The hills of Laurel Canyon steep in the history of '60s counterculture and the golden age of Californian music once again came alive at a house party capturing that spirit. Canyon resident and sometimes singer, Molly Tuttle with Colorado-based singer-songwriter, Billy Shaddox put together a line-up of acts that would have made the likes of Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliot of The Mamas & Papas proud.
The invitation for the evening of Feb 6 requested that guests came dressed in the fashion of the day – floppy hats, maxi skirts and florals shirts. Even actor Emilio Estevez, a surprise guest spotted mingling outside complied with a stetson and suede jacket. The troubadours - they sang in the living room choosing from the Sixties and Seventies songbook of Neil Young, The Eagles, Bob Dylan but largely their own inspired modern day incarnations of bluegrass, cosmic Americana, folk and bossa nova.
In addition to Shaddox who was accompanied by upright bassist, Rob Stragnell, the evening’s eclectic bill included longtime troubadour, Bart Davenport; LA duo Kyle Kersten and Rob Smaw of The Bear Divide; fresh-faced to the canyon, Kacey Johansing with Tim Ramsay; and Canyon local Steve Taylor. In the second half of the evening, other musicians in the audience such as Adam Gimbel who had moments earlier been hanging out in a treehouse atop the property and had to be chided down by Davenport - were encouraged to take the mic. Last seen on stage at the Teragram Ballroom, in an opening band for Brian Jonestown Massacre, guitarist Christof Certik was a particular delight with mad fret skills.
Off a little side street at the top of Lookout Mountain, a short drive from the original "Our House" where Graham Nash penned the song of folk domesticity for then-lover, Joni Mitchell – and only a stone’s throw away from Frank Zappa’s infamous roadhouse, is where Tuttle who re-located from San Francisco six years ago chose to move. In the Bay Area, she was already known for her rousing Sausalito house parties that saw her and her husband inviting musicians into their home and Molly often joining them in song.
Surprisingly, despite a menagerie of journeyman musician friends and folkie brethren she had never considered singing for a career. She said: "I have loved to sing since I joined my first choir in 5th grade but my true love lies in singing harmonies. There is nothing more magical for me than singing with friends. It has helped me form such an incredible community of friends over the years."
David Crosby and Stephen Stills were famously introduced to Graham Nash by friend, Cass Elliot. In Tuttle, these musicians have a place to perform and an opportunity to meet others. On how she started hosting these shindigs, she explained: “In 2000, my friend Eric Shea asked me to co-host and help book a weekly Monday Night Hoot in San Francisco. It lasted for three glorious years and confirmed my love of hosting, performing and sharing musicians' incredible talents with an audience. Now that we live in Laurel Canyon, it seems only appropriate to say yes when a friend asks if he can have a concert in our living room - which is what happens every time Billy passes through town. This time it just got a lot bigger."
Shaddox who decamped from San Diego to the remote Colorado mountains three years ago and quit his daytime job to pursue music full-time not long after, delivered an excellent solo debut in last year's Sam Kassirer-produced I Melt, I Howl. He said: "Molly is a great people weaver, without her we likely would not have been able to all converge for a night. Gatherings like this need a host that can be the common thread for the musicians and guests alike."
"Molly and I had talked about having a house concert on a date that worked with my touring. The Bear Divide then contacted me to see if they could open the show. Molly got an idea to have Steve Taylor also play and make it a jam session. At the same time I played an event in Boulder called "Boulder in the Round" where 4 songwriters sat on stage and we took turns playing songs. I shared this idea with Molly and she thought to add Bart and Kacey." Seamless really.
As guests mingled in the porch under the cool night sky, inside the typical Canyon log-cabin home everyone cramped cozily on sofas, benches, up steps of the staircase as they peeked through the banisters, even on an amp case and of course, each other.
Influenced by CSN, Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell, Steve Taylor in a floral shirt and wide-rimmed hat got the ball rolling with a trio of songs. Having arrived a little late, we watched him from under the shade of a large tree, the scene beautifully framed by the glass window in the courtyard.
For the first half - each act was given three songs and a brief interlude where guests would hug and greet others or get up to fetch more drinks. Just before The Bear Divide we managed to shuffle through the kitchen into the living room. Furnished suitably with a lit-up California sign; an outsized framed-poster of the seminal Peter Fonda-Dennis Hopper film, Easy Rider which hung over the brick fire-place; and a wooden shelf stacked with records that had Mitchell's 1969 classic album Clouds propped under.
