Tuesday, September 2, 2014

LA Re-Cap -- Best of Los Feliz / Silver Lake Bars and Restaurants

I've just returned from a little over a week in the Los Feliz / Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.  Two distinct neighborhoods within walking distance of each other, Los Feliz and Silver Lake are both happening, bohemian enclaves that still feel isolated from the glitz and gaudiness of stereotypical LA.  To the West is Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills.  To the East is Echo Park and Atwater Village.  Along the North is the awesome Griffith Park and to the South is Downtown LA.  Although I had rented a car, I did most of my exploring on foot as this part of the city is very walkable and our cottage was equidistant to both Los Feliz and Silver Lake.

Los Feliz is an affluent, neat, tidy and safe feeling cross-section of hilly streets with a bustling little village area along Hillhurst and Vermont Avenues and some very nice homes as you start to climb up the stairways of the adjacent Franklin Hills.  Silver Lake is a bit crunchier and gentrified, but was recently named "America's Hippest Hipster Neighborhood" by Forbes Magazine.  The majority of Silver Lake's shops and dining options are clustered around the part known as Sunset Junction.

There are tons of restaurants, bars and coffee shops in these two neighborhoods and things are changing all the time.  This is only a small sample of the offerings from my experiences over a week spent there in late August 2014.

First things first.  You can't go wrong with Fred 62 (1850 N Vermont Ave), offering an extensive menu of breakfast staples - some with eclectic twists.  Open 24 hours.  Over in Silver Lake, the young and hip flock to Millie's Cafe (3524 Sunset Blvd) where you can sit outside on the sidewalk to see and be seen.  Much more than a diner, Millie's offers some killer huevos-centered specialties like the Machaca that'll keep you full for the better part of an afternoon.

Happy Hour
We wandered into the non-descript El Chavo (4441 Sunset Blvd) late one afternoon and were directed to the no nonsense back bar where drinks are cheap(er), the jukebox is free, and a Charles Bukowski vibe is in full effect.  Definitely not your prototypical LA...or is it?  El Chavo's El Tres Inn (located above the restaurant) seems like it might be a place worth staying on a future visit.

Dive Bar
The Drawing Room (1800 Hillhurst Ave) hands down.  This is the place to go if a Red Stripe or highball at 8am is your kind of thing.  Or at 8pm.  What's the difference?  Perhaps you'll see a celeb in there for the same ironic reasons as you.  The complete lack of windows only adds to its character.  Killer old school jukebox (5 plays for a dollar) where I programmed some Linda Rondstadt and Tom Petty.  (Note: I did not make it into Ye Rustic Inn across the street, but I heard good things about that dive as well.  Take your pick).
The Drawing Room - cocktail lounge open at 6AM
Cheap Eats
Tacos.  Tacos.  Tacos.  Whether you get them from Machos Tacos (1670 N Vermont Ave) at the corner of Vermont and Prospect, or at "Best Fish Taco in Ensenada" (1650 Hillhurst Ave), you can get a pretty tasty, filling meal and still have plenty of change back from your tenner.

Draft Beer
While I didn't stumble upon any nearby breweries, I did find a few places with some good craft beer selections, including:  Jay's Bar (4321 Sunset Blvd).  Jay's is too hip to be a dive bar, but it looks like it could be one from the outside.  Once you venture in you might be tempted to stay for hours sampling the local craft brews on draft. Spitz (1725 Hillhurst Ave) also has a well chosen selection of draft microbrews in a nice open air setting.  Good food too!  The German themed Red Lion Tavern (2366 Glendale Blvd) is sort of off the beaten track in Silver Lake, but well worth the visit if Black Lagers and Malty Ales are your thing.  Public House (1739 Vermont Ave) probably has the largest beer menu of any place I found, but it also has an over abundance of TVs and bad top 40 music playing, both negatives IMO.  To make those apsects more tolerable, we grabbed an upstairs table overlooking Vermont Ave and commandeered their internet jukebox to play some Ween, Dawes, Dr. Dog, and lots of Phish for a good 2+ hours.
The bar inside Red Lion Tavern
View from 2nd floor of Public House 1739
The only pizza I had in LA was at Garage Pizza (4339 1/2 Sunset Blvd), but it was perfecto!  Thin crust, New York style.  They are open late.

