I did not grow up in San Diego, but its vibrant and varied music scene has nurtured me — personally and professionally — since moving here in my late teens. And what I loved about the music scene then is exactly what I love about it now, several decades later.
For starters, there’s a deep feeling of community that’s often absent in other cities. We’re big enough to be home to scores of young and veteran musicians, but small enough that there’s a genuine sense of connectivity between many of them and us. And, happily, they are almost everywhere.
Go for a walk in Encinitas or Del Mar, and you may bump into blink-182 co-founder Tom DeLonge.
Go for a walk in Talmadge, and you may bump into internationally celebrated jazz saxophonist Charles McPherson.
And go into almost any Trader Joe’s store in the county, and you will bump into several members of several indie-rock bands, either as employees, customers, or both.
Of course, this may hold true at Trader Joe’s stores in other cities. Regardless, I fondly recall hearing two cashiers at the Hillcrest Trader Joe’s avidly discussing the merits of Van Morrison’s “His Band and The Street Choir,” a 1970 album that preceded their births by at least two decades. (Had I not been in a rush to go to a concert, I would have shared with them that Morrison’s former wife, Janet Planet, had been a longtime Kensington resident — and a neighbor of former Commander Cody/Magic Sam bassist Bruce Barlow.)
As in other locales, there have been dozens of live-music venues that have come and gone over the years here, and I attended memorable concerts at all of them. They range from Anthology, the Bacchanal, Croce’s, 4th&B and Wabash Hall to Better Worlde Galleria, Green Circle Bar, Iguanas, International Blend and the Old Time Cafe.
But there has also been welcome continuity, thanks to venues and concert series that have endured for decades.
Some of the most notable include: the Belly Up Tavern, (which this year celebrates its 44th anniversary); Humphreys Concerts by the Bay (37); SOMA (32); indie-rock haven the Casbah and the La Jolla Athenaeum’s jazz series (both 29); Java Joe’s (26); World Beat Cultural Center (25); Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI Auditorium (22); Fresh Sound (21) and Dizzy’s (18).
All of these venues and series are operated by longtime San Diegans, who have deep roots in the communities they serve. So are AMSDconcerts, Songwriters Acoustic Nights, the weekly Jazz Happy Hour at the Handlery Hotel’s 950 Lounge, the annual Adams Avenue Street Fair and Adams Avenue Unplugged, and a good number more.
And while major concerts in many other cities are often produced by out-of-town promoters, the San Diego offices of Live Nation (which owns Mattress Firm Amphitheatre and House of Blues here) and AEG Entertainment (which owns a controlling interest in Valley View Casino Center and books Humphreys Concerts by the Bay) are both operated by longtime locals — respectively, Candace Mandracia and John Wojas — who live and work here.
Perhaps paradoxically, part of what makes the San Diego music scene so appealing is precisely what that scene is not and, thankfully, has never been.
It’s not Los Angeles or New York, where cutthroat competition is constant, poseurs hover in every doorway, hype rules and urban sprawl and standstill traffic are the norm.
It’s not a headquarters for the music industry, or for the artificial sense of reality that industry often engenders with its nonstop search for the latest flavor-of-the month.
But San Diego is a great place for artists and aspiring artists to learn and hone their craft. And they can do so at their own pace, with a mutual support system that could only exist away from the glare and pressures of the music industry.
San Diego is also a great place to play gigs, jam, write songs, record in affordable studios, take chances and keep trying and improving. Moreover, whether young musicians here realize it or not, there’s a rich legacy from which to draw inspiration.
Just how rich is demonstrated by a quick sampling of the notable acts to come out of San Diego over the years.
Arthur Blythe to Frank Zappa
San Diego’s music scene in the 1950s was so robust, Zappa told me in a 1984 Union-Tribune interview, that “kids today would riot” if they knew how much better it was back then. (My first concert after moving to San Diego, incidentally, was by Zappa and Captain Beefheart at Golden Hall on their sole joint tour.)
Whether by coincidence or not, an impressive number of virtuoso guitarists emerged from San Diego in Zappa’s wake. A partial list includes Jennifer Batten, Mike Keneally, Peter Sprague, Stevie Salas, Jaime Valle, Billy Thompson, Jamie Kime, Craig Goldie, Jim Soldi, Craig Bartock, Jake E. Lee, Bob Boss, Warren DeMartini, Marc Intravia, Patrick Yandall and more.
