My evening on Friday seemed to consist mainly of mild swings of fortune. Two years in LA have taught me to lunge at empty parking spaces, so I was feeling fortunate when I spotted one on Fairfax not too far below Melrose. My jubilation evaporated as we trudged uphill, noting that there were at least half a dozen empty spots closer to our destination. And of course, upon arrival I discovered that Genghis Cohen, a Chinese restaurant that also features a small performance space, has its own parking lot.
We arrived at about 7:15, with the intention of eating a quick dinner in the restaurant before seeing Richard Julian, who I thought was scheduled to play at 8 p.m. The hostess, an aging Chinese woman, patted my arm repeatedly while apologizing that there was no way we’d be seated within the next forty-five minutes. So we set out onto the streets of West Hollywood hoping to find a quick bite to eat.
After an unsuccessful swing to the east along Melrose, where the only option was a pizza shop whose dÃ©cor and level of cleanliness gave it the appearance of nothing more than a front for a money-laundering operation, it started to rain. We were rebuffed by the hostess of an Argentinean restaurant that was also fully booked. Fortunately, we found our salvation in a wine shop directly across the street, Froma on Melrose.
After a delightful dinner of wine, apricots, cheese and prosciutto, we made our way back up to Genghis Cohen only to discover the stage occupied by an a cappella group singing “Under the Boardwalk.” Retreating to the bar, where we were lucky enough to find a single unoccupied stool and a cheerful bartender, I began to worry that perhaps I had been misinformed about the time of Julian’s performance and we had missed it. My concerns were allayed when Richard himself appeared at the bar next to me, chatted with us briefly, and ordered a glass of tequila (which proceeded to occupy a stool next to him onstage, seemingly untouched, until the very end of his performance).
The performance area at Genghis Cohen is an intimate space that can comfortably seat about 50 people on black benches in front of the low stage. The prevailing theme is lanterns – paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and unlit candle lanterns on tables in front of the benches. It’s not a bad space, but it can sometimes be infuriating because the only thing that separates the occasionally reverent performance space from the chatter of the restaurant is an acoustically transparent burlap curtain. Adding a heavier curtain, as they’ve done at Tangier, would be a vast improvement.
I listened to Richard Julian’s new CD, Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes ,a couple of times while working at my day job. At work it was far too easy to tune out, but the songs come alive when performed in person. Without distractions, it’s much easier to pay attention to the craft in Julian’s songwriting. On stage he was accompanied by Lee Alexander on bass, Pete Thomas on drums, and Mitchell Froom on keyboards, and cleared the stage in the middle of his set to play a few songs alone. He began, appropriately, with “Spring Is Just Around the Corner.”
Although the lyrics of most of Julian’s songs deal with Brooklyn, the jazzy undertones in his songs often make me feel like he’s signing about New Orleans. And while he remains subtle, he seems willing to take a few jabs at America’s sitting president with songs like “Man in the Hole.” He uses internal rhyme (which is often derided as a parlor trick, but rarely fails to impress me) to perfection, with lines like “Life is a dream that comes in between your birthday and your heart attack.”
On stage, Julian seems more focused on his music than anything else. The whites of his eyes were rarely visible beneath heavy eyelids (“bedroom eyes,” as Jeff’s friend Aileen’s grandmother would describe them), and his banter with the crowd was limited and very subdued, but also felt very genuine, unlike some of the canned jokes and forced laughter that often run hand in hand at small performances. He displays an effortless competence on the guitar and a surprisingly strong voice that is often disguised by his relaxed delivery. And the songs were strung together in his set with terrific continuity, so that the entire performance of about twelve songs seemed to slip by in mere minutes.