Take It Easy: Valley Vocalist Khani Cole Revisits the Halcyon Days of L.A.'s Laurel Canyon
Musical hot spots seem to circulate around the country. Detroit and Memphis were leading soul centers of the '60s and '70s, while Haight-Ashbury dominated the psychedelic movement. In New York City, Greenwich Village's jazz and boho-folk gave way to the Lower East Side's early glam, punk, and New Wave scenes wrapped around CBGB. In the mid-'80s, Minneapolis became the place to be for power pop, just as Seattle was the top locale at the height of grunge. 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 makeup free) that happened decades earlier and just a few miles farther 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 with a folk background who were seeking inspiration beyond the then-fading musical style. Word of mouth spread 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, Briton 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. 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.
Those artists, and the music they created while their hotspot thrived, are the basis for "Live from Laurel Canyon — Songs & Stories of American Folk-Rock," a 90-minute tribute to the Laurel Canyon scene coming to the Musical Instrument Museum on Sunday, December 29.
"Most of us grew up with a lot of this music," says 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. Mitchell drew album covers and wrote songs for CSNY. 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." 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 artists as The Mamas & The Papas, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, The Eagles, 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 says. "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 a little 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," Taylor's "Country Road," King's "Too Late," The Eagles' "Take It Easy," and Young's "Heart of Gold," among others, 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 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 "Laurel Canyon" evolves, Cole says the band will rotating songs in and out of the lineup to keep the vision fresh. Other less folk-oriented canyon residents, such as Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, and 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 decade. Still, "Live from Laurel Canyon" is a great starting point, a look back at the enduring legacy an enterprising cohort of artists created during one brief time and place in musical history.
"The music transcends time," Cole says. "They're just great songs. People need to hear them."
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