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Renovators Ride Into Genghis Cohen

January 01, 1998|HEIDI SIEGMUND CUDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a brief period of time, somewhere in the late '80s, right before Guns N' Roses took L.A. by storm, when singer-songwriters were being celebrated in local coffeehouses and such small nightclubs as Molly Malone's. Acoustic artists were playing their hearts out, yet many were overlooked as music execs, aiming for survival, turned their attention to finding the next GNR.

That was a decade ago, and a lot has changed. Namely, some of those acoustic venues championing songwriters again are being seen as more pivotal than many traditional rock joints, and it's not surprising. If you turn your ear toward the airwaves, such lyrically driven artists as Fiona Apple, Jewel, Duncan Sheik, the Wallflowers and Sarah McLachlan have been making an impact. So it makes sense that smaller, more intimate clubs that support such music are making a comeback, too.

Genghis Cohen Cantina is a blueprint for that kind of venue. The Chinese restaurant opened in 1983 with the performance space added in 1990, and its owner, Allan Rinde, was clearly marching to the beat of his own drummer. The food was a mix of New York/Szechaun/Jewish/Chinese, and the music was a hodgepodge of neofolk, pop, rock and blues. Rinde filled the venue with music lovers and performers--waiters, bartenders and maitre d's, all--and the Fairfax District had one more place to add to its increasingly trendy cap. Rinde recently sold Genghis Cohen to Raymond Kiu, who had been a waiter at the restaurant for 14 years, and it seems the change has done the space good.

Kiu's first order of business was to, as he puts it, "clean up the kitchen" and hire a new staff. The food's been upgraded and so has the space. Genghis Cohen has three rooms, the Cantina, which is where the music happens, a bar area and a dining room. As he's done for many years, Kiu greets guests and regulars, serving as Cohen's host. Those who want to check out the action in the Cantina, which has been remodeled to allow for extra seating, can pay a nominal cover to do so.

The Cantina is configured like a church, with benches functioning as pews, and a stage functioning as the altar. The room is warm and inviting and manages to make both the performers and guests feel at ease.

In fact, they are. Too many clubs are set up to incite little interaction between audience and performer, but the family-like comfort of the Cantina inspires a bit of camaraderie. During a recent performance by Danny Peck, this sensibility was clear. Peck, whose music is about as rock 'n' roll as you can get when the tools you're working with are a lot of heart and an acoustic guitar, traded jokes with the audience and played, as is expected, with his heart worn prominently on his sleeve.

Earlier in the night, Jason Luckett did the same. Luckett, who hadn't played the Cantina for a year, looked comfortable to be back, playing shoeless to an inviting audience who demanded an encore. Such artists as Lisa Loeb, Lily Hadyn, Dan Bern and Meredith Brooks called the Cantina home at one time or another, and by virtue of its booker, Jay Tinsky, who has lived in Philadelphia since 1994 (and who also books Molly Malone's), the artists continue to come from around the country.

Like the neighboring cabaret Largo, it's this element--the fact that by spending a couple of bucks, you might get a chance to see the Next Big Songwriter--that separates Genghis Cohen from the rest. Oh yeah, and that great name.

BE THERE

Genghis Cohen Cantina, 740 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood, (213) 653-0640. All ages, cover varies.

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