Best Of :: Music & Nightlife
Transformed from a Mexican ranchera bar to a raucous punk hub where you're more likely to see purple hair and Doc Martens than cowboy boots and Stetsons, Cafe NELA has slowly become the venue of choice for hardcore bands and local legends to let it all out. Three years rocking and still going strong, the Cypress Park hole-in-the-wall is a proud and proper dive that's remained gloriously untainted by the area's surrounding gentrification. It features the requisite Christmas lights, cheap cover charges, cheaper beer (brews only, in fact), a lot of bar neon and a worn-in feel that's earned, not evoked by some design team. Booked bands are typically loud, quirky and badass. The Insect Surfers, Pu$$y-Cow, Betty Blowtorch, The Gears, Haunted Garage, I See Hawks in L.A., Lucky Otis, Gitane Demone and Keith Morris all have graced the stage. NELA conjures a vibe that seasoned clubbers will recall from seminal spots like Al's Bar, Raji's and Mr. T's, a place where the room temp, volume and performances meld into a sweltering, vociferous assault on the senses, making for a gritty, no-frills hot mess of a good time, as any authentic punk-rock experience should be.
When New York interloper Michael Swier of Bowery Ballroom fame opened his downtown-adjacent, 600-capacity club in the summer of 2015, it seemed like a dubious venture at best. How could an outsider, even one with local partners like Monty Bar's Joe Baxley and Aquarium Drunkard's Scott Simoneaux, compete for talent in a crowded market against local heavyweights like Spaceland Presents and Goldenvoice? But right from Teragram Ballroom's opening night, which featured Spoon doing a serious underplay, Swier and his partners have established themselves as major players, scoring such impressive bookings (especially for such an intimate venue) as Guided by Voices, Beth Orton, Dinosaur Jr., Lydia Lunch, Queens of the Stone Age, Television and Gary Numan. The main room has great sound and sightlines, and two additional bar areas provide a good beer selection and decent eats. And, not insignificantly, parking doesn't suck — there's an affordable auto-pay lot just a couple blocks away (avoid the pricy valet lot directly across the street, though). It didn't seem as if L.A. needed another midsized music venue, but Teragram is a welcome addition to the concert landscape that will keep the competition on its toes.
The rest of the country only recently caught on, but Los Angeles has long been riding for YG. Listen, and you'll hear him everywhere: That fat-bottomed bass line booming out of the '69 Chevy hittin' switches on Rosecrans belongs to his G-funked–up "Twist My Fingaz." His sparse, Drake and Kamaiyah–featuring mantra "Why You Always Hatin'?" spins hourly on Power 106. Clubs still bang his gleefully raunchy 2008 wham-bam classic, "Toot It and Boot It." He's even become ubiquitous at political rallies; his and Nipsey Hussle's menacing anthem "Fuck Donald Trump" has become the year's de facto protest song. He's so omnipresent that even people who've never set foot south of Staples Center refer to Compton as "Bompton," in deference to the Blood slang he's helped popularize. But YG didn't capture the heart of the city just with great records. Like most natives, he's not "Hollywood." He still kicks it in his 'hood. He dresses, in his words, like a cholo. He prefers a lowrider to a #raplife Rolls-Royce Phantom. In other words, he's one of us. To answer the question posed in one of his biggest singles: Who do we love? YG.
In L.A., the next great undiscovered songwriter can be right under our noses, putting in the legwork for years as a sideperson in other people's bands before finally taking the plunge herself. Such is the case with Steady Holiday, the project helmed by Dre Babinski. Babinski's been playing the violin since she was 10, and has long provided studio and tour support for a range of acts big (Fitz and the Tantrums, .fun) and small (Dusty Rhodes & the River Band, Hunter Hunted). Steady Holiday, though, is Babinski's first attempt at something to call her own, and with a slot at this year's Coachella ahead of the June release of her debut album, Under the Influence, it's safe to say things are going well. Babinski plays violin and guitar on compositions that are often elegant and fully realized, akin to the early work of St. Vincent. Babinski's widely attended June residency at the Satellite unveiled a musician of disparate tastes, incorporating tender, solo guitar ballads with muscular, full-band covers of Paul McCartney and The Flaming Lips. If Babinski waited her whole life to finally own the spotlight, her project is all the better for it. She's ready for the attention, and deserving of it.
Two weeks after The Dead Ships' sold-out release party for Citycide, frontman Devlin McCluskey was slogging through video edits for the title track. "It's a weird rotoscoping process that's taking a ridiculous amount of time," he explained, before cheerfully volunteering that the project "for sure won't pay off the way I'm hoping." But given how 2016 has unfolded, McCluskey should be more confident. After playing Coachella at the invitation of founder Paul Tollett, landing a string of dates with The Cult, playing Milwaukee's massive Summerfest and recording a four-song Daytrotter session, The Dead Ships debuted Citycide to near-universal praise, with single "First Mistakes" leaping to a top-five spot on KROQ's influential Locals Only playlist. "Even the one sort-of negative review still said it was a must-listen album," says the lanky 31-year-old, "so it was like, oh well, I think we did a good job here." For now, McCluskey is enjoying being home, "writing a ton of songs, and feeling really good and hopeful about what's coming up," meaning fans have good reason to be hopeful, too.
