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LA LA Land: Magic in the Hollywood Hills

Music Magic in the Hollywood Hills. Moira Smiley’s album release celebration.

LA is the only county in America cut in half by a mountain range, the Santa Monica Mountains, which separate the 2  million or so people in the San Fernando Valley from the 8 million or so people in the LA Basin. Located on the south side of this mountain range are the Hollywood Hills, a set of low rise peaks and valleys that overlook the city of Hollywood and greater LA.  They are the home of the Hollywood Sign, the Hollywood Bowl, and numerous Hollywood stars and workhorses – actors, producers, directors, and writers.  This past weekend one of those homes was the site of undoubtedly the best album release party I have ever been to. It was the celebration of Unzip the Horizon by folk/Americana/world singer and concert mistress Moira Smiley and it was magic.

The home belonged to Peter Hastings, six-time Emmy-winning television writer, producer, director and actor.  Hastings, who was involved in series like Kung Foo Panda: Legend of Awesomeness, The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants, and Animaniacs among others, is also a very accomplished musician, collector of rare musical instruments and supporter of the music arts.  Part of that support is the “Music Room”, a music venue built into his home high above Hollywood. The Room, as configured for the release concert, featured a stage area with a baby grand piano, backline, mics and music stands for  6 people, a sound engineer (David Weber, Moira’s producer), PA, lights and seating for 70 people in chairs, benches and pews, plus another dozen or so in the balcony.

Every chair, pew, bench and corner was full.  Many of those in the audience were professional singers taking a night off from their own recording and performing to support Moira and enjoy what we all knew was going to be a unique and exhilarating evening.  And it was.

Moira gave us two full sets of songs, stories and love, performing both solo and with  her harmony singers. And, being a consummate music educator and concert mistress, she led the audience in call-and-response and choruses in just about every other song.  Given the voices in the audience, the effect was amazing. A roomful of beautiful voices led by one of the nation’s most beautiful voices. The term “raise the roof would have applied if it wasn’t for the fact that the “Music Room” was already two stories high.  Moira sang A Capella and accompanied herself on guitar, accordion, piano and various body parts she slapped for rhythm. When not singing solo, she was accompanied by Hastings on the standup bass and mandolin, and Chris Wabich, the percussionist who kept pulling interesting objects out of somewhere to create the beats.

Over the two plus hours that Moira entertained us there were many, many highlights.  Each song was preceded by a story of its background, how or why she created it, and its mirroring of deeper meanings  — or not. The evening combined a tale-telling assembly with singing around the campfire, although my campfires never sounded this good.  Moira set the tone from the very beginning by starting not on the stage, but far out in lawn, singing haunting, melodious animal calls as she strolled in through the garden doors and threaded her way to the stage.

The set list for the night ranged from the heart wrenching ballad  “Refugee” to the banjo-led folk song “Wiseman”, to the tongue-in-cheek joke against technology, “Rotary Phone”. Every song was a moving work of art, framed in a beautiful home and lit by a roomful of powerful voices, all of whom seemed to not only know the words and melodies, but the key changes. When you compare what I saw at Peter Hastings home with Moira’s YouTube videos from Disney Concert Hall (1 million views and climbing!) there is little difference emotionally.  She went right to the heart with every note.

But by far, the most moving moment of the night for me was the final song when Moira brought up her singers and pulled others out of the audience for an A Capella version of Lead Belly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Silvy”.  I had seen the video of her performing it in 2016 in the Disney Concert Hall with 1000 singers for the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 28th Annual High School Choir Festival so I knew what to expect. What I didn’t expect was her ability to create the same level of join and emotion in the Music Room as she did in a 2000-seat concert hall.

Four days later, I am still vibrating from that song and all of her music.  I am also vibrating from the people I met as we hung out in the kitchen between sets sampling Hasting’s wine and beer and chips and salsa, swapping stories of concerts, record production stints, and music festivals. It was a natural music high that we were all on.  But most of all I am vibrating from Moira’s ability to bring people into music – to follow her words that “when we are divided, make art”. Peter Hasting’s generosity in not only turning his house over to art, but to design and build it so it can be a place where music flourishes and heals amplified that.  The Hollywood Hills have been called magic by many for their celebrities. But the magic I found there was not in the celebrities, it was in the music.

Patrick O’Heffernan

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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