Best Of :: Music & Nightlife
These days, any vaguely old-timey watering hole where a bartender in an apron and arm garters takes 20 minutes to make you a $14 drink fancies itself a "speakeasy." But the origins of the term are far more specific. During Prohibition, when consumption of "intoxicating liquors" was banned, a speakeasy was a hidden bar that required a membership card, a password or both to enter, in order to keep the cops, G-men and Anti-Saloon League zealots at bay. Few bars in L.A. ever operated during Prohibition as actual speakeasies, but the Del Monte Speakeasy, tucked away in the basement of the Townhouse bar in Venice, is one of them. Back then, what is now the Townhouse was a grocery store, and the Del Monte was a dimly lit dungeon of smuggled hooch, accessible only via trapdoor. Today you can take the stairs, and the vibe is considerably less illicit — though the room's low ceilings and antique wallpaper still give it the feel of a Boardwalk Empire set, especially when it's hosting a jazz or burlesque night.
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.