H Coffee (1750 Hillhurst Ave) was my favorite place to get coffee and hang out.  Friendly staff.  Sprawling coffee house where you could sit for hours and read a book.  Another good coffee find was Casbah Cafe (3900 Sunset Blvd) in Silver Lake.  Relaxed atmosphere.  New agey, hippieish decor with hassocks and mismatched furniture.  Leafy, hidden alcoves for sitting outdoors.

Tropical Cocktails
The one and only place for tropical cocktails is The Good Luck Bar (1514 Hillhurst Ave), a local institution.  We went on a Monday night when the place was less crowded, which made it easier to take in the ambiance (and also went back on Wednesday!).  This place has it going on and the drinks are strong.  My advice is to savor one, or at most two, of their tropical cocktails and then head out because if you have any more you're gonna be feeling it the next day!
Good Luck Bar drinks menu - side 1
Good Luck Bar drinks menu - side 2
Outdoor Atmosphere
The charming restaurant Home (1760 Hillhurst) truly does have a homey, welcoming feel to it.  The outdoor seating area has a "feng shui" to it and you can kind of see the Grittith Observatory from there.  I got lunch at Home by myself one day and felt pretty comfortable doing so.  The young waitress even referred to me as "honey" and "sweetie" which is a plus.  Right next door to Home, the aforementioned H Coffee also has a hospitable outdoor atmosphere.

Juice Bar/Shakes/Smoothies
The hipster-friendly Punchbowl (4645 Melbourne Ave) takes the cake on this one.  Overly priced juice bars might seem like an LA cliche, but once you've forked over ten bucks for a Greena Colada at Punchbowl, you'll know why this place is for real.

Best Overall Food
The two best meals I had in LA were at the Red Lion Tavern (see draft beer above) and at Sidewalk Grill Mediterranean Kitchen (1727 N Vermont Ave). At Red Lion Tavern I had mouth watering Hungarian sausage, with delicious sauerkraut on the side, served with a pasta/cheese dish called spaetzle that might have been the best thing I've ever eaten!  I washed it all down with a Kostrizer Schwarzbier. At the Sidewalk Grill I had a chicken kebab cooked to perfection, with hummus, dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and seasoning) and Greek salad.  Yum!

Noticeably absent from my list
I never made it to Little Dom's, one of the most well regarded restaurants in Los Feliz.  I also missed out on Blossom in Silver Lake and Alcove a little ways up Hillhurst, two other highly recommended restaurants.  Oh yeah.... and both times I tried to go to the famous Tiki Ti cocktail lounge they were closed.  Maybe next time!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Oldtime Jam and Irish Session - lessons in etiquette

While on a recent visit to Los Angeles I had the good fortune to attend both an oldtime jam and an Irish session.  There are some pretty major differences, and some subtle ones, between these two types of music gatherings so it's good to have a decent understanding of this.

The oldtime jam I attended is the once a month 4th Saturday jam at the Audubon Center at Debs Park led by fiddler (and guitarist and banjo player) Joe Wack from West VA.  I got to the jam a little early and was one of the first 3 people there, but I got the impression that I was expected to participate right off the bat.
Oldtime Jam at Debs Park (taken on a different day than when I attended)
One good thing about an oldtime jam is you almost always know where your tonal center is because instruments are tuned to a certain key.  We started in the key of G.  With oldtime even if you think you know the tune already (based on its name or version) it's best to listen for any unique aspects the lead player or group adds to an otherwise familiar tune before just jumping in with your rote version.

However, in oldtime what most people of a certain level of confidence do is start playing by the 2nd or 3rd time through the tune (even on a tune that was previously unfamiliar), adapting your interpretation as you go until you hopefully start to get it before the tune is finished.

At this jam the tunes were played several times through so you had an opportunity to really dig in, and I tried to not let my first impressions of a tune color my ability to adapt on further repetitions.  I felt more comfortable at least trying to play on unfamiliar tunes rather than just listening, unless a tune was really notey and I knew that I had no chance of actually playing anything resembling it!

