Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Ash Grove



Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of The Ash Grove. The legendary folk and blues club on Melrose in Los Angeles was a Mecca for all types of musicians and progressive causes from the late 50s until the early 70s. Not surprisingly, it's heyday was in the late 60s. It was the quintessential music club. Let me take you there for just a minute. Please indulge me because I want to share with you the closest thing to Nirvana I have found.
After a quick drive through Laurel Canyon, it takes only about 10 minutes to cross Santa Monica Blvd; go up Fairfax till Melrose and park in the closed gas station across the street from the club. It's 7:45 now so get out your student discount card because you can get in for $3.00 and have a couple of bucks left for a drink or two. If we hurry, we might find two seats at the bar up front of the stage. Check out the people here; lots of students, but many more musicians, all ages. Leftover beatniks, purists, Socialists, all ethnicities. The lights dim and the buzz stops. A deep, rich, textured voice begins, "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Ash Grove is proud to present..." It could be Howlin' Wolf or Taj Mahal, Big Mama Thornton or Big Boy Crudup. The Chambers Brothers, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bukka White, Jessie Fuller or Spider John Koerner. Sometimes we'd see bands like Spirit or Canned Heat. Occasionally the Firesign Theater or the Angry Arts Festival. Everyone in traditional, blues, folk, folk-rock, bluegrass, and anything remotely close played The Ash Grove.
On Sunday afternoons, after a few solid hours of study in the UCLA research library, I'd go home by way of The Ash Grove. Often, Taj Mahal was teaching someone guitar and I'd slip in quietly going past the small record store up front and sit in the back row while the sunlight filtered in through a fan in the roof. Taj often demonstrated a particular riff and then went off himself. Later on he'd answer the questions of a budding harp player. "Hey Taj, what do you think about soaking harps, ever do that?" "Oh I've heard about all that, soak 'em in beer, in water. I don't know if it does any good. You ever do it?"
Occasionally you could catch Big Mama Thornton who'd stop by to sign a contract or pick up a check.
So many memorable nights. Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachael, Brownie and Sonny, J. B. Hutto and the incomparable Son House.
More to follow.

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