LA/LA Land: Dive bars. You never know in LA

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The land that is now Los Angeles County was originally claimed by Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542, but it was not really settled until 11 Spanish families known as “Los Pobladores” arrived on Sept. 4, 1781 and began displacing the native Tongva and Chumaz peoples to build what they called “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula”.  Mercifully, over the centuries the name has changed to “Los Angeles”.

A lot more changed besides the name as LA grew, mostly outward, leaving the downtown a concrete desert of freeway interchanges and office buildings, some dating back to the turn of the last century. But LA goes through periodic renaissances – vast Spanish farms and orchards, oil production, the rise of movie industry, the concentration of the aircraft and defense plants.  It is going through another renaissance now with high tech and social media companies moving in, bringing thousands of millennials and professionals downtown and dozens of apartment towers filling the skylines to house them. Consequently every available street-facing space in #DTLA is being converted into a trendy restaurant, wine bar or hot music venue.

The building at 267 South Main Street made the conversion a half century ago and the city is catching up.  It is the home of the Five Star, a classic dive bar with a twist. Unlike many hole-in-the-wall beer joints with a mic and a PA in the corner, the Five Star has good sized music stage, a superb sound system and a skillful and dedicated sound board operator. While still a dive bar, the Five Star’s hip clientele and  music-knowledgeable staff attracts talent far beyond your typical dive bar garage bands.

Talking with the owner, Marc Cordova, and the soundman, Heath Waller, I learned that The Five Star Bar was originally built in 1910 and has a checkered past including using its basement rooms as a speakeasy during Prohibition.  The bar was bought by Cordova’s dad in 1971 and passed on to Marc, who passionately believes in quality sound and great rock and roll. When you talk with him it is obvious why he is successful at recruiting outstanding talent to a downtown dive bar in a city with iconic venues like the Whiskey A Go Go and the Troubadour also on the hunt for top talent. He loves music and he and Waller will do what it takes to make it sound great.

Whitney Tai

I was invited to the Five Star Bar by Whitney Tai, a fast-rising dream pop singer with a gonzo voice and knock-your-socks-off stage presentation.  Originally from New York where she could fill venues like the Rockwood Music hall, I first saw her in a packed-to-the-back-doors concert at LA’s prestigious Hotel Café and then again in the intimate Hollywood cool spot, Bar 20.  So I was curious when she alerted me to a gig on a Wednesday night in a venue I had never heard of located in an aging building next to a parking lot in downtown LA. When WAZE told me “Your destination is on your left”,  I saw nothing on the dark street that said “Five Star Bar”. After circling the (long) block, I spotted the 5 red stars over the door and a pool table inside, so I figured this was the place.  It was.  A Xeroxed poster taped to the outside window with the names of the bands playing that night confirmed it.

There were about a half dozen people in the Five Star when I walked in, some playing pool, some sitting at the end of the bar talking.  The friendly bartender, Angela, pulled me a tall one, chatted and then directed my questions about the bands to Heath Waller, the sound man who was playing pool.  He told me the lineup on the poster was all he knew and the music would start in about an hour.

Sure enough, in about 30 minutes musicians started trickling in, depositing guitar cases upstairs in the mezzanine over the stage, arranging the drum kit, plugging in guitars, and setting up a keyboard. Fans began trickling in too;  within 45 minutes or so, the room was about full. Whitney Tai came in, introduced me to some of the band members and sound checks began. The 100+ year old venue started humming as the front pool table was  moved aside to make room for cocktail tables and stools, and more people crowded in.

By the time the pop blues singer Sofia Zorian positioned herself behind the keyboard and let loose with the first song of her six-song solo set, which included the soon-to-be-released Common Boy and the just dropped You Got This All Wrong,  the bar was full and rocking.  Sofia instantly turned all heads to the stage and got people up and clapping with her swaying body, earworm beats and caressing voice.

Saf Ro

When the cheers died, there was a shuffle of musical instruments and musicians that brought Saf Ro to the stage with his full band.  A genre-fluid guitarist, singer/songwriter, he took us through his two albums,  21Days 2 Recovery and Paper Tigers, bending notes and mixing up tempos and forms in a set that pulled you in immediately and then got better and better.  It was a tall cool drink of good ol’ rock and roll.

Saf Ro stepped back to let Whitney Tai take the stage, blending into the band she was assembling onstage.  Moving into a vacant double keyboard setup was noted film composer and musician, Tim Janssens, playing a guest role for the night.  As usual, Tai blew everyone away, taking full advantage of the Five Star’s well-tuned sound system to belt, soar, sooth and seduce with her silk-glass voice and poetic dreampop lyrics. She gave us a strong set of eight songs including the yet-to-be-released The Cure. Moving confidently in bike shorts, spaghetti string top, a baseball cap over her blue hair,  and her trademark silver shoes, she gave one of the best performances I have seen.

When the “Los Pobladores” set up shop in the valley of the Río Porciúncula they had no idea that they were laying the groundwork for what would become the music capital of a new nation where even an old dive bar can deliver gold medal performances.  But then again, maybe they did – after all, they brought the first guitars to America and we have not been the same since.

Patrick O’Heffernan

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