Another characteristic of this oldtime jam, and most others I have attended, is that tune titles are clearly stated before the tune starts, and if you happen to miss the title you are free to ask about more information such as source, version, et cetera without risk of penalty or being labeled as a poser.  As a guest at this jam I was quickly asked if I had a tune I'd like to play and I came up with a suggestion and later had another opportunity to think of additional tunes.  It was a good time, even if some of the key members of the LA oldtime scene were absent on this day due to an out of town gig.

I approached the Irish session a little differently...trying to get there a little after it had started but due to lighter than expected traffic I walked in with my mandolin case just as they were getting set up.  This was the Tuesday night session at Timmy Nolan's in Toluca Lake hosted by Patrick D'Arcy and Dan Conroy and usually featuring fiddler Kira Ott.
Timmy Nolan's session 08/26/2014 (photo by Laura Fields)
Instead of instantly playing in the session I watched from nearby but was soon invited to take a chair around the table.  Sitting in on an unfamiliar Irish session is more intimidating than an oldtime jam, and this session in particular is very advanced.  It is an 'open' session, but then again not necessarily open to lowest common denominator players who would inadvertently take away from the craic.

I knew I wasn't at their level, but I also know that my mandolin is not as disruptive as some other instruments, which allows me to "noodle" more than what would normally be considered OK to do.  So I figured what the hell as I took a less than prominent seat.

With Irish music nobody expects you to play along if you don't know the tune.  I tend to break that rule somewhat if I can get a handle on the tonal center and/or overall shape of the tune, but I do so quietly and try to pay attention to any body language that indicates that I shouldn't be doing such a thing.  If I played rhythm guitar or bodhran, or a louder melody instrument like accordion or flute, I would not be allowed to take such liberties, but a discreetly played mandolin is drowned out anyway in this environment.  That said, I did a lot of listening and not playing along, which as I said is perfectly OK to do at an Irish session.

Tune titles are almost never given at an Irish session, and since you're not really ever in a certain key Irish sessions have a much looser feel than an oldtime jam (in some ways), requiring the participant to do a lot of reacting on the spot to what he or she is hearing as one tune segues into another.  I find that to be exhilarating.  It's alright to occasionally ask what that tune was, but it's best to bring along a recording device (if given the approval of the session leaders) and simply record the tunes and learn them by ear without worrying about the title of the tune.  You can find that out later in your journey.

Another cool thing at the Timmy Nolan's session, which is quite common at the more advanced Irish sessions, is that sets of tunes were not necessarily pre-determined and the lead melody players (Kira and Patrick) would kind of decide on the spot which tune was to be next in the set and say such things as "D mix" or "G" to the rhythm guitar player.  It doesn't always work - sometimes this impromptu approach fails even in the hands of professional players - but that's OK.  It's part of the fun.

Having a Guinness or two is part of the culture at an Irish pub session, but thankfully I kept my drinking to a minimum at the Timmy Nolan's session so that in hour three near the end of the night when I was finally called on to lead some tunes I had enough faculties intact - coupled with nerves (remember, Guinness gives you strength) - to lead on a couple of slides since the session had been noticeably absent of any jigs or slides.

The last thing I'll mention is that oldtime jams are both "complete" with just fiddle and clawhammer banjo and simultaneously never complete...meaning that each additional instrument, whether it's another fiddle, banjo, guitar, et cetera, is OK to participate even if you're the 20th person sitting in on a circle.  (Except for bass I suppose!)

However, a proper Irish session feels complete when the "right" assortment of instruments are present, although determining what that "right" assortment is open to many variations.  There can certainly be more than one fiddle in the circle, but if you are a rhythm player or a bodhran player, for example, you are kind of shit-out-of-luck if there's a better player there.  It doesn't mean you don't get to play at all, in most cases, but it does mean that you wait your turn and spend a lot of time listening!

