Musical hotspots seem to circulate around the country. Hair metal was birthed along the Sunset Strip in late-1980s Los Angeles, but before those boys started teasing their hair and wearing makeup there was a counter-culture movement (mostly make-up free) that happened decades earlier and just a few miles further west.
Laurel Canyon shoots upward from an intersection with Sunset Boulevard, eventually ending at Mulholland Drive. It's a small, lightly wooded community close to Hollywood, but worlds away in terms of attitude and lifestyle. In the mid-1960s it became the place to be for artists and musicians harboring a folk background, but looking for inspiration beyond the then-fading musical style. Word of mouth spread talk that something special was happening musically in those foothills, a place where folk music was indeed undergoing a progressive change.
Artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell came from Canada, while New Yorker Carole King, North Carolina boy James Taylor, Britton Graham Nash, and a host of others descended on the canyon to create, during a 10-year period -- a body of work that perhaps remains unmatched anywhere. Amazingly, many of these artists would go on to become some of the biggest names in musical history -- and most, eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members. The music these artists created during this period is that basis for "Live From Laurel Canyon" -- Songs & Stories of American Folk-Rock, a 90-minute show featuring many of the iconic songs composed in that storied atmosphere.
"Most of us grew up with a lot of this music," explains Khani Cole, a Valley resident and creator of the show along with Brian Chartrand, and Kip Fox. "It was a unique, special time musically in that geographic area. All these people were neighbors. They hung out together, wrote songs together, rehearsed together, had relationships together. They were young and creative and it [made for a] really unique time. They created a lot of great stuff that is still with us and has stood the test of time."
It's hard to imagine a more interlocked community. Joni Mitchell drew album covers and wrote songs for CSN&Y. Graham Nash composed "Our House" while living in Mitchell's home. Jackson Browne began and Glenn Frey finished what would become The Eagles first hit, "Take It Easy." Neil Young composed some of his biggest songs in the canyon, both as a solo artist and with Buffalo Springfield.
"I think [these artists] somehow serendipitously congregated in this area," Cole adds. "In the country at the time I think people were trying to come together and have a community . . . [and] they lived in this small little community just for a short period of time. They were all contemporaries of each other, which I think was really cool. It was a birthing place of this great American songbook. It was the birth of folk rock." The concert delves into the work of such well-known artists as The Mamas & The Papas, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and The Byrds. Cole, however, makes it clear that "Live From Laurel Canyon" is not so much a tribute concert as an exploration of a unique era in music history.
"We love this material; love these songs. We thought it would be great to give a show with multiple singers and different sort of ways of presenting this music," Cole explains. "We're all singers. We like to sing songs, but it's not like a mimic or tribute band where you dress up like the person and try to sound exactly like it. We're presenting something that we loved growing up with, that affected us inside and who we are. We're interpreting it to give it some life and do it our way."
The concert focuses on the period between 1965 and 1975. The bulk of the music should be familiar, but to strengthen the context, each song will benefit from little a background check though an ongoing narrative that gives the audience information and a deeper understanding of this music.
"I grew up with this music, but maybe people who are younger might not be as familiar with it," Cole says.
While the bulk of the songs will be familiar favorites, such as The Mamas and The Papas' "California Dreamin'," Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," James Taylor's "Country Road," Carole King's "Too Late," The Eagles' "Take It Easy," and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," among others, though the group will also slip a few choice rarities into the mix. The most difficult thing, Cole says, is deciding which songs to perform.
"There's definitely so much to choose from this period," she says. "When you're doing a show like this you have to hit people with some familiarity, but also throw in some other things listeners might not be so familiar with."
Since the idea of the show is not to mimic the original compositions but present original interpretations, gender roles are also mixed on several songs. Cole, for example, tackles Neil Young's "Old Man."
"[Listeners] know the song, and now they're hearing our interpretation. I wouldn't be opposed to any of the guys doing a Joni Mitchell song," she says with a light laugh. "They're great songs no matter who's singing them. It's a great art form no matter who [performs] it."
As the concept for "Live From Laurel Canyon" evolves, Cole says the band will switch up the music, rotating songs in and out of the line up to keep the vision fresh. Other less folk-oriented canyon residents, such as Frank Zappa, The Doors' Jim Morrison and bluesman John Mayall might eventually be incorporated into the mix as well.
"It's a 90 minute show, you can only do so much," Cole says, noting that 15 to 18 songs will be performed in that time span. That's not much when considering the body of work produced during that 10-year span. Still, "Live From Laurel Canyon" is a great starting point, a look back at the enduring legacy an enterprising camaraderie of artists created during one brief time and place in musical history.
"The music transcends time," Cole summarizes. "They're just great songs. People need to hear them."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Live from Laurel Canyon is scheduled for Sunday, December 29, at the MIM Music Theater.