The Hotel Cafe, located on Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard, is an odd little place. You’re supposed to enter around the back, and they don’t card you when going in – or maybe I just looked over 21. You walk inside, pass through a corridor – a door to the side says “Performers only” – and enter the main hall. There is a stage inside, and six tables close to it, a bunch of chairs clustered around them. That’s it, six tables. And a bar. And you ponder why this place is considered one of the best music venues in the US, popular enough to warrant its own nationwide tour. A look at previous lineups reveals names like KT Tunstall, Imogen Heap, John Mayer, Weezer and Badly Drawn Boy have played there before.
Oh, and they have a really funny FAQ page.
I was there last evening because pals Amy and Andrew told me about Ariana Hall performing there. Both of them knew Ariana personally, and I had met her before through them. We had a nice dinner together, all four of us, at her place last November, one night before she was due to leave for a tour. While I had heard her CD before, I had never seen her perform. Andrew wasn’t able to make it last evening, but Amy and I decided to go. We bus-ed it to Hollywood. Reached early, strolled along Hollywood Boulevard to the venue.
It’s nearly a year since I’ve been in LA, but going down the the Walk of Fame, seeing the bronze stars engraved in the sidewalk below my feet – known and unknown names on them – still feels surreal. I subconsciously try to avoid walking on the stars themselves, it feels kind of disrespectful. I think the day I begin walking on them is the day I stop making a big deal of being in LA. Don’t want that to happen.
We decided to pop into Umami Burgers, where I ordered an Earth burger. Yes, vegetarian, don’t ask. On the patio outside, they were screening ‘Back to the Future II’ for a bunch of fans – the lovely LA weather made it a beautiful night. The food, though meat-deprived, was delicious.
Done with dinner, we arrived at Hotel Cafe to find all the tables taken, just as the reviewer on Yelp had said (“get there early. Or be prepared to stand around holding your beer”). I tried scouting for a strategic location to do just that, but Amy miraculously managed two chairs around a table where a single lady was sitting. A pretty waitress came by – I liked the way she asked “you guys ok?”, instead of “what can I get you?” We were, but I ordered a Corona anyway.
There was someone already on stage – a pretty lady with a guitar, singing sad love songs, with the right amount of humor in between (“That was supposed to be a downer”, she quipped, when the audience whooped in appreciation after a song). Her name, I found out later when looking up the calendar, was Brooke Northrop. She’s pretty darn good – listen to ‘Room to Breathe’ on her page. “Just wait till Ariana starts”, Amy whispered, noticing my reactions. Hmm, talk about expectation-buildup. Brooke finished her set with a Ben Folds cover, and the crowd suddenly began to swell. In about 4 minutes, there were four taps on my shoulder, people asking if I was staying for the next show. Oh yes, I was, thank you.
Amy was right. Ariana live knocked my socks off. She started with ‘Mmm(I Like You)’. I had heard the song before on her website, and it did not do much for me. But live, stripped of the violin and the bells and with just a voice and a guitar, the song bubbled with delicious passion. For the next bunch of songs, a bunch of musicians joined her – a guitarist and occasional banjo/ukulele player, a drummer and a bassist switching between a double bass and an electric bass guitar. Ariana herself switched between the guitar and the piano. Most of the songs she sang were original compositions, some of them were co-written, and nearly all of them were like gut-punches that made me grin like an idiot.
The positive response from the audience was tremendous. At one point, it felt like Ariana knew everyone in there; knowing her, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched. One of the songs that stood out for me was a musical interpretation of a Tony Barnstone poem called ‘The War is Over’, because of the playful way it began, and the words. Umm, not that I knew who Tony Barnstone was before Ariana mentioned the source, his book Tongue of War, a collection of poems on World War II. Another song had the musicians step away from the microphones to go totally unplugged, made possible only because of the intimacy the venue offered. Every note, every strum rang clearly through the hall, and the applause at the end of it was impressive. Amy’s whoops, for the record, put everyone else’s to shame. I tried matching up, but a recent cold had soaked away my vocal chords. Ariana went on to play one of her songs from the movie Au Pair Kansas, and ended her set with a two-song medley, one of which was from an upcoming Judd Apatow movie. (Where she sings. And plays herself. This woman is unstoppable.)
At the end of it all, Ariana sang out her thank-you’s, but we did not let her go that easy. She wrapped it up with a single-song encore – which I found a bit of a downer, but hey, you can’t have it all. I’ve decided I like Hotel Cafe a lot, and apparently the Pierces are playing there on January 17th. For the $15 admission fee and the kind of vibe about the place, it’s totally worth the price of admission. I am so there.
Then I got back home and ironed clothes until 2 AM, with ‘Mmm (I Like You) playing in my head.
(Not from yesterday, but a good live performance of the song by her. Ignore the noise of the crowd.)