By Eric Gorfain
Moments before you walk onto the Hollywood Bowl stage for the first time, it hits you: You’re about to perform on the stage the Beatles transformed from an antique amphitheater into the legendary venue that represents, to this day, a career milestone for any artist, band, or musician. My first time on that stage was when my band, the Section Quartet, joined Wilco during their set opening for REM. I had butterflies in my stomach and a giant smile on my face. And every time I’ve performed there since, I’ve had the same feeling—playing the Bowl never gets old.
My band and I have been fortunate to work at many of Los Angeles’ great venues—with James Brown at the Greek Theatre, with rock vampires Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at the Fonda Theater, with Garbage at the Alex Theatre, with the Zombies at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. Each venue’s charm affected the overall creative success of the show.
A year after the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved to Walt Disney Hall, I eagerly anticipated my first chance to play there backing up Michael Bublé. Even seated within the orchestra’s first violin section, the meticulous hi-fi sonic detail onstage was a shock to my senses. Interestingly, the following day, the same program was presented at the L.A. Phil’s former home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where that old-school hall’s lo-fi aural blend felt more natural to me. That said, as an audience member, there is nothing quite like experiencing the undeniably gorgeous sound of the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall.
Though no doubt the Hollywood Bowl, Disney Hall, and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion are the first venues that leap to mind when you’re thinking about Los Angeles, there’s so much more. In the last ten years, several older venues have been brought back to life, such as the visually stunning Theatre at Ace Hotel, where I’ve played with a variety of artists such as bluegrass favorites Sean & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, and even a live-staging of the comedy podcast Thrilling Adventure Hour.
Renovated theaters like the Mayan and the Orpheum rub shoulders in and around downtown L.A. with new venues like the Regent DTLA, Teragram Ballroom, and Moroccan Lounge. Small “art-house” theaters like Zipper Hall at the Colburn School or California Institute of the Arts’ REDCAT Theater inside Disney Hall regularly present classical and avant-garde performers, from student ensembles to the Calder Quartet, JACK Quartet, and experimental violinist Malcolm Goldstein.
The Blue Whale, in the Little Tokyo district, has become the epicenter for L.A. jazz musicians, while also presenting touring acts like Australia’s the Necks and NYC’s Donny McCaslin Quartet. With the audience seated on an array of leather cubes throughout the venue, the informal setting of the room lends itself to experimentation and musical adventurousness; I once witnessed the trio of pianist David Palmer, drummer Jay Bellerose, and bassist Gus Seyffert situate themselves in the center of the room, giving the audience a uniquely intimate listening experience that can’t be pulled off on a traditional stage.
The newly opened Zebulon, in the rejuvenated Frogtown neighborhood running along the L.A. River, is programming everything from avant-garde jazz saxophonist and Sun Ra Arkestra alum Marshall Allen to Japanese noise guitar titan Keiji Haino, with instrumental and electronic artists in between.
A short drive east to Highland Park brings you to the ETA Bar, which presents jazz and post-jazz small ensembles in a casual, no-frills setting, often featuring guitarist Jeff Parker of the post-rock band Tortoise playing his singular brand of improvised and deconstructed jazz. Nearby in Echo Park is The Echo, where the Section Quartet performed in our early days, as well as the Satellite (formerly Spaceland), the Bootleg Theater, and 1642 Beer & Wine featuring jump blues, rockabilly, and jazz.
It’s no secret that Angelenos love the old Hollywood that gave birth to plenty of historic theaters and clubs, perhaps epitomized by the Coronet Theater in West Hollywood, currently run by impresario Mark Flanagan as Largo at the Coronet. From the audience, the darkly lit stage appears as a museum diorama within which the musicians perform. However Largo’s strict “no phones or cameras” policy ensures that experimentation and risk-taking are encouraged without fear of any musical misfirings appearing on social media. The intimate 275-seat capacity has become famous for maintaining residencies by film composer Jon Brion, the Watkins Family Hour, and violinist and singer Andrew Bird, among others.
The Section Quartet and I have played dozens of shows there over the last ten years, sometimes presenting full-album renditions of Radiohead’s OK Computer and The Bends, or Elliot Smith’s Either/Or. We’ve also participated in memorable performances with our friends Jon Brion, singer/songwriter Sam Phillips, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and former Crowded House leader Neil Finn.
One of the more unusual venues in L.A. is the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever cemetery. That’s right, a concert hall in a cemetery. Having played there with the band Devotchka, I can attest that the old-world gothic vibe in the room and surrounding cemetery grounds can mystically affect both the performers and audience members—whether that’s a positive or negative is up to you, but I dug it!
Hollywood Forever isn’t the only unexpected location for a venue: The Los Angeles Natural History Museum (with a stage built among museum dioramas) has opened its doors to performances. Many art galleries and warehouses throw “rent parties” sometimes so underground that the addresses aren’t announced to attendees until mere hours before show time.
Creative programming in inspiring spaces has claimed center stage, as the vibrant live music scene here thrives on the talent and ambition of musicians who push boundaries and break down walls between performer and audience. L.A. is not a pop-music factory. It is a community of musicians who continually experiment with and refine their art—or better yet “Art” with a capital A.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.