One of the quirks of the LA music scene is that it encompasses Hollywood. As a result, it is not unusual to see Hollywood stars and rising actresses and actors in the audience at music clubs or on stage playing in bands. Actors like Steve Martin, Kevin Bacon, Zoey Deschanel, Jenny Lewis, Jarod Leto are examples. Star-led bands like these pop up at charity concerts, local rock venues and even at the occasional festival.
But something I have not seen pop up is a beloved actor and his band in on a cramped community theater stage playing for a small audience as part of a local band’s gig. That was the scene last week when We Are the West held their second concert at the historic Santa Monica Community Playhouse as part of the Playhouse Sessions, a concert production which raises funds for arts education & community outreach in LA. Joining them was actor/director Rob Morrow and his funky country blues band, RMB. And they were hot!
RMB has been around for some time and played at local La clubs like The Mint, the Viper Room, Molly Malone’s and even at the Venice Beach Art Walk. Rob himself is a crackerjack guitar player, first class songwriter and a proficient singer. The band – Carlos Calvo on guitar and also co-writer and backing vocals, Sam Aliano on drums, Carlos Costa on bass, and Jason Libs on keys – is also crackerjack. They play like they have been doing all their lives with Morrow, modulating their input to keep the vocals forward while laying down solos when the flow calls for it.
Morrow put a special sparkle in the 12-song set – ten originals and two covers. Completely at home on the tiny stage with fans sitting 3 feet in front of him, he engaged us with his self-effacing smile, twinkling eyes, stories of songs of people, banter with the band, and just plain joy at being there. Afterward when I asked him which he like better acting or singing, he said that playing and singing live was a spiritual experience you just can’t get from a camera.
RMB’s set was a spiritual experience for us, although not the eyes- closed kind. RMB followed We Are the West, an extraordinary, eclectic country-jazz-pop band based in Santa Monica that plays a packed monthly concert in a parking garage with perfect acoustics. A duo of John Kibler and Bret Hool, they pull together an elastic family of players on drums and percussion, woodwinds, strings, brass, pump organ, and accordion, and then add to it their wide network of friends, which includes Morrow, for original concerts found nowhere else. Haley Reardon, a young singer from Nashville singing for the first time in LA, opened the evening with heartfelt songs delivered with breathy precision, including her perceptive and I suspect conversation-inducing take on “America The Beautiful.”
Morrow’s set launched with a new song, the acoustic “What Have We Become”, which was not on the original set list but since they just recorded it, why not? He switched to the electric guitar, shot out a couple of riffs demonstrating his damn good guitar chops, and the band rolled into “Good As Dead” with Rob unleashing a blistering riff torrent as the music reached a crescendo. They followed with the more melodic and twangy “New, New Face” and a funky “Man With Many Names”, prefaced by a shout out to We Are the West.
After a little band banter with guitarist Carlos Calvo, himself a Hollywood legend who has trained stars like Adam Levine, David Duchovny, Ambyr Childers, Marg Helgenberger, David Oyelowo and others to play guitar, the band launched into a jumpy “Look At Me” with a deceptively low-key intro, then moved on to “Out and About”, which Morrow told us was featured music in an episode of the TV show, The Fosters. Next up was the emotional and insightful “Tryanny of Beauty”, accented by a hot solo riff from Calvert. Working like the well-oiled machine it is, RMB delivered a hooky original, “Then it’s Gone”, that got us all going . Rob took a break to tell a funny story from his teenage years about sneaking into the Candlelight Bar before he returned to the twang with “All You Do”.
Ever the entertainer, Morrow told a Springsteen story and rocked the Springsteen classic “Dancing in the Dark”, introducing each of the band members during the last half of the song and giving each some solo time. He wrapped the evening by bringing the musicians up on stage and leading them through a very enthusiastic group rendition of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, with red hot guitar solos, boogie woogie piano licks, a rocking baseline and happy audience participation.
I have never been on set during a film Morrow acted in or directed, so I don’t know what that mode is like. I suspect it is very focused, very precise and very, very high level, given his nuanced acting on hit shows Northern Exposure, Billions and Numb3rs, his three Golden Globes and two Emmy Award nominations. But onstage with a guitar and his bandmates, all that goes away. RMB and its front man Rob Morrow make great music and have a good time doing it. And so does everyone in the room.