vibes explained, “I love playing at the Bootleg. I feel like we’re all at a cool party in some guy’s weird house.”

The rest of the set was a discography-jumping mix of old favorites and deeper cuts. The waltzing “Primitive Man” was one of the most graceful romps of the night, while the irresistible “Dolly” saw Johnson putting his guitar down so he could groove around with a tambourine. The band left the stage for a chill-inducing, bare-bones version of “Baby Bluebird,” that blew away the version on record, then returned for fan favorite, “You’re Too Weird.”

For the encore, Johnson was having such a good time he asked for some requests. He did a solo version of “Singing Joy To The World,” then brought the band back for “Born In The 70’s.” Closing out the night was the one-two punch of the thumping “Humbug Mountain Song” and their classic, “When U Love Somebody”. Fruit Bats left the crowd with more than they expected, and everything they wanted.

Sloan Entertains Long Time Fans

Sloan-Patrick Pentland

Patrick Pentland of Sloan; photo James Christopher

Dedicated followers of Sloan’s music came out to The Constellation Room on a sweltering Sunday night to enjoy a 20th anniversary celebration of the group’s well-known album One Chord To Another and so much more!

Local Los Angeles group, Gateway Drugs jump-started the evening with their blend of psych rock, jangly guitars, and escalating melodic noise. The four-piece accompanied Sloan on several West Coast tour dates.

Following a quick change over, Sloan hit the stage to play the first of two sets, kicking off with “The Good In Everyone”, the opening track from One Chord To Another, followed by “Nothing Left to Make Me Want to Stay,” “Autobiography” then working their way through the rest of the album.

Andrew Scott of Sloan

Andrew Scott of Sloan; photo James Christopher

Songs such as the fiery rocker “G Turns to D” had the band pushing the energy up a notch with lead guitarist Patrick Pentland driving the crowd into a comfortable frenzy.

The band was masterful and seemed to have fun swapping instruments and lead vocal duties while the audience smiled and sang along in places, creating an atmosphere of give and take.

The Canadian band often makes a tour stop in Los Angeles but this time they visited venues in and around SoCal much to the appreciation of their pockets of fans that are often skipped.

If the other shows in the area were anything like The Constellation Room, there were many happy long-time fans.


Nick Valensi Wows With New Band CRX


CRX played The Troubadour Sep. 17; photo Amanda de Cadenet

The Strokes are one of the last veritable institutions in rock music (You can fight me on this, I know I’m right). As such, people actually know the names of the dudes in the band, not just the guy up front, which means that no matter what successful side project or solo record they do, they will always be referred to as a member of said band.

As I watched The Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi’s new band, CRX, at the sold-out Troubadour on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to his other group; a submission to human nature and our hunt for familiarity, which Valensi and CRX alternately played around with, and discarded, over the course of the show.

Valensi is the last member of the The Strokes to dip his toe in the side-project water, launching the band with a website and social media accounts at the beginning of August. Always appearing the most content to just stick with his main gig, it was the lack of touring behind 2013’s Comedown Machine that made Valensi antsy to get back on stage. Piecing together talented musicians from other bands (Darian Zahedi and Jon Safely from the Reflections, Richie Follin from Guards, and Ralph Alexander from The Dose), Valensi formed CRX.

“Ways To Fake It,” the lead single from New Skin (out Oct. 28), was all I had to go off of prior to the show. It’s pop-y, it’s Strokes-y, it’s got one of Valensi’s classic, angular, eighth-note riffs, and that interlocking guitar sound that will make you question if Albert Hammond Jr. is on the track.

But before CRX took the stage, opening act, The Gloomies’ lead singer warned, “It’s gonna get a lot louder,” and he was right. The opening heft of “Broken Bones” rattled the wall I was leaning on, while “Unnatural” rode in on a locomotive lick that reminded me of a sinister, mutant version of the “Peter Gunn Theme” ostinato. As if it wasn’t clear enough already that CRX goes heavier than anything the Strokes have done, “Monkey Man” actually started a mosh pit.

CRX is a tight band, and Valensi proved himself a capable singer and convincing frontman. Whether hitting falsetto notes and crooning “Let it go baby, let it go,” on the muscular “Give It Up,” or letting his voice passionately fray just enough at the edges as he sang “I don’t know what to make of it/When everyone is faking it,” during the closer, “Walls,” he showed he’s doing his own thing. Even the power-pop songs, like the mainstream, radio-friendly “Anything,” or the jittery groove of “One Track Mind,” are kept out of Strokes territory by Valensi’s avoidance of Julian Casablancas’ detached, answering-machine bit. The bottom line is, every song has Valensi’s familiar, Epiphany Riviera sound that the crowd of fans in Strokes t-shirts was greatly appreciative of, but other than that, CRX is it’s own animal.

