Thursday, November 15, 2007
The sweaty conga player runs over to the drummer’s floor tom and bangs an up-tempo, samba-like beat. The crowd at the Fox Theater in Salinas instantly starts jumping and hollering as the Argentinean ska band busts into Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ hit song, “El Matador.” Flavio, the former bass player for the Cadillacs, looks toward the balcony; the stage lights glare off his black sunglasses. He strums his green, left-handed guitar and sings the bombastic track, which received the MTV Latino Video Music Award in 1994.
Although they had to wait two hours before Flavio took the stage, the Los Fabulosos Cadillacs fans present seem pumped up to rock out with remnants of the renowned Latin band in their hometown.
After the show, Salinas resident Xavier Velazquez hangs out in the carpeted lounge of the art deco theater. Empty plastic beer cups sit on round tables. Security guards in red ties and white shirts straighten chairs. Dance music booms in the background. As his friends talk about going to Denny’s, Velazquez explains that he hardly ever hears live music in Salinas. “It’s very rare because there aren’t shows around here,” he says. “We have to go to Monterey just to listen to music.”
The Fox has the potential to fill a musical void in the Monterey County’s largest city. Live music in Salinas has been migratory, moving from cafés and restaurants, but never finding a permanent home. Local bands end up performing in Monterey or Santa Cruz. Touring acts pass by 150,000-population Salinas on their way to San Francisco or Los Angeles. But the city may be on the cusp of a musical resurgence.
On the list
Mayor Dennis Donohue passionately backs expansion of the city’s art and music scene. New fees and zoning changes have made it easier and less expensive to get a live entertainment permit. Promoters say they are getting support from City Hall instead of resistance.
“For a long time there was politics against it,” says Salinas-based music promoter Hector Villalobos. “Now the scene is changing and the scene is opening up again. Hopefully the community will support it – not only by attending but also by being tolerant.”
Most recently, Villalobos’ company Villalobos Enterprises brought Mexican superstar Luis Miguel to the Salinas Sports Complex. Miguel, who drew a crowd of about 6,000, is the second-best selling Spanish-language artist in history, behind Julio Iglesias.
Dating back to at least the 1980s, Salinas has been of a stopover for Latin legends. Villalobos says he brought Mexican singer José José (el Principe de la Canción – the Prince of Song) to Sherwood Hall in 1986 and Tejano queen Selena to the Rodeo Grounds in 1994.
Around town, regional Mexican bandas equipped with full horn sections and matching suits still serenade crowds at East Salinas restaurant Los Arcos de Alisal and nightclub Copacabana. The latter venue is tucked away “on the other side of the tracks” from Oldtown at the end of an abandoned strip of buildings on Soledad Street. The club has music on Saturday nights.
In terms of English-language acts, the largest Salinas concert in recent history was in 2005 when The Eagles rallied a crowd of 16,665 at the Sports Complex. This past July, David Drew Productions brought hip-hop soul singer Mary J. Blige to the Sports Complex. Ticket sales fell short of expectations.
The Sports Complex has limitations, Villalobos says, because it’s outdoors, and amplified music is supposed to end by 10pm (The City Council gave Villalobos an extra hour for Luis Miguel). “I think the audience is here,” Villalobos says. “We just lack the right venue for people to come.”
Besides drunken karaoke voices bellowing from the Alisal Street bar the King’s Den, Oldtown usually is quiet. Tonight, however, there is no shortage of melodies along Main Street. As part of First Fridays Art Walk, acoustic songwriters strum their guitars in Rollick’s Specialty Coffee and Internet and Halltree Antique Mall. Without true venues, unconventional spaces become music halls.
Standing in front of women’s boutique Girl-Lee, Darryl Cornell and members of bluegrass band The Courthouse Ramblers harmonize to “Bye Bye Love.” Cornell says the band plays regularly at Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, and that they could play in the Salinas cafés, but that would be for free. The city doesn’t allow busking, so people can’t even throw change in Cornell’s guitar case.
Even if they did have gigs here, bassist Keith Hayes doesn’t know whether people would come. “Everyone still has the mindset ‘Let’s go to Monterey,’ ” Hayes says.
Salinas indie bands have a similar problem. John Brandow, front man for punk band The Achievement, says it’s difficult to organize shows in Salinas, especially for hardcore bands. “If you are a local kid in a killer thrash band you are screwed,” Brandow says. “You play Watsonville. You play Santa Cruz.”
Brandow says he can rent Salinas bounce house venue Jump N Around, but he has to have a popular punk headliner like Los Dryheavers to draw enough kids to pay for the space. He adds that he has turned down numerous touring punk bands that wanted to play in Salinas. “There is not enough big bands coming to where smaller local bands get to open for them and get that exposure,” Brandow says.
One emerging venue for future shows is the Breadbox Recreation Center. The city of Salinas sponsored a punk show at the Breadbox Nov. 10 with bands including The Achievement and Argentinean rocker Boom Boom Kid.
As for why Salinas doesn’t have more music venues, Brandow and others blame the city for its past permitting process. Live entertainment permits used to go before the Planning Commission and an application cost more than $2,000. A year ago, the City streamlined the process and in July lowered its application fees. If the live entertainment application is approved administratively it costs $244; it’s $988 if a public hearing is required.
In addition, the city’s zoning code doesn’t require a permit for music in downtown restaurants and cafés so long as the businesses follow certain conditions, such as not charging a cover and keeping the volume below 65 decibels.
“I think the city made an effort to try to encourage these kind of uses and make the process a little easier,” says Tara Hullinger, senior planner for the city.
Fox leads the way
The Fox Theater is the latest venue to get the green light from the city for live entertainment. It reopened Memorial Day weekend with two sold-out George Lopez comedy shows. The historic theater has room for hundreds of dancing feet on its tiered floor. For a seated performance, the theater can hold more than 1,000.
Theater owner Anthony Lane also runs The Planet in Monterey. He says music fans can count on between four and six concerts a month at the newly renovated theater. “We want to use the theater not only like a banquet facility, but a facility where… we can bring in music and shows,” he says.
The Fox and its promoters are booking musicians from a variety genres, including hip-hop group The Pack (made famous by the skate footwear tribute “Vans”) on Nov. 21, country singer Charlie Daniels on Dec. 5 and Latin R&B and rock bands Tierra and Malo on Dec. 8. Promociones Caney, which booked Flavio of the Cadillacs, is also bringing in Mexican bandas regularly. Many shows will be open to all ages.
With the revamping of the Fox and a more music-friendly City Hall, the Salinas’ music prospects look upbeat. But Lane says he needs people to not only check out the music but to help cultivate the Fox’s reputation. “Come to the theater with the frame of mind that they are going to enjoy a show,” he says. “If we go problem free then it will become a successful venue.”