I really value these opportunities to take part in unfamiliar sessions and jams.  They are nothing, if not, learning experiences that can make you a stronger, wiser and more confident player in the long run.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Funky 12-Bar Riff Blues created for Berklee MOOC

The final assignment in the Developing Your Musicianship MOOC being offered by the Berklee College of Music via Coursera was to compose your own melody using the C-minor Pentatonic scale following the "riff-blues" formula.
The riff-blues formula is: two bars melody, two bars pause (just chords/rhythm), two bars repeat melody, two bars pause (just chords/rhythm), two bars varied melody, and two bars pause (just chords/rhythm).  Presumably all over dominant 7th chord changes such as C7 - C7 - C7 - C7, F7 - F7 - C7 - C7, G7 - F7 - C7 - C7.

The instructor provided two backing tracks over which you could create your own melody and I chose the "funky blues" backing track.  I put the backing track on repeat and just kept jamming over it and this little melody was one of the results.  There might be an "accidental" note in there!

Not that original of a riff I know, but more interesting than some of the initial melodies I was coming up with on the spot.  This was a fun way to culminate the class as I had never before tried to just jam by creating my own improvised melody over a backing track.  I'm looking forward to the next free online Berklee College of Music class starting this fall which deals specifically with the subject of improvisation! 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Music Theory Without Reading Music

The online Music Theory class that I’ve been taking has placed a lot of emphasis on reading and comprehending sheet music.  I’ve learned a lot as a result, but I’ve also realized that in today’s world, with audio recordings so readily available, a more practical understanding of music theory is less about reading and writing music and more about developing a vocabulary so that you can apply meaning and understanding to the sounds you are hearing. 
Golgi Apparatus
Being fluent in sheet music can be helpful, for example, in a situation when you need to immediately start playing a piece without having first acclimated yourself to it or knowing how it sounds.  But with sound recordings to supplement the written score, there is a less of a need to convey all the complexities of the music in the written form when a lot of it can be explained intuitively upon hearing the piece.

Tommaso Zillio of the site musictheoryforguitar.com has this to say on a similar topic:

Learning music theory and training your ear go hand in hand.  Trying to do only one is like trying to ride a bicycle without one wheel: useless, overly difficult, and a guarantee that you will hurt yourself.  In fact I do take the radical position that ear training and music theory are in fact the same thing.

If you think about it, all music theory concepts can be explained as "If you do X, that's how it sounds,” "if you play a cadence, it sounds this way," "if you play the notes of the chord while improvising it sounds this way," etc.  As you can see though, if you don't know what "this way" is for every single concept you learn, then you are not really learning much!

This is why there are a lot of people who say that music theory is useless: they didn't connect the formal aspects of music theory with the actual reality of music.  After all, a map of your city is useful only if you know the relationship between the funny lines on the paper and the actual streets.  Luckily, there is a very simple solution for that: every time you learn something new in theory, PLAY it.  Make sure you have at least 3-4 examples for each concept you learn (you can compose them yourself in case).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Something Irish Music Has that Oldtime Does Not

I do a lot of writing that compares Irish traditional music and oldtime Appalachian music.  To whoever reads these posts it probably seems stupid because these are two DISTINCT styles with no relation to one another or need for comparison.  It would be the same if I were constantly comparing jazz to bluegrass (which I might start to do!).

But, one thing that Irish music has that oldtime does not is a focus on the tune.  Hear me out.  In Irish music there’s a growing coalition of accepted “traditional” instruments.  These include, but are not limited to, fiddle, concertina, accordion, uilleann pipes, flute, tin whistle, tenor banjo, bouzouki.  (note that only some of these are stringed instruments). 

It’s perfectly normal for any of these common Irish melody instruments to be the dominant one in charge of a tune.  Usually it has more to do with the skill and confidence of the person behind the instrument than the instrument itself.  That's why you hear of Irish banjo players who were mentored by button accordion players, and button accordion players who got their tunes from flute players, and so on.
Yet, in oldtime music - as it has come to be construed - it’s all about the fiddle.  Even the venerable clawhammer banjo serves mostly to complement the playing of the fiddler(s).  Sure, there are some other oldtime melody instruments like mandolin and dulcimer (and virtuoso players of those instruments who triumph over this classification), but quite often other melody instruments play “second fiddle” to the fiddle.  

Oldtime does have something that Irish music doesn’t have and that’s hypnotic repetition.  In Irish music you rarely play a tune more than 3 times through before moving on to something else.  Granted you usually play it three times and then pair it with two additional tunes in what is called a "set".  Sets can have a nice tension and release aspect due to key modulations between tunes, such as going from a minor-modal tune to one in a major key.

