Past the kitschy Chuck Norris photos and vintage roller skates, to the left of the 5-foot, papier-mâché sea monster, California Lions unleashed their first folky, surf-inspired songs. The location was the backroom of Seal Beach's surf and kind-finds shop, Canvas, for the band's late-February CD-release party for their self-titled, Kickstarter-funded EP.
The stage, with its black-and-white surf-photo backdrop adorned with broken-off boards, was swell. Accompanied by a printed program to help the stories unfold, California Lions transported friends, family and fans via song on a journey to sleepy California surf spots.
There were shout outs to Big Sur's Willow Creek, Santa Barbara and the Malibu pier, even some name-dropping. Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond and Darby Crash got in on the gnar.
But by the second set, the California Lions unveiled their new musical direction, even though the crowd was barely acquainted with the newish band's early stuff from 15 minutes ago. It was a bittersweet farewell with an elated ending.
California Lions started as a side project in 2011 for New Fidelity front man Dan Perkins, who's also the owner of vegan guitar-strap company Couch, and New Fidelity's producer Brad Gordon. The duo's supplemental songs didn't fit New Fidelity's mod, 1960s-influenced power pop, but were swooped up for TV shows such as MTV's Teen Mom and America's Got Talent.
Not long after, New Fidelity bassist Roberto Escobar joined–he also did time in the quirky indie-rock band Lo-Fi Champion with Perkins a decade ago. Soon after, an early version of the Lions, with drummer Luis Renteria of Long Beach's Fathers & Suns and vocalist Justine Kragen of LA band Vermouth, played a show at the Prospector in Long Beach. The opening act, This Lake, were singer Carina Downing and drummer Alvaro Rodriguez, who both also played in local band the Clouds.
Perkins had already heard Downing singing solo at the Long Beach Art Walk and was instantly smitten by her vocal timbre and pristine pitch. "Her voice is really soaring and beautiful," Perkins says. "I noticed when she was playing out in the street, all kinds of people–hip kids, little kids, married couples, everyone–were stopping to hear her sing."
At the Prospector show, Escobar fell equally into adoration. "I loved her voice immediately," Escobar says. When Justine departed for other commitments, Perkins recruited Downing. Not long after, New Fidelity fizzled.
Gordon started playing shows with LA band That Dog and touring with additional acts. The sought-after multi-instrumentalist and producer's schedule got more cramped when he took on the soundtrack to the IFC animated series Out There, starring Fred Armisen and Megan Mullally.
To fill out the band's sound and lineup, the Lions looked to R. Scott Dibble, known for his old-school, soul-drenched Hammond organ-style chops on keys in New Fidelity, 00 Soul and Helmut Stein Experience. Once the Lions started booking more shows, Rodriguez replaced Renteria on sticks. Gordon still joins the band when his schedule allows.
The band's lineup wasn't the only transformation. The California Lions' sound evolved into a modern take on northern soul, fueled by Dibble's harmonic percussion. Downing, a self-proclaimed "quiet" singer, rose to the challenge, calling up her inner girl-group diva to add a retro-cool vibe. "Singing with the volume and intensity of soul music makes you feel alive," she says, thankful for a lung workout.
California Lions added covers of the Contours, Brenda Holloway and Frank Wilson's elusive northern-soul classic "Do I Love You," which they debuted during their second set at Canvas to an amped crowd.
Building on that momentum, the new horn section debuts when the band open for Costa Mesa soul rebels Suedehead on Saturday at Alex's Bar in Long Beach. In June, the Lions are booked for Long Beach's Ink and Iron Festival, sharing a stage with Black Joe Lewis and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
California Lions are ready to roar. "It's rock & roll," Perkins says, taking the band's new direction in stride. "You've got to let loose. It's Saturday night always, if you're doing it right."
California Lions perform with Suedehead and the Green Machines at Alex's Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $8. 21+.