Live Music in Laguna
Live music takes many forms on the stages of Laguna’s favorite bars and restaurants.- By Brett Callahan – Photography by Sean Armenta
Laguna Beach’s longstanding reputation as a city of art enthusiasts portrays itself through its many galleries, renowned festivals and the Pageant of the Masters, but homegrown artistry can also be found in some of the most unassuming buildings in town with little more than an open ear. Music is an integral component in the sought-after art of living well, bringing with it harmony, solidarity and good vibes. Laguna’s music scene, one that dates back nearly a century, continues to cultivate talent from various genres for audiences of all tastes.
As Don Bronze, bandleader of ’80s cover band Flashback Heart Attack, says, “There aren’t too many cities, especially in Orange County, that have the great nightlife like Laguna. The city is really excited and shows a good energy about live music.”
Sit in on a session at any of the following live music venues to start soaking up the tunes.
New Kid on the Block
Entering an already established music scene, South African restaurant Mozambique has been able to break into the rotation of top Laguna Beach venues because of its ability to attract big name talent and provide both the performers and patrons with exceptional sound.
“Live music is an art, and it’s slowly dying out because a lot of good musicians aren’t getting paid enough,” says Mozambique audio engineer Tony Nguyen. “We’re just trying to take it to another level where we take care of the musicians and the music as an art. It’s our way of giving back to the community.”
That mindset has helped deliver musicians such as George Clinton, Macy Gray, Donavon Frankenreiter and members of the Rolling Stones, among others. The attention to the craft of live music by Tony and Mozambique owner Ivan Spiers is best exemplified through their million-dollar sound system that is equipped with state-of-the-art technology for live audio and video recording. Wired and ready to record for live feeds, the technology is capable of taking concerts at Mozambique from Orange County to Hawaii, France and all other points across the globe.
“He had a vision of opening up a restaurant where it’s a one stop shop,” Tony says of Ivan. “It’s a place where you go out and not only have great food, but enjoy ambiance and top notch music.”
A traditional week at Mozambique gives patrons a chance to see international roots reggae bands on Sundays, classic rock or R&B on the weekends and nostalgic music videos from the MTV golden age during the week.
One of the oldest places in town has managed to be at the forefront of Laguna’s music scene since its start in 1918. The White House, a once legendary getaway for Hollywood stars back in the early and mid-1900s, still gets its draw of modern day stars (Kobe Bryant comes in for a burger at the back door on occasion), but has found its communal following by sticking with its roots.
“We’re really lucky in Laguna Beach to have access to such great local artists,” says White House promoter Tony Cox. “Supporting them is really what it’s all about.”
The White House brings the noise seven nights a week with a widespread flavoring of genres, from classic rock and acoustic soloists to house, hip-hop, ’80s cover music and reggae.
“As far as variety of music, we’re at the front of it all with trying different things and trying to provide good quality,” Tony says.
Part of that quality is in the investment of a proper stage, sound system and real dance floor—one of the only places in the area to offer all three amenities.
“The White House has one of the most superb sound systems that I’ve ever seen at any venue,” says solo musician Mike Hamilton, who has performed and recorded with Kenny Loggins and Sting among others. “That includes concert clubs like The Roxy or The Troubadour, or any of those places up in Hollywood.”
Mike is one of several artists that regularly performs at The White House, joining Poul Pedersen, Flashback Heart Attack, DJ Shinigami, DJ Flex, DJ IFM (Warren G’s DJ), The Trip and a host of reggae performers. Reggae, the genre most popularly associated with the venue, has been a mainstay for years, with world-class musicians taking the stage throughout the week, particularly on Reggae Sundays. Current regulars like Higher Lion and Kyng Arthur and his Mystical Knights continue to uphold the tradition.
As popular as reggae or weekend DJs have become for The White House, no band personifies Laguna’s communal inclusion quite like We Da People. Featuring three core members led by Jelani Jones, We Da People adds on various local guest musicians every week to jump in and play in a collective jam session.
“One night they’ll have a great sax player covering Motown and soul, and the next they’ll have two bassists doing R&B and reggae,” Tony says. “It’s just a good vibe where musicians get together and try doing something new.”