Instead of doing medleys, in oldtime you keep playing a tune several times through on repeat until you tire of it or - on rare occasions - until a second-level of transcendence occurs...or both.  So, what happens if you apply this same tactic of zen-like repetition to Irish tunes??? 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Hot Seats at Bluemont Ashland, this Sunday August 17 at 7PM

The Richmond, VA based string band The Hot Seats is fresh off their annual tour of Scotland which no doubt saw them go from slightly rusty to tightly knit in a matter of days.  With some members living out of state and, you know, real life and jobs and stuff, local full-band shows are a rare occurrence, but with a slew of recent, well-received gigs under their belts, and a newly released album, now is a good time to be seeing these guys.

The Hot Seats are playing as part of the Bluemont Ashland Sunday evening concert series, which takes place outside on the steps of Randolph-Macon's Blackwell Auditorium during the month of August (bring a chair).  The Bluemont page describes the band as "old time string band and comedy".  This is actually quite accurate as The Hot Seats have found a way to make old time music more palatable for general audiences by adding humor and drive without taking away any of its more feral qualities.
The Hot Seats busking on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland, July 2014.
The band's new album - Grandad's Favorite - contains the eclectic mix of fiddle tunes, obscure traditional country folk songs, and cynical/satirical originals that we've come to expect from this quintet.  Take a listen to it below.

The concert is this Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 7pm, Randolph-Macon College Blackwell Auditorium, 204 Henry Street, Ashland, VA 23005.  Tickets are a $5 suggested donation at the entrance.  If it's anything like last week's excellent performance by the Brazilian Bluegrass Funk band Matuto, then you can expect it to be a two set show, starting at 7pm sharp and ending before 10pm so you can still get home in time to get that beauty rest!

Playing Music As You Travel - Los Angeles Area Oldtime Jams and Irish Sessions

Note:  The sessions and jams listed in this post are current as of August, 2014.  

One thing I love about playing “fiddle tunes” (for lack of a better term) is that you can travel to almost any metropolitan area in North America and find either an Irish seisiun or an oldtime jam to take part in, or some approximation of the two.
Repertoires and styles may differ from place to place but with a decent understanding of the common tunes and respective etiquettes, and a willingness to interact with new people in a potentially unfamiliar environment, there’s usually enough cross over to allow for participation.  If nothing else the exposure to the different ways people bring these tunes to life is a great learning experience.

I’ll be visiting Los Angeles soon and I’ve discovered that there is an oldtime jam and 2 or 3 Irish sessions near where I’ll be staying while there.  I plan on attending a couple of these and perhaps even recording them for future reference.

Jams and Sessions in Los Angeles

1st Sunday Old-Time Jam @ Viva Cantina, 11am-2pm.  Viva Cantina Restaurant, 900 Riverside Drive Burbank, CA 9150.  Contact Steve {at} urbanoldtime.com for details or to be added to his list.

1st Thursday Old Time Jam @ 1642 Beer and Wine Bar.  1642 Temple, 90026, 8-11pm.  Hosted by Triple Chicken Foot.  Contact Ben for more info.

4th Saturday Old-Time Jam @ the Audubon Center @ Debs Park, 4700 N. Griffin Ave, 90031.  Hosted by Joe Wack (of Central West Virginia), focusing on Appalachian tunes.

Sundays at the The Auld Dubliner in Long Beach from 4-7pm.  

Mondays, 9-11pm.  Southern California’s longest running traditional Celtic music jam session, hosted by The Celtic Arts Center of Southern California.  At The Mayflower Club - 11110 Victory Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91606.

Tuesdays at Timmy Nolan’s in Toluca Lake (Burbank), 8:00–11:00 p.m.  Hosted by Patrick D’Arcy and Dan Conroy.  Timmy Nolan’s, 10111 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, 818-985-3359.  Map to Timmy Nolan’s

Wednesdays at Griffin's in South Pasadena.  1007 Mission Street South Pasadena 91030E, phone: 626-799-0926.  Not sure if it's every Wednesday or not.