It's been a long time since Eddie Van Halen tore into "Eruption" at Sunset Sound in 1977, or Slayer and Megadeth escalated the thrash-metal arms race in the early '80s. But Pasadena's Holy Grail prove L.A. is still a haven for behemoth riffs, breakneck solos and metal shrieks to raise the dead. Their 2016 concept album, Times of Pride and Peril, is a 45-minute thrill ride, combining the pyrotechnics of guitarists Eli Santana and Alex Lee with the piston-pumping rhythms of drummer Tyler Meahl and bassist Blake Mount and James Paul Luna's operatic vocals. While their biggest inspiration is clearly New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, they inject serious doses of rumbling thrash metal and symphonic prog, all of it undergirding massive hooks that are all their own. Like the L.A. metal warriors that came before them, Holy Grail have done their time on the stages at the Roxy and the Whisky, but they're also true road dogs, having already criss-crossed the country multiple times this year alone. Stick around after the show and you might even be treated to a few of Lee's insane yo-yo tricks.
Take out the periods and push together the letters of the name of this local electronic duo and you get ladrones, which means "thieves" in Spanish. That wordplay becomes clearer when L.A. Drones hit stages across the city. The duo, who go by the stage names Kontrol Remoto and Darlingtonia Brackets, perform with faces covered in black cloth, like the comic book images of old-fashioned robbers, and their music is heavily based on stealing — er, sampling — from their synth-pop forebears. They play with synths and the occasional sax, singing lines like, "Give me all your money, give me all your love" (from "Don't You Want to Dance?"). L.A. Drones are for the electro kids, making music that would fit between '80s classics and turn-of-the-century artists like Miss Kittin & The Hacker, served with charm, energy and a good sense of humor.
Tucked away on a downtown block of concrete nothing, just a few strides from the baby Brooklyn vibes of the Arts District, Lot 613 occupies a unique space in the landscape of Los Angeles clubbing. It has the aesthetic of a renegade warehouse –– a stripped-down, industrial cave with few frills –– but is fully licensed and legal, and often stays open until 4 a.m. It is the home base of Prototype, a party series that consistently features the best underground dance bookings in the city — Âme, Nina Kraviz and local legend DJ Harvey have graced 613's unadorned decks in the past few months alone. Its massive outside area, replete with full bar and taco operation, provides needed respite from the booming bass and heaving bodies of Lot 613's shadowy inner den, where you'll find a much wider demographic of Angeleno hip kids getting down than at any Hollywood club. While L.A. nightlife has a somewhat deserved reputation for flashy materialism, Lot 613 is about the music and nothing else.
"You can't understand the blues until you've had your heart broken, and you can't understand my music 'til you've had group sex on ecstasy." DJ Harvey's self-description says it all. He is house music's rock star. Harvey Bassett has been bringing a subversive, punk edge to dance music since the '80s, when he popularized the disco re-edit and was an early resident DJ at London's famed Ministry of Sound. And he's done it all with a scruffy yet debonair air that has made him a cult figure and a style icon. The grizzled, mustachioed veteran shacks up in Venice Beach but still roams the world dropping the marathon, eight-hour sets for which he's famed. Trends come and go, styles change, but DJ Harvey will always be the coolest motherfucker at the party.
Usually when you see someone in an L.A. club wearing a fedora, you know you're in the wrong club. But on Thursday nights at the Virgil, when Funkmosphere is in full swing, the only fedoras in attendance will be plush red ones worn by older gentlemen holding court at the bar, spitting game about playing bass for the funk band Lakeside and hanging out with Wilt Chamberlain. Funkmosphere is the brainchild of modern funk evangelist Dam-Funk, who launched it as a club night devoted to boogie music — sweaty and sweet deep grooves from the late '70s and early '80s, somewhere in between slowed-down disco and smoothed-out funk — and boogie's contemporary incarnation, modern funk. Although Dam himself occasionally makes DJ appearances, resident DJs Billy Goods, Randy Watson, Laroj, Eddy Funkster and Matt Respect, plus great guest DJs, continue Dam's mission of creating a positive and unpretentious night of high-grade funk for your ass to move to.
Resident DJs and hosts Christi Mills and Mr. Bootsauce keep the househeads in Hollywood on Thursday nights with Unity. The weekly party goes down at One666 on a cozy dance floor where the residents are joined by guests culled from the local house scene and tour circuit. Recent guests include genre legend Jesse Saunders and London-based DJ/producer Giom. The party also has a good track record for booking women; in fact, for Mills' birthday recently, the lineup was all-female. Deep house is the sound of choice, and the DJs cater to a crowd with discerning tastes: It's the kind of party where you'll see DJs on the dance floor when they aren't playing, and where even the bouncer can catch a groove. Covers vary depending on the guest bookings but veer toward the low end for Hollywood. Follow Unity on Facebook to keep up on lineups, locations, covers and drink specials.
Since reopening in late 2015 with a deeply etched facelift, the historic Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway downtown has developed an unlikely cult status as a favored venue for locals and intrepid drinkers alike. The cafeteria downstairs is still heavily frequented by tourists and geriatric day-trippers, but Clifton's four bars can be a totally different story. Centered around a massive, multistory faux redwood tree, the environs can feel like an amusement park log cabin at times, but there's a warm charm and quirky, immersive quality to be found amidst the taxidermied animals and ornate wooden furniture. The drinks menu is both ambitious and creative, but Clifton's manages to be approachable, despite its heavy layers of kitsch. Climb up its many staircases and you'll find three floors of bars, boudoirs and hidden nooks all decked out in fanciful style. Everywhere you turn has some strange novelty to ogle, and Clifton's wealth of environments and arrangements can turn an evening into an adventure. That you're drinking in one of the most historic spots in all of Los Angeles just adds to the magic.