A Classic, Rocked
“We stick with what works for us,” explains bookkeeper Aggie Dougherty.
The “Mar Bar,” as it’s affectionately known by its regulars, has been sticking to classic rock, blues and coffeehouse acoustics for as long as most patrons can remember. Owner Kelly Boyd, a fourth-generation Laguna Beach resident and former mayor of the town, has an affinity for hearing the music he listened to while growing up, and that won’t be undergoing dramatic transformations anytime soon. His trust in the music is why local band Missiles of October, who play every Sunday afternoon, is now going on its 21st year with the bar.
“Kelly’s been very supportive of local music in terms of sticking with his school of thought and keeping the live music thing going,” band leader Poul Pedersen says.
Other classic rock era musicians like Kofi Baker, son of Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker, the Tricia Freeman Band and Beth Fitchet Wood, whose former band Honk toured with the Beach Boys, Chicago, Jackson Browne and Dave Mason in the ’70s, help to keep the spirit of the genre alive and loud.
“That’s what we grew up with,” Aggie says. “We don’t serve food, so the music has to be lively.”
Aggie does admit that there is a need to adjust to different crowds and has already implemented a few strategies in doing so. Beth hosts a singer/songwriter night on Tuesdays that turns the bar more into a pseudo coffee shop, occasional Mondays are devoted to “band practice” for local bands wanting to experience a test run playing at a real bar, and Thalia Surf Shop hosts its Wax Ball series for younger local bands every second Thursday of the month. Despite the mild sprinklings of fresh sounds, make no mistake that the “Mar Bar” has done well in making a niche for itself amongst other venues in town.
“It’s interesting because the different venues don’t really overlap (in genre) either,” Aggie says. “We’re careful about not poaching anybody’s talent.”
Down and Dirty
Every town needs a place to cap off the night, let it all go and have a guilt-free good time. Insert Laguna’s very own Sandpiper Lounge, aka the “Dirty Bird.” Owned and operated by brothers Chuck and Chip Harrell for the last 42 years, “the Bird” is a one-of-a-kind bar with a variety of local live bands playing to crowded dance floors.
“It’s the only place in town where you can come in, let your hair down a little bit and not feel like you’re going to offend somebody,” Chuck says. “We like to have good, casual music that everybody likes, and make sure people enjoy themselves and have fun.”
The Sandpiper has undergone very few (if any) cosmetic changes since Chuck and Chip took over, and it’s that consistency in underwhelming charm that makes the bar an iconic venue for locals. The owners know that what really keeps the business thriving in house and for neighboring establishments is a deep appreciation for live music.
“The more good music you have in a town like Laguna, the more people are going to come to Laguna, and that’s important to all of our businesses,” Chuck explains.
Hosting a plethora of local reggae and R&B acts all throughout the week, Sandpiper Lounge continues to be a dive favorite in town.
“The Sandpiper has a stage and built-in sound system, and it’s really a venue for bands of all kinds of music to showcase their talent,” says Don Bronze of Flashback Heart Attack. “We’ve played out of state and on some of the biggest stages, but as far as a music scene goes, Laguna has kept that integrity they built in years past.”
Local and Live Just minutes outside of Laguna’s city limits is a venue that has been hosting some of the top talent to come through Orange County for more than 30 years. San Juan Capistrano’s The Coach House (thecoachhouse.com), owned by Gary Folgner, gives patrons the chance to see iconic musicians like B.B. King, Violent Femmes, Debbie Reynolds and Willie Nelson without the inconvenience of an amphitheater-sized crowd.
“We offer a unique experience as a music venue because we have tables surrounding the stage providing guests with an intimate concert experience that you just can’t get anywhere else,” says The Coach House spokesperson Sara Ostrovitz. “It’s very hard to find venues in California, let alone Orange County, where you can be up at the stage next to performers.”
An eclectic mix of artists such as Ben Kweller, Donavon Frankenreiter, Ted Nugent and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are set to take the stage this spring and summer as the venue shows no signs of slowing down.
“It’s important for us to book great music that people want to see,” Sara says. “You can go to a concert anywhere, but it’s the experience you have seeing live music that makes you want to come back for more.” LBM