Music Al Fresco
[Editor’s Note: The eclectic programming of these concert series ranges under and well outside the big umbrella of “folk” music.]
Summertime and the listening is easy… in parks and courtyards, on museum and library grounds, even on oceanside piers. Outdoor concerts are a seasonal delight in Southern California. However, when I say outdoor concerts, I am excluding the most obvious venue of all, the one that amplifies the music so it can be heard half a mile away, projects what is happening on stage to multiple giant video screens, and programs half the concert with “opening” artists you didn’t come to see or pay for. Not to mention the tedious traffic and convoluted parking maneuvers you must navigate before hiking in search of a space for your delectable picnic. Every spring I study the Hollywood Bowl concert calendar and mentally drool over the array of gifted musicians it presents. But I have suffered too many disappointments there, except for the concerts where I sat in box seats and felt in touch with the actual performers. I ask you, FolkWorks readers, who can afford box seats at the Bowl more than once in a blue moon? All right, I’ve vented. Now let’s consider concerts produced on a much smaller scale that often have more to offer.
The outdoor concerts I favor are relaxed events where you can hang out with family and friends. You bring blankets or lawn chairs, picnics or snacks and enjoy music that you may find either comfortably familiar or excitingly exotic. One doesn’t always attend in order to see specific musicians or even favorite genres. When the concert is free, you might be willing to discover Indonesian music played by the Balinese gamelan ensemble Sanggar Tujunga on the grounds of the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale on July 17. Or you might consider the August 22 performance by bluesy Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré at Pasadena’s Levitt Pavilion.
If you’re seeking out the Latino beat, you can’t go wrong with percussion by Poncho Sanchez on June 19th in Levitt’s MacArthur Park Pavilion. I’m personally intrigued by the four member Afro-Peruvian ensemble Novalima with its roots in African slave music and a blending of Peruvian, Colombian, and global DJ influences; they are playing August 27 in the courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center. You’ll find more Latin heat with the double bill happening in Culver City’s City Hall courtyard on July 9 when the Boulevard Music Summer Festival presents the band Calé performing traditional tangos, rumbas and flamenco as well as numbers that mix pop rock, funk, and electronica. In the second half, Conganas, musicians from South America and the U.S., serve up a variety of Latin rhythms from cumbia to cha-cha-cha.
Suppose you crave Americana, as do many members of our FolkWorks community. It’s getting harder to find American roots music that is not fusing with some other genre or global trend. Skirball Center’s program on Thursday, August 6 features a group evocatively named Hooray for the Riff-Raff, “a blend of gritty Delta blues, rootsy Appalachian folk, country, rock, and pop.” On July 30 at Culver City’s Boulevard Music Summer Festival, country music meets jazz with the Hot Club of Cowtown, named Western Swing Group of 2015 by the Ameripolitan Music Awards. This type of folk music is underrepresented in the various concert series I surveyed.
Outdoor summer concerts are not only about ethnic and roots music. A number of the venues program pop and rock. But this is not necessarily for the millennials. Tribute bands have been proliferating around the country for decades and show no signs of petering out. El Segundo’s Sunday series at Library Park devotes three of its four concerts to music of decades past: On June 21, the tribute band Light represents the San Francisco-born 70s-to-present rock band Journey; on July 12, Neon Nation plays hits from the 80s; and on July 26, L.A.-based tribute band Double Vision salutes Foreigner, a British-American rock band formed in 1976. On July 5 Manhattan Beach has a Neil Diamond tribute band scheduled for its series at Polliwog Park. The Redondo Beach Concerts on the Pier series features several blasts from the past on their roster of over 20 concerts on Thursdays and Saturdays. Among them are Woody and the Longboards, a Beach Boys tribute band, That Cover Band playing music from the 60s to the 90s, the Brady Harris Band, described as “Beatlesque pop rock,” and a “classic rock” band called 1969. In Culver City, the Boulevard Music Summer Festival will pay homage to Motown and R&B with a performance by Stone Soul on July 16 in the courtyard of the town’s City Hall.
