January-February 2007

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Goodbye Kulak's and Highland Grounds


By Larry Wines

Not all progress is smooth. Seldom does anything race, or even plod, continuously in the same direction without hitting ruts, experiencing reversals, giving us cause to question, and sometimes to mourn losses along the way.

Tales of zoning, land use, conditional use permits and cranky neighbors might seem far removed from performing and enjoying folk music, but 2006 proved that wasn’t so.

By the time you read this, the controversial and celebrated Kulak’s Woodshed in the Valley Village area of North Hollywood may be a memory, or perhaps a homeless concept looking to land somewhere else. Not unlike New York City’s CBGB’s, the demise of the Woodshed has been predicted many times. Paul Kulak’s frequent appeals for help always produced legions of musicians to testify at zoning, planning commission, LA City Council and other assorted hearings.

The Woodshed, its ambiance and five-camera live webcasts, have been beloved by many, but the sand has left the hourglass. Last spring, Paul Kulak was given six months to correct numerous building and safety code violations. The deadline for completion arrived on October 31, and no work had begun. During the same time, an arrangement for use of a parking lot across the street was to have been formalized, and that turned out to be no more than talk.

The Woodshed’s woes with two of its neighbors, including a prominent ex-porn actor and his run-ins with Kulak and the “Shedhead” folkies, have made police blotters, newspapers and national TV. The sensational nature of that, along with a lot of wishful or oblivious thinking, were enough, for over a year, to draw popular attention away from the requirements of numerous city agencies.

For the landlord, endless wrangling among his tenants was one thing, but the continued insurability of his multi-tenant building, given those documented and uncorrected code violations, was the breaking point. In early November, Paul Kulak received a 60-day notice to vacate. The latest news, or one side of it, anyway, is probably posted at www.kulakswoodshed.com .

The popular and award-winning Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena also faced zoning issues and hostile neighbors who resented parking and other impacts on their adjacent residential street. Both the coffee bar-café and entertainment venue have been operating outside the allowed uses of their commercial zoning. A pair of hearings with many music fans testifying eventually brought a unanimous recommendation from the Altadena Town Council, aimed at securing full approval for the Coffee Gallery and its “Backstage” performance venue from the LA County Planning Commission. This one is looking good, but it’s not over yet.

Meanwhile, Highland Grounds will experience an interior and exterior makeover in January, and emerge as “The Dive,” devoid of live music. Their last show is currently scheduled for Friday, December 22.

Co-owner Leslie Brenner, who has also worked for BMI, said in a phone interview, “We presented seventeen years of live acoustic music at Highland Grounds. Everything has a cycle to it, and it’s time for a change. It’s tough for small business.”

She explained that they own three other restaurants, Hugo’s in West Hollywood and in Studio City, and Hugo’s Tacos in Studio City. She added, the transformation of Highland Grounds “Is a business decision to emphasize our restaurant and bar at that location, continuing those activities into the evening hours. We’ve added a professional mixologist.”

That’s a mixer of drinks, not sound.

Another establishment chose not to continue as an acoustic performance venue. Gayle’s Perks, a Northridge coffeehouse, had hosted music since January, 2005, and had bookings extending months in advance when the end came. The proprietors were simultaneously hit with ASCAP’s demands for performing rights license fees in arrears, and from residential neighbors who were not enjoying the music over their back walls from Gayle’s patio. The latter was a zoning issue, and resolving either would have cost money.

Finally, musician Dave Osti had a good thing going in a burger joint parking lot in Sierra Madre, booking and playing summer outdoor concerts. But the zoning and neighbors shut that down, too.

You can seek many morals in these stories. One is, before you covet operating a performance venue, check the zoning (typically, it’ll be commercial C-2, which isn’t enough) and regardless of the building’s past uses, dedicated parking must be available to avoid denial of your entertainment license and operating permits. And, be aware that the PRO’s (Performance Rights Organizations) ASCAP, BMI and SESAC will demand their fees, ostensibly to protect their artist members.

Big Recognitions for Some Talented Folks

Let’s turn to happier news items, and the evidence that acoustic folk-Americana continues on the rise.

Stephen Michael Schwartz was honored again, this time not for his Parachute Express children’s music or individual troubadour successes, but with a coveted Ovation Award (think West Coast Tony) for his charming musical, It Came from Beyond. After winning a Broadway theater competition, the show had an LA run, got a bunch of nominations, and an Ovation for Stephen Breithaupt as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Paul Marshall has a song, Light of a New Day, in the Robin Williams / Christopher Walken film, Man of the Year. Paul’s no stranger to success, as a member of the roots band, I See Hawks in L.A., and alum of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the cult favorite film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Julie Gribble, a notable LA-based singer-songwriter made her second performance on the CBS Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in December. Julie’s got great stuff.

Robert Morgan Fisher has gained global niche recognition. As opposition to the war in Iraq grew in late 2006, Neil Young’s Living with War web site expanded exponentially with worldwide submissions of new peace and antiwar songs. LA-based singer-songwriter Robert made it to #1 there with We’ll Buy a Flag. Simultaneously, Robert’s song Jester King also reached that top ten. Thousands visit the site daily to listen and vote, determining rankings of over 1,000 songs.

Both songs will be on Robert’s third album. His first two CDs enjoy nationwide airplay. His song, A Life in Music, made it to the final round of the 2005 VH-1 folk music competition. Robert has co-writes with Daryl Purpose, and the two will perform live for a full hour on the radio edition of Tied to the Tracks on January 20.“Grassroots Grammys” for Bad Haggis and Susie Glaze.

Musicians have taken to calling it the “grassroots grammys,” though event organizers aren’t foolish enough to court legal action by embracing that slogan. Winners of the international 2006 Just Plain Folks Awards were revealed at a gala show and banquet in November. Over 25,500 albums and 350,000 songs from 105 countries were entered, 8000 judges selected nominees from 70 countries, then web listener votes determined the Best Song in 67 genres, Best Album in 81 categories, best videos, best lyrics and more. All the results are at www.JPFolks.com . The five-and-a-half-hour event featured 25 performances that ran on time, providing another example for the Grammys to emulate.

Southern Californians Eric Rigler and Bad Haggis were big winners at JPF. Their six nominations produced three awards, including “Best Group of the Year” spanning all categories. You know Eric’s flute music from the movie “Titanic,” and he’s done other film and TV soundtracks. Bad Haggis mixes trad-influenced originals with Celtic rock and they’re a crowd-pleaser on the festival circuit.

Bob Malone also won big at the JPFs, as Male Artist of the Year, and with Best Male Singer/Songwriter Album for Born Too Late.

Susie Glaze won “Best Roots Album of the Year” at the JPF Awards. In FolkWorks, I named Blue Eyed Darlin’ the Best Bluegrass Album for 2005. Same wonderful CD, different cycles of recognition. Susie shared the JPF honors with her co-writer, band member Rob Carlson.

And speaking of Susie, her band Hilonesome is derived from The Eight Hand String Band, which has a unique honor. The new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, uses their tracks, including Susie’s vocals, in its exhibits. The CD of that period music is Listen to the Mockingbird and Other Civil War Era Songs.

That’s a wrap. See you on the radio!

Stay in touch at larrywines@hotmail.com and with the massive, frequently-updated, acoustic Americana music calendar and radio show news at www.myspace.com/laacoustic .


All Columns by Larry Wines