US tour 2014, part 2: Kissing a Sunset Pig

We wake up to the brilliant sunshine of San Diego. I walk along the beach path in Mission Bay Park, among bronzed fitness freaks, a Sunday worship group singing under a gazebo, a jogger powering a pushchair, a cyclist towing his dog in a little trailer, and out on the water the snarl of jet skis. I find a patch of beach to make my own, and take my sun-baked rest cure. The day before had begun wearily enough in Natick, even before the six-hour flight and the shuttle bus to the car rental with the driver’s constant, unintelligibly-accented stream of chatter met by our ashen, blank faces. All hail Vitamin D, and the incredibly simplistic emotional circuitry that means sun = happy. I am ready for anything.

“Anything”, in this case, is hardly a gruelling prospect. It’s a bowl of beautiful Californian-Mexican grub (spicy mahi-mahi served on rice, salsa, guac etc.) at a branch of the San Diego institution Rubio’s. Then we head to the nearby suburb of La Jolla, where we’re playing an afternoon show in an Episcopal church. It has some attractive stained glass, including one window of St Francis and what looks like Jesus with sci-fi lasers shooting out of his fingers. During the second half of the show, the sinking sun hits the west window and paints the floor of the nave in intense blue and yellow. By the time we emerge from the church to meet, greet and sign CDs, the sun is hitting the ocean, and the sky is the backdrop to a 1980s music video.

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Have you noticed how most songs about places are really about not being there? San Diego Serenade by Tom Waits, California Dreamin’, California by Joni Mitchell, Going To California by Led Zeppelin, even the O.C. theme song by Phantom Planet… they’re all about an idealised, imagined or remembered version of the Golden State, written from an outsider’s standpoint. Nonetheless, they all made the cut for my Cali playlist as we cruised up Interstate 5† from San Diego to L.A. with the ocean to the left and scrubland hills to the right. There’s nothing quite like hearing Pet Sounds in its natural habitat.

(†A.k.a. the Fiiiiiive: I can’t help hearing Californian road names in the voices of The Californians from Saturday Night Live.)

To a hungry consumer of American pop culture, the whole of L.A. can seem like a patchwork of musical references and film locations. There’s barely a street or neighbourhood whose name doesn’t crop up in a song I love, barely a café whose décor I don’t dimly recall from a movie scene. Our first stop after checking into our hotel is Café 101 in West Hollywood, which apparently features prominently in Swingers (I haven’t seen it). Then on to Bardot, a club near Hollywood & Vine that is all art nouveau curls and red mood lighting, with a stage set up in a central courtyard. In the balmy evening, it takes us a while to realise that we are open to the elements – a set-up that could only work in a city like L.A. where rain is a newsworthy occurrence.

We’re at Bardot to perform a couple of unplugged songs as part of School Night, a weekly musical hang curated by KCRW’s Chris Douridas. This kind of intimate performance, with no comforting mics to hold on to and an audience at very close quarters including a famous film director front and centre, is much scarier than singing in an opera house or arena. What will the hipster crowd make of the English a cappella imposters in their midst? Happily, they go for it, with attentive hush giving way to whoops and cheers. Then again, to judge by the outrageously eclectic bill – after us it’s folky neo-soul followed byheadbanging Southern rawk – it would take a lot to faze them.

IMG_2113 The next day, after a private lunchtime performance, some of the gang hit the beach, while Kevin, Hugh and I head for the hills. We park by the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, where Lorde is playing that night (though I need hardly point out that the Swingles show is the hotter ticket). Eschewing the various gentle paths available to us, we make for the steepest, sandiest slope in sight, and madly scramble up it. The sun is on maximum grill setting, and we puff and sweat our way to the top, where we are rewarded by the most phenomenal 360 degree panorama of the smog-hazed expanse of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we amble down, past cacti and bony lengths of rusting pipe that protrude from the hillside, past Griffith Observatory and a choice view of the Hollywood sign.

The Sayers Club, where we have our first L.A. show in a decade, is known as a venue of choice for Prince and The Black Keys, and we’ve been told that Bruce Willis’s daughter Rumer will be playing the late set after us. It’s as cool as you’d expect, with artfully distressed walls, leather couches and bare lamps hanging from the ceiling. Big screen prints of Samuel Beckett and the Queen look out from behind the stage, making this Beckett-loving subject of Her Maj feel nicely at home. The room is almost at Dans Le Noir levels of mood lighting by the time the doors are opened to a crowd that includes industry types, a cappella pals, fans from the Philippines, ex-Take 6 titan Mervyn Warren, and Ward Swingle’s daughter. Their reaction to our set is beyond all my expectations – the heavy artillery of Piper and the Bach fugue are received equally ecstatically.

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Like many Londoners who need something to feel superior about when it’s raining and the tube’s broken, I’ve always assumed I’d be totally incompatible with Los Angeles. Having come prepared to loathe it, I leave seduced. Probably it’s the heroes’ welcome we are treated to; no doubt the city’s convenience-first mindset (plentiful parking, cafés whose staff offer up the Wi-Fi code unprompted) and sun are factors. The presence of healthy options on menus comes none too soon; hiking up above the grid helps counteract the sense of sprawl. I may not be planning to up sticks for the pilot season, but I’m surprised to find that the idea of L.A. makes sense to me.

And with that, I am humming Jolie Holland, not to mention Rachel Stevens, and we’re eastbound again for a run of gigs in the South. Tune in next time for brisket, moonshine, thunder runs, trampolines and much more.

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