There is a very special venue on the west side of Los Angeles, actually in Santa Monica, that is celebrating its 56th year of presenting intimate folk, singer/songwriter and guitar centric performances. The place is called McCabes. It’s become an institution AND regular stop for the likes of Laurence Juber, Dan Navarro, David Lindley, Albert Lee, Jennifer Warnes and my favorite singer/songwriter John Gorka. John played two sold out shows last night.
McCabes is really a guitar shop. You can by an acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin or banjo and then take lessons in one the rooms upstairs. The big room in the back has instruments all over the walls where want to be guitarists check out the Martins or the Gibsons. On Fridays and Saturdays they move chairs into the open space, turn down the lights and have concerts. I don’t think the place holds more than a couple of hundred…maybe less. Everyone is close to the stage, which is incredible small but well lit and visible to everyone.
They have a great sound system and a team of very capable audio engineers that dial in the system to accommodate the musicians playing that evening. The piano is the only thing that is marginal AND maybe two hours on the plastic seats but the place is focused on music not comfort. There’s no distractions, no beverages or clinking plates or exterior noise to contend with. McCabes is the real deal. I’ve been going to shows there since I first arrived in Los Angeles about 40 years ago.
Alan Kanter, one of those talented engineers, alerted me to last night’s John Gorka show some weeks ago but I delayed purchasing tickets until it was too late. It’s really nice to have connections…both Alan and John were able to secure a couple of seats for my wife and I. It was a struggle to leave the new Waldrep puppy at home but it was a special treat to see and hear John and his current touring partner Antje Duvekot. Both were in great form. I look forward to having them play in our room at the AXPONA show in Chicago next month.
I’m commenting today because I experienced three different John Gorka performances over the past few days. There was the live event last evening at an intimate guitar ship turned performance space, the new John Gorka album “The Bright Side of Down”, which I played in my ELS automobile system this morning and the 5.1 surround Blu-ray disc that I produced with John and his band about 7 years ago. You might ask, “Which one was best?” The answer is all three!
Listening to live music at a club, regardless of size, is always amplified. John and Antje sang into microphones, their guitars were amplified and the sound came out a couple of large JBL speakers positioned on either side of the stage. They were hung from the ceiling and maybe 6 feet away from the performers. That means that pretty much everything you hear in the audience is non-acoustic sound…even if the guitars and the singing are acoustic!
I didn’t notice the exact types of microphones used last night but they’re usually Shure SM-57s or something similar…definitely not studio microphones. The signal path includes a soundboard, some processing (a mild compressor perhaps) and some artificial reverberation (everybody loves reverb). The sound was good except for the one tune that John played at the piano…and that’s because the piano was out of tune and of marginal quality. The sound comes out some distance from John and is essentially monophonic but that’s what we’re used to in a live performance. It was the same last summer when I heard Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffet in Detroit. You’re not there for the sound.
John’s new album, his first in four years, sounded rich and warm in my car system. I bought my 2005 Acura TL specifically because it has a great sound system AND because it can play 5.1 surround DVD-Audio discs. What could be better? John’s CD is a standard definition stereo release recorded over many months in a studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s polished and very easy to listen to. I found it a little lacking in the high end but nothing really to complain about. It was interesting to hear John sing a few of the tunes with just an acoustic guitar to accompany him and then compare the “produced” versions in my car system. Both are compelling but I think I prefer the raw John because it’s him singing with his heart and not propped with a band and background singers. But what if I could get the real John with pristine sound?
Finally, there’s the Blu-ray and DVD double disc set that we did years ago. There were a number of copies on the merchandise table last evening. Listening to the tracks on that project is the perfect marriage of “live” performances and heart but without the PA system. The sound is incredibly rich and accurate…not to the sound of an a few SM-57s amplified through a set of JBLs but expensive ribbon and condenser microphones digitized at 96 kHz/24-bits using the best hardware on the planet.
The fact that John and his band played the tunes without any multitracking (laying separate parts down one at a time) gives the Blu-ray the same intimacy and freshness as a live performance but without any of the compromises. Yes, it true that there is no audience to play to but I regard that as a reasonable tradeoff to get the other positives.
One of John’s tunes is among the free HD-Audio samples. If you haven’t listened to it, you might want to check it out.