Someday I really must write at length about the great music coming out of Laguna Beach, which I'm dubbing the Laguna Renaissance, if only because it sounds better than “Stuff Mike Boehm Wrote About 15 Years Ago.” The LA Timescritic has been gushing over such artists as Honk alum Richard Stekol for more than a decade; in comparison, I was only reintroduced to the Laguna scene a few years ago via Dan Yablonka, whose music reminds me of things I liked about Mike Nesmith, Moby Grape, Gene Clark, maybe Gordon Lightfoot and others of that country/folkish singer/songwriter era. It also makes a good case for digital media—if his albums were on vinyl, I'd have worn out the grooves by now.
Tustinian Yablonka moved to Laguna in the mid-'70s, after hearing Stekol and other post-Honk folks play. Back then, he simply wanted to get closer to that music, but today the 51-year-old is regarded as a Laguna old-timer himself, often helping out at Beth Fitchet Wood's consistently engaging Tuesday night songwriter's showcase at the Marine Room. His two previous albums, Stand Up and particularly Traces of Blue, are the sort of great music that can result from hard times, which in Yablonka's case was a double whammy of substance abuse and cancer that required 13 surgeries. As he told me when I interviewed him last year, “You hear a lot of sad love songs on my albums, but it's not because I had 15 failed relationships. It's more about not finding anything that rhymed with metastatic melanoma.”
Recording his current Bordertown album, he says now, “I was in a happier place, and it was an easier record to make. Most of what you hear is first takes.”
So if Traces of Blue was Yablonka's Bring the Family on the John Hiatt Scale of Painful Revelation, then Bordertown is his Perfectly Good Guitar. It's a fine album, with Yablonka's sonorous voice and empathetic playing from above and steel guitar master Greg Leisz, but less visceral. The biggest tale of betrayal on the album, “No Merci Beaucoup, Au Revoir” didn't come from his pillow but from his TV, watching New Orleans drown.
“A lot of people over six years have realized this administration is awful, but I've been pissed off since election night 2000,” he says. “Yet even after their endless excuses and lies, I was in disbelief over their lack of response to Katrina. They're still not doing the job, and they're trying to tell the world what to do?”
You can probably expect that song Tuesday, when Yablonka sits down for a set of his own with Stekol and Wood—though Wood pushes the performers to try new things.
“Beth looks at it as a night where people can experiment and grow in areas they might feel uncertain about. Sometimes she'll ask me to sit in on slide guitar, and I'll say, 'But I'm better on regular guitar.' She says, 'That's the point.'
“The Laguna Beach musical community was really a community. It used to be that at Christmastime every year you could count on over a hundred musicians showing up at the Honk house. Times changed, but I think the Marine Room has brought a lot of that back.”
Dan Yablonka performs with Beth Fitchet Wood and others at the Marine Room, 214 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3027. Tues., 8 p.m. Free; there's cookies even. 21+. Those interested in performing at the showcase should contact Ms. Fitchet Wood through her website at www.bethfitchetwood.com.