Perhaps even more impressive is the sheer variety of musical talent that has been based in San Diego, some homegrown, others transplants from other places. (To my very good fortune, I have been privileged to interview and write about nearly all of them; the links above and below in this article are to some of my previous stories on these artists.)
They include Nickel Creek, Diamanda Galas, Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, Harry Partch, Bert Turetzky, Gregory Porter, Switchfoot, P.O.D., Jewel, Cecil Lytle, Nathan East, Julieta Venegas, Jack Tempchin, Iron Butterfly, Rosie Flores, Steven Schick, Michael Franks, Karl Denson, A.J. Croce, Dennis Caplinger, Nick Cannon, Sandi Patti, El Vez, Frankie J, Rosie & The Originals, Stephen Bishop, Earl Thomas, The Cascades, Steve Poltz, The Locust, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Candye Kane and an array of similarly varied artists.
Witness the former San Diegans who have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, among them Zappa, Tom Waits, Byrds’ alum Chris Hillman, The Doors’ Jim Morrison, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon, Heart’s Nancy and Ann Wilson, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Matt Cameron and Mike McCready.
Then there is the impressive roster of active jazz artists who got their start here, including Mike Wofford, Jack Costanzo, Bob Magnusson, Mark Dresser, Jim Plank, Joshua White, Nathan Hubbard, Kevyn Lettau, Leonard Patton and a good number more. Holly Hofmann and Gilbert Castellanos are two standout musicians who also rank among San Diego’s top jazz concert promoters.
Former area jazz greats who have passed away include Daniel Jackson, Harold Land, Arthur Blythe, John Guerin, Fro Brigham, Leon Petties, Joe Marillo, Hollis Gentry III and Carl Evans, Jr., along with such legendary transplants from other cities as James Moody, Barney Kessel and the recently deceased Mundell Lowe. At 89, sax dynamo Anthony Ortega appears to be San Diego’s most senior jazz artist who still performs on a weekly basis.
With the exception of the Rock Hall inductees, almost all of the above lists could be significantly expanded and still be incomplete. Either way, they underscore that fact that, for decades, San Diego musicians who wanted to achieve prominence would — by necessity — move, most often to Los Angeles or New York.
Iron Butterfly and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap both moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, while Bob Mosley headed to the Bay Area to co-found Moby Grape and Joel Scott Hill went to L.A. and joined Canned Heat.
In the 1970s, the San Diego bands Glory and Horsefeathers also embarked for L.A., although neither seemed to benefit in the least from their relocation. The Zeros fared somewhat better after moving to San Francisco that same decade, but not by much.
The tide began to turn in the 1980s, when three San Diego bands signed national record deals. Those three — the Beat Farmers, the Paladins and Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper — toured relentlessly. But, preferring the quality of life here, they decided to remain San Diego residents.
By doing so, they set an example for the members of blink-182, Rocket From The Crypt, Big Mountain, P.O.D. and other area bands, which would later sign major record deals and also tour relentlessly, but not move away. The independence they achieved was an added bonus.
Or, as Nixon told me in 1995: “We stayed right here; up in L.A., they tell you what to do! You miss the L.A. parties and hanging out and stuff. And that’s probably good, because we can get in plenty of trouble down here.”
Early ’80s renaissance
The rise of Nixon and the Beat Farmers in the mid-1980s followed an early ’80s surge that saw a host of San Diego bands sign national recording contracts. They included Trees, DFX2, The Unknowns, The Puppies and Joey Harris & The Speedsters.
Alas, none of those bands achieved the broader impact they deserved. This was primarily due to the ineptitude of the record labels did almost nothing to promote them or failed to release their albums altogether — leading some here to dub MCA Records “Music Cemetery of America.”
But the fact that so many San Diego bands were signed, seemingly at once, was notable and a source of pride. (So was Street Scene, the homegrown music festival that debuted in 1984 and thrived for two decades before financial losses led to its demise after the event’s 25th anniversary edition in 2009.)
