The 2008 Hotel Cafe Tour – [Live]

Sunday, 13 April 2008

I remember my first night at the Hotel Café back in early 2001. A friend of mine had recently watched Donnie Darko on DVD and was struck by the cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” that played at the end. After scanning the credits and discovering it was a dude named Gary Jules, he was surprised to find out that this guy was actually playing that very same night at a new place called the Hotel Café. He called and asked if I wanted to go. Of course I did—if for no other reason than I had a slight crush on this friend of mine (we’ll call him “C”) and any opportunity to hang out with him was welcome. We invited along another friend of ours and paid our $5 at the door, toting along several bottles of wine (the venue had no liquor license and the show was BYOB!).

The interior was cramped and tiny. There was no real ventilation to speak of, other than an old wall-thru fan from possibly the 1930s. The tables and chairs were rickety and mismatched, looking more like they had been stolen from a community theatre production of Cabaret, than purchased from any vendor. While the room wasn’t crowded, all of the seats were taken, so C and I had to share a chair. With my raging crush, I didn’t really mind wedging my ass onto a seat next to his.

Gary Jules turned out to be an incredible talent. The audience was so silent while he was playing, it was unlike any other venue I had ever been to. In fact, it was so quiet that when the espresso machine was engaged, it sounded like a jumbo jet taking off. That claustrophobic little room was just so intimate that it was perfect for the singer-songwriter movement just getting its foothold in the LA scene. It felt like the performer was playing in your living room, for just you and 20 or so of your closest friends.

After the show that night, we all met Marko and Max, the owners of the joint. Max was quiet and focused, while Marko seemed a bit wild, with an insane yet compelling energy. After a few more nights at the Hotel and some additional conversations with Marko, my friend C eventually got a show there a month or so later, opening for Gary Jules.

Soon, the Hotel Café would become my home away from home. There were some weeks that I was there nearly every night of the week—with friends playing often and an ever-rotating eclectic mix of musicians in between. The Hotel expanded eventually into the space next door and installed actual air conditioning. They got their liquor license and could finally serve me my Jack & Coke (rather than keeping a secret bottle behind the bar for me). I even had my law school graduation party there. Oh…and my friend, C? He became a permanent fixture on the Hotel calendar. You know him as Cary Brothers.

Fast forward to April 2008. I arrived at the Henry Fonda theatre at 9 p.m. Saturday night to a General Admission line around the block and both the floor and balcony packed to the gills. I honestly couldn’t believe how many people were already there! Since the tour involves a gaggle of performers, the show starts early and, apparently, the crowd didn’t want to miss a single precious note.

The excruciatingly talented Hotel “house” band (made up of Jason Kanakis, Brad Gordon, Jonny Flower, and Marco Meneghin) accompanied each performer on several songs, but still allowed the performers some “solo” time to really shine. Greg Laswell was on when we arrived. His voice is oddly familiar and the songs are catchy.

I went up to the balcony to see if there were any seats left (there weren’t) and I ran into my friend Michael on the stairs. He told me his girlfriend was up next and I went back downstairs to catch the beautiful and amazing Priscilla Ahn. Dressed in a frock seemingly made of sunshine, she played 4 songs in total, even strapping on her kazoo for the “Boob Song.” She ended the set with “Find My Way Back Home” and used her delay boxes to perfect effect. The audience was left in an enchanted daze.

William Fitzsimmons, bearded and in a wool hat more befitting a daily commute on the L Train than a sultry Hollywood evening, shuffled out next. His voice is quiet and his songs delicate and his between song banter was sometimes lost. I actually had to move locations to hear his vocals because there was some douchebag behind me sucking loudly on what could only have been an Everlasting Gobstopper. Gross. Fitzsimmons made a couple of jokes about no one giving any love to the guy with the beard (which I’ll bet is wildly untrue). He brought out Josh Radin at the end of his set and the two performed Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecelia.” I hear that the ladies in the front row were literally swooning.

Meiko, a petite girl with a big voice and local favorite, Jim Bianco, arrived in turn. Meiko is a current KCRW darling and she belted out “Give Me a Reason,” to much fanfare. Bianco did his best bordello stomp and performed some sort of gyrating dance that could only be described as Joe Cocker if he were an epileptic rabbit.

Jessie Baylin and Ingrid Michaelson gleefully represented the “vaginas” (Michaelson’s words) and Michaelson even invited an audience member to play harmonica on one of her songs (who was pretty excellent, honestly!).

Then, my sweet friend, Cary Brothers, took the stage and a teenage girl standing next to me literally squealed. He looked very handsome in his black blazer, skinny tie and skinny jeans. In fact, he even told an amusing story about the purchase of said skinny jeans at Urban Outfitters. He performed “Who You Are” and one other song and then left the stage with the promise of a later return. The audience fell all over themselves applauding.

Jesca Hoop strolled out wearing an oversized fur hat worthy of Dr. Zhivago. Maybe these folks have just been on the road so long, they all forgot that L.A. is HOT? I mean, seriously, it was like 90 degrees yesterday. Anyway, she rocked her famous “Money,” and Ingrid Michaelson came back to help on another tune.

Jim Bianco returned triumphant with a trio of ditties that featured (in order): a major guitar-wanking solo by Kanakis, a self-proclaimed “stripper song” performed bathed in actual red light (and which previously involved a live Burlesque girl in the early days of the Hotel), and finally the entire band ambling gypsy-style into the middle of the crowd to play.

Meiko returned for a solo song. Then, Cary and Josh Radin returned to perform “If You Were Here” by the Thompson Twins. Afterward, the entire motley crew came back on stage to help Cary with “Blue Eyes.”

By the time Baylin returned to perform another of her songs, much of the audience had left. Possibly their mothers were picking them up at 11 or the show was just too long for their youthful ADD liking. It’s too bad, really, because they missed Ingrid Michaelson doing a pretty incredible cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” that was eerie and lush. She then invited all the ladies back on the stage and performed a song as a round which, unfortunately, reminded me a little too much of high school jazz choir.

The night ended with the entire gaggle of artists together, belting out “Rainbow Connection.” Kermit would have approved.

At one point, during the night, I ran into Marko and told him just how proud I was of him, Max and everyone on the tour. He mentioned that the incredible thing to him was that everyone had grown together…the venue, the owners, the musicians. It all started in that miniscule little storefront on Cahuenga with an idea, some pilfered furniture and a community of musicians.

All of which made this Hotel a Home.

More on The Hotel Café Tour, including more dates and artist info, here: and here

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