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O.C. Venues Have Folkies Singing Blues

April 14, 1998|MIKE BOEHM

I think that Southern California has more pain than we can say,

'Cause it wants to travel back in time, but it just can't leave L.A.

--from "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York," by Dar Williams


Dar Williams couldn't be more correct. In terms of sustaining a vital folk music scene, our oasis at the desert's edge has gone dry.

Los Angeles and Orange County have contributed almost nothing to the '90s wave of strong, nationally known folk-based or folk-inspired singer-songwriters. Some of folk music's key promoters here say it's just not a hospitable place for budding acoustic music talent.

"It doesn't look that good," said Roz Larman, who has hosted the FolkScene show on KPFK-FM (90.7) since 1970 with her husband, Howard. "The venues are only going with the [artists] people already know. People have to get a chance to be seen."

Ron Stockfleth, promoter of the Acoustic Music Series in Pasadena, thinks the region lacks a critical mass of tradition and support for grass-roots folkies. "You don't have roots here tied into the music. A lot of the history of folk music is back [East]. They've supported it for years."

Williams is a product of a nurturing folk scene in Boston that goes back to the folk boom of the late '50s and early '60s.

"It was huge," she said of the impact of being able to take her formative steps in a community where venues and other artists supported upcoming performers.

"It's something L.A. has been criticized for [lacking]. L.A. is the center for the finished products. You need money to live there. It's not necessarily the place to stumble and fall, but the place to go when you're ready to succeed. In Boston I stumbled and fell all the time. I got a lot of encouragement."

Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt all got started on the Northeastern folk scene that had twin hubs in Cambridge, Mass., and New York City's Greenwich Village.

Southern California hasn't been without its own folk heritage. Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal teamed up in L.A. in the mid-1960s to launch their careers, and John Hammond left New York for L.A. to start his acclaimed folk-blues career.

Folk-rock was born in L.A. when a crew of young traditional music enthusiasts flocked as the Byrds. When folk music gave rise to an even more popular offshoot, the singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s, Los Angeles' roster of stars--Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Neil Young--was a match for East Coasters James Taylor and Carole King.

In the 1980s, Southern California faltered as a source of folk-based talent, while the Northeastern grass roots remained fertile. Cheryl Wheeler, Patty Larkin, Bill Staines, Bill Morrissey and Christine Lavin may not be household names, but they kept their scene vital.

What passes for folk music leadership in Los Angeles and Orange counties is actually an aristocracy of rockers who leave their amps home every so often: Peter Case of the Plimsouls, Dave Alvin of the Blasters and X, and Mike Martt, the reformed punk rocker who fronts the Low & Sweet Orchestra and highlights area songsmithing talent as host of the monthly "Song Shop" acoustic soiree at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach.

Roz Larman faults Southern California concert promoters for not providing high-profile opening slots for emerging acoustic talent, where unknown artists might be able to find a large receptive audience.

Zachariah Love, concert manager at McCabe's in Santa Monica, the region's leading acoustic music venue, says it's a matter of economics: "The way the deals are structured, there isn't any money for an opening act most nights. McCabe's doesn't have a bar, so our profit margin is pretty small."

Stockfleth says he stopped putting on opening acts after getting burned by performers who exceeded their allotted time or simply didn't measure up to concert-level standards.

Kerry Getz, a singer-songwriter from Newport Beach who has national-caliber songs and talent, says she found a better scene last year in Bloomington, Ind., where she played on her first do-it-yourself tour, than she is accustomed to locally.

In the Southland, she said, "people have to go to hear you at coffeehouses, where you struggle to be heard between sputters of the milk frother and the bean grinder."

Getz was announced as an opening act for Williams and her touring partner, Ron Sexsmith, but she says Williams' agents decided against the late-running show that would have been needed to accommodate another act.

Getz says the L.A. scene for emerging songwriters has gotten so mercenary that a friend was pulled from a bill at a coffeehouse because he hadn't drawn enough listeners.

"That's one reason I don't play in L.A. anymore," she said.

Getz said the word is that things are better in San Diego, and she might try getting some gigs there. It worked for Jewel, who was discovered at a beach-side club in San Diego, making her the only queen of Lilith Fair to ascend from Southern California.

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