It was a phenomenon that would be repeated in the 1990s, when such local favorites as Rocket From The Crypt, blink-182, Jewel, The Rugburns, Lucy’s Fur Coat, rust, Asphalt Ballet, Unwritten Law and jazz guitarist Evan Marks were among those signed to national recording contracts. This time around, a number of those acts earned stardom far beyond San Diego.
A similar cyclical surge seems to occur here about once a decade, even now that record companies and contracts have diminished considerably in importance. These surges tend to pivot around a key band or musician, who in turn inspires a scene that grows around them exponentially. Those scenes have consistently made me proud to be a San Diegan.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Country Dick Montana was a major driving force, first in The Penetrators, then the Beat Farmers, which led to such spinoff bands as The Incredible Hayseeds, Country Dick's Petting Zoo, The Pleasure Barons and Country Dick's Garage.
There wasn’t much of a scene when he started, so Montana — who died in 1995, mid-concert, with the Beat Farmers — helped create one. He formed bands, booked shows and created music ‘zines. He even opened a used record store-cum-hangout, Monty Rocker’s, that was every bit as significant as Folk Arts, Arcade, Off The Record, M-Theory and the other stores that provided area music fans with a pivotal resource.
Montana’s zeal to promote the local scene was rivaled, coincidentally, by fellow Beat Farmer Buddy Blue, who led multiple bands, worked as a music critic (including for the Union-Tribune) and booked such venues as Club Mirage and Rio’s.
‘The next Seattle’
Rocket From The Crypt mastermind John Reis did much the same in the 1990s. That was the same decade that saw such San Diego bands — and Casbah regulars — as Three Mile Pilot, rust, aMiniature, Lucy’s Fur Coat and Trumans Water all signed to national record deals.
Like other musicians and bands here at the time, Reis was a beneficiary of the San Diego record label Cargo/Headhunter, which had such an impact that we briefly became “the next Seattle,” with major record labels swooping down. And, like many other musicians here, then and now, he has been a beneficiary of airplay and support from Michael Halloran, Tim Pyles, Lou Niles, Cathryn Beeks and other savvy local radio mainstays who have long championed homegrown music.
In addition to Rocket, Reis has led the bands Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, The Sultans, The Night Marchers and, most recently, Swami John Reis & The Blind Shake. He also heads Swami Records and is a part-owner of North Park’s Bar Pink.
Then there’s Black Heart Procession and Pinback co-founder Pall Jenkins — whose other bands have included Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects, Ugly Casanova and Three Mile Pilot — and Pinback’s Rob Crow, also a member of Goblin Cock, Alpha Males, Fantasy Mission Force, Cthugha, Holy Smokes, Other Men, The Ladies and Remote Action Sequence Project.
In more recent years, Gilbert Castellanos, Al Howard and the husband-and-wife team of Pat and Lety Beers of the Schizophonics have been the catalysts for vibrant scenes here that have produced a stream of young gifted San Diego music acts. A good number of them have been honored at the San Diego Music Awards, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015 and returns for its 2018 edition on March 19 at House of Blues.
Jeff Berkley, Ben Moore, Justin Pearson, Marti Amado and Sven-Erik Seaholm are among the talented local recording producers and engineers who have played a key role in helping myriad San Diego bands and solo artists document their music. In turn, a fair number of those artists have been covered in a variety of local print and online publications, most notably the 17-year-old San Diego Troubadour.
And there are few more dedicated champions of the local scene than Shambles’ band co-founder Bart Mendoza. He curates both the annual “Sounds Like San Diego” concerts at Carlsbad’s Museum of Making Music and the dozen volume-strong “Staring at the Sun” album compilation series.
Tijuana — the former home to Carlos Santana and Julieta Venegas — is also hopping, thanks to the pioneering Nortec Collective Presents Bostich & Fussible, San Pedro El Cortez, Mint Field, Pablo Dodero and Grenda.
As a teenager in the early 1960s, Santana would come from Tijuana to gaze longingly at the Gibson and Fender guitars in the window of Apex Music in downtown San Diego. “I could totally see my future,” he recalled in 2013.
Santana moved to San Francisco decades ago. Apex Music is now located in Rolando. And the future here should be bright indeed, thanks to a rising generation of gifted area artists who are providing sound reasons to love the San Diego music scene anew.