Los Angeles was originally called “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula” by the “Los Pobladores” who displaced the native tribes and founded the city in 1781. Mercifully, over the centuries the name has changed to “Los Angeles”.
A lot more changed besides the name as LA grew and became a downtown concrete desert. But LA goes through periodic renaissances – vast Spanish farms and orchards, oil production, the rise of the movie industry, the concentration of the aircraft and defense plants. It is going through another renaissance now with high tech and social media companies moving in, bringing thousands of millennials and professionals downtown and dozens of apartment towers filling the skylines to house them. Consequently, every available street-facing space is being converted into a trendy restaurant, wine bar or hot music venue.
The building at 267 South Main Street made the conversion a half-century ago and the city is catching up. It is the home of the Five Star, a classic dive bar, but a classy one. Unlike many beer joints with a mic and a PA in the corner, the Five Star has good music stage, a superb sound system, and a skillful sound board operator. While still a dive bar, the Five Star’s hip clientele, and music-knowledgeable staff attracts talent far beyond garage bands.
Owner, Marc Cordova and soundman Heath Waller told me that The Five Star Bar was originally built in 1910 and has a checkered past including serving as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The bar was bought by Cordova’s dad in 1971 and passed on to Marc, who passionately believes in quality sound and great rock and roll. He loves music and he and Waller will do what it takes to book it and make it sound great.
I was invited to a Five Star Bar night by Whitney Tai, the fast-rising dream pop singer with a gonzo voice and out of this world stage presentation. Originally from New York, I first saw her at LA’s prestigious Hotel Café and again in Hollywood ’s intimate Bar 20. So I was curious when she alerted me to a gig on a Wednesday night in a venue I had never heard of located in an aging building next to a parking lot in downtown LA. When WAZE told me “Your destination is on your left”, I saw nothing on the dark street that said “Five Star Bar”.
There were a handful of people in the Five Star when I walked in, some playing pool, some sitting at bar talking. The bartender, Angela, pulled me a tall one, chatted and then directed my questions about the bands to Waller who was playing pool. He told me the lineup on the poster was all he knew and the music would start in about an hour.
Sure enough, in about 30 minutes musicians and fans began trickling in too and soon the room was about full. Whitney Tai came in, introduced me to some of the band members, sound checks began and the kinda’ grungy 100+ year old venue started humming as the front pool table was moved aside to make room for cocktail tables and stools and more people crowded in.
By the time the first act, pop blues singer Sofia Zorian, positioned herself behind the keyboard and let loose with her six-song solo set, which included the soon-to-be-released Common Boy and the just dropped You Got This All Wrong, the bar was full and rocking. Sofia instantly turned all heads to the stage and got people up and clapping with her swaying body, earworm beats and caressing voice. Saf Ro, the genre-fluid guitarist, singer/songwriter was up next and he took us through his two albums, 21Days 2 Recovery and Paper Tigers. He bent notes and mixing up tempos and forms in a set that pulled you in immediately and then got better and better. It was a tall cool drink of good ol’ rock and roll.
Saf Ro stepped back to let Whitney Tail take the stage, blending into the band she was assembling onstage. Moving into a vacant double keyboard setup was noted film composer and musician, Tim Janssens, playing a guest role for the night. As usual, Tai blew everyone away, taking full advantage of the Five Star’s sound system to belt, soar, sooth and seduce with her silk-glass voice and dreampop lyrics. She gave us a strong set of eight songs including the yet-to-be-released The Cure. Moving confidently in bike shorts, spaghetti string top, a baseball cap over her blue hair, and her trademark silver shoes, she gave one of the best performances I have seen.
When the “Los Pobladores” set up shop in the valley of the Río Porciúncula they had no idea that they were laying the groundwork for what would become the music capital of a new nation where even an old dive bar can deliver gold medal performances. But then again, maybe they did – after all, they brought the first guitars to America and we have not been the same since.