VAX, LAX, ERSKINE
A magician’s wand might look like drumsticks, if in the hands of Santa Monica’s shaman of the skins, Peter Erskine. I’ll go way out of my way any time to see him stroke finely-drawn rhythms out of every small surface of his drum kit, not to show off — he is always understated on his instrument, and seems to move his hands and arms in the smallest space possible — but because that is exactly what is called for. To make the song breathe, and swim, and move like a dancer. He spends more time on cymbals than any drummer I’ve seen, rarely crashing, sometimes tapping a rhythm but more often somehow creating an overlay of continuous sound as the canvas for everything else.
So if you are lucky enough to catch Erskine in concert, your experience will be enhanced if you can see what he’s doing. Though as with a magician, seeing the hands doesn’t reveal how he does it or even convince your ears that it was done before your very eyes..
LAX-adjacent (maybe a 10-minute walk from the terminals) jazz club Sam First is probably the perfect place for all that. When they fill every seat it holds about 75, so you are very close to the players. If you really want to see everything you probably need to get there early, but there are, intentionally, quite a few seats with great visual access as well. There is no stage. The musicians are sitting or standing on the same floor you are.
THE LOUNGE ART ENSEMBLE
Erskine’s trio. with Bob Sheppard on saxes and Darek Oles on bass, played an exquisite, straight-ahead set for the first show, then Erskine announced they were going to “get a little looser for the second show,” and they did. The second set killed, with more great standards and two guest stars who added a lot to the proceedings, New York trombonist Mike Fahn and local alto sax mistress Nicole McCabe. Nice touch when Sheppard and Fahn touched the ends of their horns together sometimes as they played.
There were only a couple dozen lucky people at those shows (repeated Saturday night), because Sam First requires proof of completed vaccination in order to attend. No masks needed inside, how nice. The door person assured those showing up, and presenting their proof of vax, that everyone inside was vaccinated — including band, bartender, wait staff, sound guy, everyone. Makes it probably a money loser for now, but I appreciate that safeguard.
FIRST LIVE MUSIC SHOWS!
These were, officially, my first live music shows since this whole thing started, and what a treat it was, especially this group, with my good New Orleans music buddy Jeff there, and celebrating our birthdays. There were dire times in the past 15 months when we all wondered if we would see our next birthday. Or hear it.
I did enjoy that mariachi band my neighbor had perform in our parking area, and my Texicali family band who is so talented (emphasis on vocals). Up in Ojai. And the electric violinist on the beach. But you know what I mean.
I was chatting with another patron at the club, Mike, definitely a jazz fan, and one relieved to be able to experience the music live again. He told me he bought a ticket to every show Sam First has coming up. Mike is going to have a great time.
THE TRAVAILS OF GOING PUBLIC
I always loved music. Loved turning people on to really good music, by writing about it, or my radio or TV shows, or my upcoming podcast with my daughter. But I encountered a down side almost right away.
A music critic or music journalist of course has to have knowledge and experience of music from having listened to a lot of it, critically. But after that, if you want to be effective, to be taken seriously, it is all important to have credibility. If you are going to have people pay attention when you write about something being worthwhile, you can’t be the guy who thinks everything is worthwhile. You have to call bad or mediocre music just that. Not to be mean, to be honest, and credible.
It becomes a problem when you are operating in the town you grew up in. People you know who are musicians want you to cover them. Great, if they’re great. But what if they aren’t? You can do your best to say the best that rings true for you, but there’s only so far you can go without betraying your instincts and your standards, and your readers. So early on I developed a strategy to try to give good reasons for avoiding writing about people I knew.
Sometimes the people you don’t know can be a problem. There was one time when I was trying to get a few notes on an opening band, that I figured hadn’t seen, pre-Internet, what I wrote a few days before. But one had. Just as I thought I was getting in with the boys, one of them stepped forward and said, “hey guys, this is the jerk that said our songs were boring.” The friendly circle began to tighten. “I think we should show him how boring we can be…” Somehow, I talked my way out of that backstage in one piece.
KILL THE MESSENGER — I have another story about how a tree fell on me 40 years later, over something I wrote, but that will have to wait for next Thursday’s NOTEWORTHY.
In absentia, on the road, the many musical (and other) joys of New Orleans, one of the best live music towns on the planet. Where else would you see the inimitable “Frogman” Henry doing his croakin’ thing out on the sidewalk as you are strolling the boulevards headed for beignets and chicory coffee? I saw him there, years ago, but he’s still with us at 84 so Nicole just might have an open air amphibian artiste encounter her own self. (He recorded his big hit, “I Ain’t’ Got No Home,” as a teenager.)
She spontaneously joined some friends road tripping to NOLA and to Vernon, FL, but has only a day and two evenings in Crescent City. I’m betting she makes the most of it. She already reported being whisked from the airport to a great little cafe for a po’boy sandwich, with a side of red beans and rice from the owner’s grandma’s recipe. It’s a big, beautiful world out there, folks, with its own soundtrack.
Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 3,000 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at email@example.com