Ethnomusicologist’s Digression: The popularity of tribute bands is one indication that a significant segment of the public not only adores the music but embraces rock as musical history. The field of ethnomusicology took decades to fully acknowledge popular American music as an appropriate area of study with rock music tailing jazz by a wide margin. Now it’s a respected specialization. Recently I read a fascinating article about the tribute bands by John Paul Meyers in the journal Ethnomusicology, recognizing these groups as part of a larger acknowledgement of rock as a genre with a history worth constructing and retaining just as classical music has been historicized and its history reinterpreted over time. The lasting impact of early rock music, especially from the 60s and 70s is evident not only in tribute bands but in various ways music distributors repackage music of the era for commercial purposes. Meyers’s field research with over a hundred tribute bands compares and contrasts the approaches to representing legendary performers. Some tribute groups favor detailed costuming and movement characterization along with precise renditions of the original band’s hits while others focus uniquely on respectful musical representations. In Meyers’s view, attending a tribute band concert allows audience members to relate to musical legends through a kind of surrogacy. For boomers, the nostalgia is palpable when they revisit musical experiences of their youth. For those too young to have attended the original party (and I’ve met young people who say they wish they had been around when the Beatles and other rock icons were performing live), it’s a chance to make contact with a more innocent time in popular music, essentially the birth and early development of rock. What does this say about today’s popular music output? I leave that for the reader to ponder.
By the way, Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park will present a legendary and living rock band on September 19, Los Lobos.
What does it take to attract crowds to an outdoor concert series? I asked this of Gary Mandell, owner of Boulevard Music in Culver City and producer of the Boulevard Music Summer Festival for the past 15 years. “I look for a program that’s diverse in style, ethnicity, and gender,” he told me in a recent telephone interview. Regarding generational tastes, he added, “People want to be entertained. To me, you’re going to do one of two things: you’re going to do a concert series where you try to appeal to people of all ages. Or you can have teenagers to 25 to maybe 30-year-olds (as your target audience). So if you want to have rap and hip-hop, you’re not going to attract families with young kids and seniors. Teenagers don’t want to go to places where seniors are hanging out. Seniors don’t want to hear hip-hop and rap. People can say I’m stereotyping, but I say’ Baloney!’ I’ve been producing festivals since 1976. I can read an audience pretty well… I got into arguments with (City) Council members about this. You can’t do both.…”
We discussed the differences in body language between teenagers and their elders. In general, teenage audiences do not sit and quietly picnic. They’re used to standing during concerts and may even approach the stage, which blocks sightlines and may distract musicians unaccustomed to teen antics. The ideal solution is a separate series for the younger set, but funding considerations may preclude this.
Speaking of funding, the Boulevard series was the only one I noticed placing a charge of $10 for premium-view seats. About 50 such seats are available to those interested; the rest enjoy the concert free of charge. “Those (10-dollar) seats help to pay for the concerts,” said Mandell, who has put up with flak for offering the option of paying. To give you an idea of the financial backing necessary for these relaxed outdoor concerts, here are the sponsors Mandell has assembled with considerable effort to produce six summer concerts on Thursday evenings for Culver City’s Boulevard Music Summer Festival: The City of Culver City, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Boulevard Music, John Riordan Plumbing, Culver City Volvo & Mazda, Bunnin Chevrolet, Palm Court, LYFE Kitchen, Cavanaugh Realty, PS 310, Michael Kayem Remax, DE Associates, Music Munchers; Culver Hotel, Dynagraphics, Ernie Ball, Culver City News, Culver City Observer, Steeldeck, Inc. and more to be confirmed soon as sponsorships are still available.
Interested in experiencing music al fresco? Hop onto Google and simply pair “summer outdoor concerts 2015” with the LA area where you wish to attend them.
Between us, the summer concert that entices me the most is the LA-based Bonne Musique Zydeco Band, performing Sunday, July 12 in my hometown of Manhattan Beach. I’ll revel in the sizzling gumbo of Louisiana and East Texas zydeco and Creole sounds peppered with Cajun and New Orleans influences while relaxing on the grassy natural amphitheater of Pollywog Park. I may even go to hear the band again on Thursday, August 13 in the courtyard of the stately City Hall in Culver City.
Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world musics in Southern California and beyond.