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Local Sensation

Patience Pays as O.C.'s Common Sense Finds a Place in the Sunsplash

July 26, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA NIGUEL — It's a joke as old as vaudeville.

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A: Practice.

But in Nick Hernandez's experience, there are two ways to get to Irvine Meadows, a prestigious Carnegie equivalent on the Southern California pop-rock scene.

One is to sneak in the back way. That's what Hernandez did years ago as a teenager, when he and his friends traipsed through farmers' fields and tangles of briar and underbrush to crash a Tom Petty concert. They got in, but their arms and legs were covered with prickers and ribboned with scrapes.

The other way, Hernandez has found, is to practice.

This evening, the lifelong Laguna Beach resident returns to Irvine Meadows for the first time since he braved the wilderness beyond its fence. This time Hernandez will go in through the performers' entrance. He and his band, Common Sense, are on the bill for the Sunsplash World Tour '96 reggae festival. They have gotten there through practice--if "practice" can sum up the 10 years of night-by-night sweat, energy and enjoyment that the friendly, enthusiastic singer has put into the band.

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In one sense, all that effort already has paid off. For about five years, Hernandez, 31, and his bandmates have been able to earn a full-time living from music alone, as Common Sense has emerged as one of the most popular club attractions plying the coastline from San Diego to San Francisco.

The band typically plays four or five nights a week, drawing crowds of 250 to 1,000 with a pop-inflected brand of reggae highlighted by expert musicianship, catchy original songs, reggae-fied versions of well-known pop and rock hits and a fine group-harmony vocal blend.

Now Common Sense is looking to take the next step, from regional success to national contender. Its slot on the five-concert Southern California leg of the Sunsplash tour--two shows last weekend at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, today's Irvine Meadows stop and dates Saturday in Santa Barbara and Sunday in San Diego--certifies the seven-piece band as a strong regional act. (Band members say they got the gigs after being vouched for by Big Mountain, the established pop-reggae band from San Diego that is one of the tour's headliners.) National aspirations ride on a new album, "Psychedelic Surf Groove," the first studio-produced CD of the band's career.

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As Common Sense's three longest-tenured members--Hernandez, guitarist Billy Sherman and keyboards/guitar player Jai Vatuk--gathered for an interview this week at the band's headquarters in Laguna Niguel, one couldn't help thinking that they already have a tasty slice of the rock 'n' roll pie.

The band's airy rehearsal room is upstairs in a large, hilltop house rented by Vatuk and two musician roommates. It commands a lovely view that takes in a wide expanse of blue sky and a verdant swath of suburbia in which slopes from terraced ridges funnel into a valley below. If Common Sense needs a break, the band can adjourn to an outdoor pool and hot tub, or to the adjoining concrete basketball court and flower garden. If success along the California coastline can bring perks like these, who needs to conquer the world?

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While acknowledging that they have a good thing going regionally--including do-it-yourself sales of about 10,000 for a 1994 CD that captures a live performance at one of their regular haunts, the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach--the Common Sense members want more.

"The bummer is, if you don't go forward, it will drive you crazy," said Sherman who, like Hernandez, still lives in their hometown of Laguna Beach. "Doing the same thing, that stagnates a band."

Hanging in Common Sense's music room are three gold and platinum records that belong to Vatuk's old friend and housemate, Wally Ingram, who earned them as tour drummer for Sheryl Crow.

"It makes nice decoration," said Vatuk, a slightly built man of 33 who wears a muzzle of dark, trim beard. "Hopefully, we'll have some of our own soon."

The flint that struck the first spark for Common Sense was a Bob Marley album that Hernandez's father brought home when Hernandez was a small boy. He says songs like "No Woman, No Cry" made him want to be a singer. He says he also picked up some of the soulful quality that marks his singing by listening to a bluesy covers band fronted by his dad, Nicholas Hernandez, now a sculptor in Laguna Beach. Later, singing in the gospel choir at UC Santa Barbara helped young Hernandez delve further into soulful expression.

He launched Common Sense--dubbed the Ska Pigs in its first year--in 1986 while studying music at UCSB. Lineup shifts came often; the band's alumni association includes a psychiatrist, a surgeon, a saxophonist who tours with Lenny Kravitz and a casualty of the fast-lane lifestyle.

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