Cary Brothers and Ingrid Michaelson hit Phoenix on the Hotel Cafe Tour
Los Angeles is, at best, a transient city filled with transitory dreamers. They come in all varieties these days: actors from Sioux Falls, rockers from Detroit, photographers from Reno, and immigrants from places most of us will never bother to find on a map.
Consequently, the people in the City of Angels are so disparate, so randomly tossed into the unnatural microcosm that is LaLa Land, that something like community becomes a word so foreign that no language can find it comforting. The Hotel Café, a former Hollywood coffee shop, evolved out of this into what many feel is the best singer-songwriter haunt on the West Coast, a home away from home where someone like Cary Brothers — who achieved indie infamy when his song "Blue Eyes" became a hit off the Garden State soundtrack — can always come back to for camaraderie and artistic support. Brothers' best friend and fellow Hotel Café regular Joshua Radin calls it, "our Cheers, but with guitars," and, while that might sound like a simplistic and personal sentiment, it's probably the best summary of how the Hotel Café Tour, spawned by the venue and currently in its third incarnation, was imagined into this world.
Brothers, who recently took time to chat over the phone from his front porch on a meteorologically temperamental L.A. afternoon, recalls how the idea struck him. "After a while, I realized there was so much great talent in that room on a Saturday night," he says. "What if we took a typical Saturday night at the Hotel Café, put it on a tour bus, and drove around the country? It was really just as simple as that."
Four years later, Brothers' musical love baby has learned to do a hell of a lot more than walk; he will now lead his rotating cavalcade of artists — including Radin, Ingrid Michaelson, Greg Laswell, and Jim Bianco — across the U.S., then over to the U.K., Europe, and, finally, Japan. The Hotel Café Tour, which began as an artistic movement to garner strength from numbers, has gone global.
"It's almost like a support system," says Laswell, who took a break from working on his latest album in San Diego to talk about Hotel Café itself and, by extension, the tour that is built upon its communal principles of encouragement, cooperation, and collaboration.
For example, the pressure to pack a room no longer rests squarely on what are often a relatively unproven artist's shoulders. "You share it with all your friends," Brothers says. "Most nights end up selling out, so it becomes more about what's happening onstage rather than whatever they can [do] to bring in an audience."
The Hotel Café's network of musical allies has exponentially grown over the past couple of years, though, much of this due to an influx of serious talent from around the country, looking to catch the ear of movie and television music supervisors who stalk the venue for new voices — which means it's becoming increasingly difficult to choose who gets to come along or drop in for short stints on each tour. Brothers, who is one of five co-owners of the tour, says, "Being the producer is the easy part, but being a friend of artists who can't play is tough." Those who make the cut do have one thing in common, besides being songwriters. "There's a shared knowledge of what it's like to" — Brothers pauses, searching for the right words — "not be successful." He laughs. "There's definitely shared knowledge of the hard work that went into getting here."
While there are many clamoring to get an invite from Brothers and the other co-owners, some, like Michaelson — who found success when some of her songs wound up on Grey's Anatomy — turn to the tour for a different kind of support than what is generally considered most valuable to artists. "Tour bus?" she says. "Yep, sign me up. I'm looking forward to the community and sleep, and a tour bus translates to a lot of sleep in my mind. I hope. I can't stress the no-driving thing enough."
Michaelson, who is the only other artist besides Brothers to make every U.S. stop on the tour this year, is also looking forward to the absence of the "cattiness" she usually finds on tours. "With so many musicians doing their own thing, there's no opportunity for competitiveness. That's very alluring to me."
"There are no egos," says Radin, who's only doing 21/2 weeks of dates (not including this week's Tempe gig) because, like Laswell, he has to finish his next album. "It's never about who gets more time onstage, who plays first, who plays last, who's the headliner. There's none of that." Artists play in short rotations, starting over halfway through, so even the opener gets to play in the middle of the night to a great crowd.
Then it's back to the tour bus, which everybody on the Hotel Café Tour shares (along with a house band). What happens onstage is for the audience, but it's the tour bus that makes this, as Brothers calls it, a "summer camp for musicians." It's why, he says, everybody wants to do the tour; it's a "release," a vacation from even your own tours.
Rachael Yamagata, who played several dates on the first Hotel Café Tour and went the distance with Brothers on the second, laughs at the memories she can actually conjure, though the dearth of detail says a lot more about those crazy nights than she can. "It truly is just like summer camp," she agrees. "Waking up in your underwear, Sharpie-ing people in the middle of the night, then having morning coffee with 12 laptops going."
Brothers laughs loudly when pressed for his own revelations about those late-night shenanigans and the stories of hard-partying that Michaelson says she's sworn to secrecy about. "What happens on the tour bus stays on the tour bus," he intones. Then, "When you're on a road trip across the country and your bed is 50 feet from the bar, you're having a good time. It's just that simple."
Radin scoffs at the suggestion that the bar is 50 feet from anybody's bed, though. "The bus is the bar." Still, he insists he wasn't so wild in past years, and it can't be nearly as wild as the mythology within the community claims; that's because, he points out, it can't just be the gig, then drinking and partying afterwards. "It's getting up at 7 a.m. and playing the early-morning TV show in that town, then going to a radio station and playing there, then going to do interviews, then soundcheck," he says. By the end of the day, sometimes you've done five shows. You're exhausted."
The Hotel Café Tour itself, at least if those who call the Hollywood venue their home have their way, will continue in perpetuity, growing as those who helped build it hopefully find more success. Brothers envisions the movement taking on a life of its own, even beyond him, so that the Hotel Café Tour's name alone begins to mean something to audiences.
"Branding is such a corporate-sounding word," he says. "It sounds like the antithesis of what we're doing, but it's the one thing that really describes what I want to do with this, which is, have these shows be about a night of music itself as much as any individual."
It's a novel idea, and one he looks to be pulling off.
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