The Bear Divide delivered three easy-listening songs with harmonies so sweet they sound straight out of the county-rock sound of the '70s. "Can't Be Wrong" their second tune was a particular standout. Next came Johansing, an accomplished performer who among other things has collaborated with the Tune-yards, Thao Nguyen from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and been a member of SF duo, Geographer. A recent Canyon transplant she said: "This is my first show since moving here and now I can finally call myself a lady of the canyon." She then sang with the loveliest of dulcet tones, sometimes with a jazzy cadence but more than often echoing Marianne Faithful and Vashti Bunyan.
The evening carried on with Davenport, a seasoned musician who spends his Summers touring and making music in Spain. A deft hand at an array of different singing styles, he fully adopts a different persona with each song. Until he utters his first words, you never know if you are going to get crooner Davenport a la "A Young One", indie rock Davenport, the more soulful James Brown-Davenport or the acoustic-strumming Dylan lover. And for all his charisma and talents, it seems criminal that he isn't better known here. The irony not lost on him, he has poked fun at his lack of success with a single off his 2014 album, Physical World called "F*** Fame".
Then Shaddox sang “I Melt I Howl" the title track of his solo album, "Golden Coast" and a sweet duet with Tuttle on "Who Let You Go?". The 'hostess with the mostess' Tuttle who had led the proceedings introducing each act and shushing the cheeky and sometimes rowdy folks cramped on her furniture gave permission for a half hour intermission before returning for a more impromptu set open to guests.
In Act 2, Taylor, Nathan Schlock and Tuttle did an awesome tribute to Glenn Fry who had died only days earlier – singing one of the Eagles’ most-loved hits “Take It To The Limit”. A mesh of Shaddox, Tuttle and Kersten doing Bob Dylan's “You Ain't Going Nowhere” was a also delight as was Neil Young's "Helpless" with Tuttle's light harmonizing the perfect foil to Kersten's classic country-rock tinged vocals.
Next came Davenport who sang "Clara" with such earnest and perhaps a little intoxicated, another highlight. He had earlier invited Certik to join him on guitar and joked: "When Molly said it was a Seventies party. Christof thought it was 1870s." Certik striking a rather charming Dandy-esque figure in a tall hat with a cinched shirt and waistcoast retorted: "What difference does it make, it's all still the Seventies." After the crowd’s laughter subsided, Davenport deadpanned: "I on the other hand came as the Goth Carl Sagan".
At the backyard bar earlier, a number of guests - many of whom had a connection to the Bay Area were talking about the Superbowl weekend happening there - to which Certik had remarked quizzically: "Oh is that on? Is that baseball or football?". No one thought that question odd. Certik plays in the band, Winter Flowers after all. He grew up listening to Renaissance music so his band's sound has been described as 'baroque Medieval' and having more in common with British '60s folk bands such as Pentangle where 16th century instruments such as the lute and mandolin are standard fare.
The exchange was a nice summation of the evening – magical, timeless, unexpected and much like Tuttle, holding everyone in warm embrace. Responding to the quote that 'musicians need to breathe the same air', Shaddox said: "The evening reminded us all that the craft of music is intimate, interactive, and alive. We all walked away from that night a little closer than when we walked in."
Tuttle added: "Although most of the residents from the 'golden age' have moved on, I am grateful to have found many current locals who keep the spirit alive such as Gary Calamar (KCRW Host), Dan Rothchild and Jono Hart (both also known for their work with Dave Stewart). They truly embody the spirit of what I was hoping to find in Laurel Canyon and keep its legacy alive".
Hart who was at the party said: "Molly’s party is exactly what this world needs more - a community gathering with music at the center. Neighbors, friends and strangers all came together to celebrate art, music and each other. Creating a vibe and ambiance of support which is what artists need now more than ever. There should be at least one of these per week."
The singer-songwriter-guitarist, of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Desert Rose Band, Chris Hillman once said: “Before rock and roll, Laurel Canyon had a lot of jazz guys and a bohemian Beatnik-type thing.” The rustic Canyon had an allure even before its golden era and it wouldn't be inconceivable if the scene could once again re-emerge in some new form for a new generation of gifted musicians.
Added Hart who has started The Canyon Family Band: "The Canyon has a rich history but also feels sleepy like it needs a shot in the arm. Many have told me about their idea to have a band that plays only songs written in the canyon. I heard about that for a few years but never saw one band do it. So I started a band called “The Canyon Family Band” and it took off from there."
In response to the times musicians now exist in of dwindling royalties, is it perhaps folly to even start a band? Hart explained: "There will always be the Beyonce’s of the world but people who play to crowds of 500 will be turning more and more to house concerts. I know artists who cross the country only playing living rooms and can gross over $50k. There are apps popping up and all these cool outlets. This is one part of the future for musicians - passing the hat at house parties like this one."
So perhaps something is afoot and we just have to stop, look and watch for that sound.
To keep in touch with the musicians featured and see if they are playing at a venue or house concert near you, please see below.