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Rising From the Ash's Ashes

Once a folk and blues hot spot, the Ash Grove is testing the waters again, taking its wide-open mind-set to a new site on Santa Monica's pier.

June 30, 1996|Heidi Siegmund Cuda | Heidi Siegmund Cuda is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Destination: Ash Grove.

In Dave Alvin's 12-year-old mind back in the '60s, that was the ultimate challenge--figuring out how to hitch a ride from his home in Downey to the Melrose Avenue blues and folk club in West Hollywood.

Sometimes Alvin would get lucky and score a ride from his mother. Other times, he and his 14-year-old brother, Phil, would find some "older guys" who'd let them tag along.

Today, Dave Alvin, who wrote all those classic songs for his and Phil's band the Blasters before moving on to an acclaimed solo career in 1986, still has a shoe box full of ticket stubs from the shows he saw at the Ash Grove on those magical nights in the late '60s and early '70s.

On the back of each stub he wrote the names of the artists who inspired him to become a performer: Lightnin' Hopkins . . . Juke Boy Bonner . . . Johnny Shines . . . Willie Dixon . . . Big Mama Thornton . . . Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

"I probably wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for the Ash Grove," Alvin says now.

He wasn't the only one moved by the greats who played the landmark club, which was housed in the Fairfax district building that is now the Improv.

From 1958 to 1973, Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl brought raw blues and even rawer Appalachian folk music to the heart of Los Angeles, and the room became a training ground for artists such as Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt.

During an era when slickly produced music was the focus of the day, Pearl was scouring the country's aural landscape, inviting musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Pete Seeger to perform at the 250-capacity club, while providing and encouraging a political forum for the music.

After surviving two acts of arson, the club was attacked a third time and was effectively burned down Nov. 11, 1973. Pearl believes the arson was an attempt to stop the social activism.

Today you're lucky if you can find an authentic blues or folk experience around town--corporate theme parks such as the House of Blues certainly don't provide it, while other venues neuter the music's politics by showcasing it as a safe, innocuous relic.

It begs the question: Could a club willing to combine authentic American music and its politics survive in the '90s?

Pearl, 59, says he thinks so, which is why he is reopening the Ash Grove on July 11 on the renovated Santa Monica Pier. And he believes all it will take the second time around is what it took the first time: courage.

"If you're terrified of offending everybody, you usually say nothing. I never did that from the beginning and I'm not gonna do it now."


Unlike the original club, located on a then-dowdy stretch of Melrose and in a continual state of homespun disrepair, the new Ash Grove will be in an inviting location near the pier's famed carousel. Besides the music and the ocean backdrop, the 350-capacity room will feature "pan-Caribbean" cuisine.

Although patrons can still expect to hear the blues, Pearl has expanded the club's musical horizons to include everything from Cajun to contemporary rock en espan~ol.

Despite the approaching grand opening, Pearl, a soft-spoken East L.A. native, is relaxed and upbeat as he sits in his upstairs office. A refreshing ocean breeze wafts through a porthole above his desk and blows his paperwork around.

The slight chaos that ensues is a nice metaphor for the confusion Pearl initially felt as he worked his way back into clubland after a long absence. It didn't take long for Pearl to realize that a lot of the phone numbers in his old Ash Grove directory had been disconnected. Clearly, the rules of the game had changed since '73. So despite all his experience, Pearl has spent several months in a crash course in the music biz, '90s-style.

"It was like I went to sleep and woke up in the '90s and didn't know anybody," says Pearl, venting his frustration at dealing with the world of agents and managers. What used to take a call to an artist's home now takes repeated attempts to weave through the industry hierarchy.

"I was so upset that I called Pete Seeger after about three days, and he said, 'I know what you're gonna say. . . . The prices are outrageous, and you're right. What you need is for me and a couple of the guys to come out there and play for nothing for a couple of weeks.'

"I said, 'Great Pete. When can you come out?' He said, 'Next January.' I told him I'm opening in July and he said, 'Sorry Ed, I'm booked.' "

Pearl quickly addressed the situation by organizing an entertainment committee made up of some music industry heavyweights, most of whom were involved in the Ash Grove's first incarnation.

Besides his business partner, Tim Rosenfeld, the members of Pearl's booking council include Sam Epstein, a world music expert and Rhino Records executive; Betty Miller, a blues booker and former owner of the Music Machine in West L.A., and Mike Minky, an entertainment CPA who worked at the Ash Grove while in high school and college.

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