Perhaps most important to me, as a longtime Strokes fan who, full disclosure, has referred to Room on Fire as life-changing on several occasions, is that Valensi is having a damn good time. “Well shit that was fun,” he yelled before closing out the set, and you knew he meant it after the electrifying, jammed-out display that came prior. Valensi showed more enthusiasm at the Troubadour than he has at a Strokes gig in years, willingly playing the guitar hero by thrusting his axe into the crowd as he soloed, seeming to enjoy the shouts of “We love you Nick,” that came after nearly every song, and even letting a head-banging kid that snuck on stage jam out with him for a little bit.

That’s the thing about these bands we hold so dear. We love that they make music for us, and if side projects and solo careers are what they need to still love it too, so be it. We just want to see those familiar faces, and when the music is this good, it’s even sweeter. “We’ll see you next time, right?” Valensi asked before leaving the stage. Judging by the way fans were frantically fighting over the setlist, I would say that’s a safe bet.

The Zombies Breathe New Life Into 50 Year Career At The Coach House

The Zombies

The Zombies

Before launching into their 1965 single “I Want You Back Again,” a jazzy cut that’s still so fresh the band re-recorded it for their 2015 album Still Got That Hunger, lead singer Colin Blunstone explained, “Not only had the public forgotten it, we did too.”

Contrary to that statement, the sold-out crowd at The Coach House last Saturday night didn’t seem to have forgotten at all, belting right along with Blunstone and giving the band a standing ovation after almost every song. Never mind that 50 years have passed since The Zombies were regularly on the radio.

One of the oddest stories in rock, The Zombies rose to fame on the backs of hit singles like “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” slipping in the British Invasion door propped open by The Beatles. However, as it was for many groups, the hits quickly dried up and The Zombies disbanded, but not before recording the chamber-pop masterpiece Odessey and Oracle. Released in 1968 after the group had already gone their separate ways, it flopped upon arrival, but by some magical mystery has become one of the most beloved albums of the 60’s, continuing to sell more copies every year than it did back then.

As Blunstone and other original member Rod Argent played a medley from that album, “Care Of Cell 44,” “I Want Her She Wants Me,” the aforementioned “Time Of The Season,” and the
sweetly, touching, fan favorite, “This Will Be Our Year”, it drove home just how baffling it is that the album didn’t sell upon initial release, but also how lucky and grateful Blunstone and Argent feel to still be able to play their music.

Argent, who wrote most of The Zombies’ songs, was as spry as ever, effortlessly firing off transcendent keyboard solos on “Time Of The Season,” and “Hold Your Head Up,” a huge hit from his post-Zombies band, the appropriately named, “Argent”.

Blunstone, who had a successful solo career in England with songs like “Caroline Goodbye,” miraculously sings The Zombies songs in the same key as when he was 19 years old, hitting the dizzying high notes on “I Love You” and “Going Out Of My Head” with complete ease. If anything, his voice has actually gotten stronger and more capable, while the breathy, velvet voice that cooed, “What’s your name/Who’s your daddy” all those years ago, still remains.

The night wasn’t all nostalgia, with cuts like the blues piano-inflected “Edge Of The Rainbow,” and the upbeat, “Lady Madonna”-esque “Maybe Tomorrow” being particularly well received. After all, everyone loves a good comeback story, and the enthusiastic crowd loves this one so much, they actually seemed to be enjoying the new songs.

Other highlights included a “You Really Got A Hold On Me” and “Bring It On Home To Me” mashup in a nod to the group’s blue-eyed soul roots. The hit singles “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” and a rousing rendition of Argent’s “God Gave Rock And Roll To You” closed out the show.

“I won’t cry for the past,” Blunstone sang during new track “Moving On.” With shows as good as this 50 years on, The Zombies definitely don’t have to.

We Are Scientists Play Passionately In Constellation Room Jul 14

WE ARE SCIENTISTS, Constellation Room Jul 14; photo Reuben Martinez

WE ARE SCIENTISTS, Constellation Room Jul 14; photo Reuben Martinez

When We Are Scientists walked onstage wearing various combinations of blazers and skinny jeans, I wondered if they knew the two basic reactions to which they had just committed themselves. In my experience, this particular fashion statement is eventually either met with, “Dang, I had no idea these guys were such hipster trash,” or, “Okay, yeah, I’m probably already best friends with these guys and none of us have realized it yet.” Naturally, I was eager to see which camp their stage presence and banter would land them in.

After being mentally sucker punched by a delightfully, aggressively performed first song (“This Scene is Dead”), and smiling stupidly at their podcast worthy, belly-laugh-inducing witty repartee, well, you and I know exactly where they landed. What followed was a lot more of the same, the different, and then some.

