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UP ALL NIGHT / MARK EHRMAN

The Song Is the Lone Star : 'Western Beat' Club Gives Fresh Tunes, New Songwriters a Chance to Shine

March 13, 1994|MARK EHRMAN

Did you ever wonder what happened to Tin Pan Alley, that amorphous place where all the great songs came from? Well, it looks like a piece of it landed right here in the heart of Hollywood.

Western Beat, a once-a-month quick-picking fun-strumming confab of singer/songwriters is where the country-Western, blues, folk and pop communities come together to play and hear the great songs of yesterday, as well as the ones you may be singing along with tomorrow.

"When I moved to L.A. two years ago, I felt there was a need for a songwriting community much like the Austin scene and like the Nashville songwriting community," says host Billy Block, who brings his American Music Showcase to the Highland Grounds coffee house the first Thursday of every month.

When Block held his first Western Beat night, the members of Spinal Tap showed up and played an acoustic set. Since then, Rosie Flores, Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold, Hal Ketchum and many more country, blues, folk and acoustic pop artists have played here.

But that's what not this hootenanny is all about. "What we've taught people," Block says, "is that it's the song that's the star."

On these nights, Highland Grounds' SoHo-style interior is filled to the rafters with a mostly denim and Frye-boots crowd, the stairway to the balcony pressed into service as bleachers. People here actually listen. So despite the fact that the sets are primarily acoustic and the musicians perform from nothing so elevated or grand as a stage, there's very little sonic interference.

Western Beat functions as an industry get-together as well, and the outside patio--or schmoozatorium, as one regular called it--is abuzz with music-biz gossip and networking, as well as songwriters trading licks or practicing for their set.

"The whole idea is to develop the song-writing community," Block says. That's why he makes the early part of the evening an open-mike segment. "It's for the young writers who don't get an opportunity to get heard by the industry or really meet other musicians."

After 8 p.m., the entertainment is strictly professional, but very diverse. One recent lineup had Jack Tempchin, author of such '70s mega-hits as "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" and "Already Gone," who came by to play tunes both familiar and new, and Ritt Henn, only recently promoted from the open-mike portion, who had the audience snapping and clapping along to his quirky scat singing with acoustic bass accompaniment.

"This kind of scene nourished every kind of musical growth," says the veteran Tempchin. "Without it, people don't get to hear each other, they don't get inspired, they don't get to try out their songs in front of an audience, they don't get to learn how to write good songs and so nobody develops any real music."

*

What: Western Beat American Music Showcase.

Where: Highland Grounds, 742 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (213) 466-1507.

When: The first Thursday of every month. Open mike sign-up: 6 p.m. Open mike: 6:30-8 p.m. Show time: 8 p.m.-11:30 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free. Regular coffee $1.50, espresso $1.50, cappuccino $2.50. Pastries $1.50--3.50. Dinner entrees around $5.

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