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Column: LA/LA Land – Grammy-nominee Gaby Moreno

Grammy-nominee Gaby Moreno in a parking garage in one of LA’s best-kept secrets

The only hint that a concert by a beloved Grammy-nominated, Latin-Grammy winning artist was about to take place was a crude hand-lettered sign taped to a steel door at the bottom of a damp concrete stairwell in Santa Monica. But that was enough. People were lined up a half hour before the doors were scheduled to open – actually, get propped open by an orange traffic cone – at 8 pm. At 8:10, John Kibler, standup bass player of the band We Are the West, opened the door, inserted the orange traffic cone and welcomed people into one of LA’s most unusual and least known concert venues, an underground parking garage.

Inside was a dark cavernous space with a pathway lit by floor candles leading to a card table with a smiling woman who took a donation – $10, $20, whatever you could afford, a table with $2 glasses of wine and cans of beer and $1 healthy sodas in an ice chest bar, staffed temporarily by We Are the West drummer Elizabeth Goodfellow. Beyond the bar was wonderland. The cavern had been transformed with twinkling lights, candles, and rows of white plastic lawn chairs facing the stage but artfully positioned around a battered Mustang awaiting restoration. The “stage” was carpeted floor area brightly lit with clamp-on floods and spots and flanked a sound control room on one side and a green room for artists on the other, both created with draperies. Art adorned the walls and a steady EDM beat pulsed from a twin turntables manned by DJ Jerard. The acoustics were phenomenal.

About 9pm, Kibler and guitarist/vocalist Brett Hool stood at microphones in the music space, and announced what the crowd was waiting to hear: Latin Grammy-winner and Grammy Nominee Gaby Moreno would join We Are the West along the opening band, the Yes Machine with guest singer Sheila Govindarajan. The Yes Machine and Govindarajan warmed up the packed room with CSN-style harmonies and high energy guitar riffs.

Then Gaby Moreno emerged from the drapes, gave a shy smile to the fans sitting a few feet in front of her, and took the SRO crowd on a musical adventure with her phenomenal voice sailing around the concrete walls like angels in flight. With songs mostly from her most recent album, Ilusión, she transformed the garage into a majestic concert hall while retaining her friendly openness with an audience sitting almost close enough to hold her mic stand.

So how did a woman who toured the world with Tracy Chapman and Annie DiFranco, won the Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, was nominated for an Emmy for her music in Parks and Recreation, won a Latin Grammy, and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album find herself singing to a packed crowd in a Santa Monica Parking garage?  The answer is another LA story.

We Are the West has a large and loyal fan base in LA and a growing one nationally as touring has built audiences for their intimate and hauntingly beautiful songs and their uniquely organic approach to performance, often located in acoustic spaces like barns, garages, and operatic concert halls. That reputation led to an invitation to join an LA-based tribute concert to David Bowie, which included Gaby and her husband and drummer, Sebastian Aymanns. The concert was so successful that the promoter took it international with stops in London, Tokyo, and Beijing among others. Along the way, Brett Hool and Gaby and Sebastian got to know one another, and Brett was mesmerized by Gaby’s crystal clear, wide-ranging voice – exactly the kind of voice that would fill a parking garage. He invited her to be a guest artist at one of the Underground Series concerts, and she accepted, having never been to one or knowing exactly what to expect. What she got was love, adoration, and soaring acoustics. What the audience got was an intimate evening with someone they usually see on a distant stage.

The evening ended with We Are the West performing a set that included their famous cell phone song (put a group of people in a closed space, have them call one another on their cell phones with speakers on and you get a feedback effect like flying inside a flock of birds – perfect for an overlay of mystical music), and Goodfellow’s astonishing drumming, cymbal play and singing. As the audience filed out after the show murmuring about the magic night they had just experienced, I overheard one woman say maybe We Are the West had set a new standard and Grammy-winning stars would start calling to ask if they too could sing in the garage. If so, the line in front of the steel door and the bottom of the stairwell with the hand lettered sign will que up a lot earlier.

Patrick O’Heffernan

Previous – La/La: Intro A pool party press conference for an Argentine trio (#1) |  A New York African Bee playing guitar in the backseat of my car in LA? (#2) | LA’s Parlor Social brings the Canadian side to a threatened “NAFTA of Music”(#3)

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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