In a venue as intimate as The Constellation Room, it’s easy to feel like the band is playing a private show in your own living room, and in your honor. The sound is enveloping and the air is shared between the walls of that special room. You can imagine, then, how stimulating it must be to witness the uncontainable energy that is We Are Scientists.


WE ARE SCIENTISTS, Constellation Room Jul 14; photo Reuben Martinez

Guitarist/lead vocalist Keith Murray performed his songs with vigorous passion, often combining his fuzzed out guitar solos while slashing his guitar through the air with reckless abandon. It was as though he were angry with himself for hitting all the right notes in all the right ways; a true rockstar. With his eyes closed and lungs blaring, his fingers moved like they had minds of their own. Here’s a man who has played music every day for years and years and years because he loves it.

Alongside this one-man show, was bassist/vocalist/fellow original band member/resident mustache champion, Chris Cain. He was prone to holding the rhythm section down with taut musicianship and a keen ear for phat, punkish, dance-worthy bass lines. His relatively calm demeanor provided a nice contrast to the musical thrashings of his counterpart, digging deep into his various grooving with a focused swagger.

His partner in time and tempo, drummer Keith Carne, was the percussive peanut butter to Cain’s rhythmic jelly. Filling in every seeming sonic gap that might have been left between a less capable trio of musicians, Carne made sure to keep the beat pulsing, the feet moving, and the minds blowing as he ripped his toms to metaphorical shreds. How he didn’t overheat and pass out in that blazer is yet to be scientifically understood.

At any given point, there was at least one person in the crowd dancing much harder than any recommended amount, as if locked in an epic dance-off with themselves and eager for new challengers. That’s because much of the music by We Are Scientists is tailor-made for bodily movement.
With a setlist that spanned equally across their five studio albums, the songs ranged from their earlier post-punk, dancing days of “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt,” to songs borne out of their current status as an 80’s pop-rock duo.

Melodic, sonically ethereal jams like “Buckle” and “Too Late” now pepper the landscape of their shows, infusing their set with a welcome variance in sound. While these songs may not have the same pulsing beat of the early 2000’s, they were performed with the same emotional honesty and intensity.

The live translations of their newest songs took on a raw, more tangible feel as compared to the results of any possible studio production. This edge brought the songs to life with the energy and gravitas of a band who is still eager to share the contents of their mind.

When you combine this with their between-songs stand-up comedy routines, you get a show full of priceless sound and vision. And considering it was for the price of just a normal ticket, I’d say we all got a pretty sweet deal.

Sunflower Bean Delivers At Constellation Room Jun 26

sunflower bean

Sunflower Bean at Constellation Room Jun 26; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Any time I’m slotted to see a buzzy band I experience a jolt of anticipation mixed with a sour tinge of dread. Call it my bullshit meter whirring to life, or maybe it’s just my overgrown curiosity. Either way, there’s a new element in play and it’s a smutty, four-letter word called “hype”.

Rolling Stone called Sunflower Bean “NYC’s Coolest Young Band,” NME named them One To Watch for 2016, and their debut album, Human Ceremony, is on more “Best of 2016” lists then you can shake a drum stick at. But what really gripped me was the accolade from Oh My Rockness declaring them the “Hardest Working Band in NYC,” for sheer number of shows played.

As they took the stage at The Constellation Room (which was packed to capacity), I clutched my little notepad, took a deep breath, and said a little prayer to the rock gods, hoping that practice does indeed still make perfect.

All that gigging around NYC payed off just like I thought it would. They. Are. Tight. So tight, they’re like a pair of Bon Scott’s jeans. No, even tighter. I’ll say it: full Robert Plant.

The extended prog-lite jams (we’re talking two economical minutes instead of 15) of “Tame Impala” and “I Was Home” were performed with laser-like focus. Over drummer Jacob Faber’s behemoth beats, singer/bassist Julia Cumming and guitarist Nick Kivlen locked into each other with so much intensity it’s like they’re using one brain, staring each other down from across the stage.

sunflower bean

Sunflower Bean Constellation Room Jun 26; photo Lauren Ratkowski

The hours upon hours they’ve slogged plus a lean set added up to the actual music being so clean, so down-pat, that the band was free to absolutely smash. Songs like “Come On” and “Wall Watcher” erupted the room into one giant pit, causing me, the photographers, and those of a slightly milder manner, to scramble for the corners of the room.

Most reactive to the energy was Cumming, bobbing her head so hard it looked like her neck might snap, dousing the crowd with water, and even jumping down into the pit.

“We just did a show in LA that was our favorite show ever, but this is our favorite show, too,” Cumming said.

The crowd seemed to agree, begging for one more song, which they obliged with “The Stalker,” the absolute earth-rocker of a B-side to their debut single. “What’s this song called?” I heard a guy behind me yell to his buddy, “This is some heavy shit!”