October, arguably the most surreal of months, is embedded with a sort of carte blanche for transformation. Shy women dress up as French maids and super heroines, law-abiding men wear masks, and in keeping with this anything-goes nerviness, Downtown Los Angeles has morphed into an unexpected music festival hub.
In the month's first week, thousands of dark-jeaned Angelenos materialized for the L.A. Weekly Detour Music Festival. Now, a more quixotic successor, Arthur Nights, crops up in Broadway's historic Palace Theatre.
Arthur Nights, which runs Oct. 19-22, also bears the imprint of a publication, that of Arthur magazine. Launched four years ago, it is described by editor and co-founder Jay Babcock, who also curates the magazine's events, as a countercultural review of life, art and thought. It is distributed nationally by "a secret network of highly trained operatives," according to its website, and can be picked up at just a just handful of venues, which in these parts include REDCAT, Traction Avenue's Groundwork cafe and Chinatown's Via Café. The magazines tend to disappear quickly.
Though distribution particulars are not usually noteworthy in a preview of a music festival, this idea of elusiveness and rarity runs through Arthur Nights. Detour had headliners Beck and Queens of the Stone Age. Arthur Nights reaches further down into the music grab bag: Though the indie layman may be familiar with acts such as Devendra Banhart, Comets on Fire, Fiery Furnaces and Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark, most of the other three dozen acts are relatively obscure.
Arthur Nights aspires to be an all-genre, all-ages, you're-allowed-to-wear-things-other-than-dark-jeans event. The performers are certainly across the board on all three counts: from the teenage punk rockers of Be Your Own Pet to the jazz-inclined septuagenarians in the Sun Ra Arkestra. The atmosphere in the 1,100-seat Palace is equally democratic. There is no VIP section, and artists and show goers mingle together. "That's a theme," Babcock says.
Arthur events are frequent hosts to one-time collaborations and early looks at bands on the precipice of notoriety. Last fall's ArthurFest, in Hollywood's Barnsdall Park, featured the now hot Wolfmother and a rare appearance by Yoko Ono. ArthurBall, held earlier this year at several Echo Park venues, saw P.J. Harvey play bass with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band guitarist Moris Tepper's group.
The coming festival has its own set of rarities and one-off opportunities: Tav Falco and Panther Burns has not played L.A. for 10 years. Bert Jansch, guitarist from the 1960s British band Pentangle (admired by Neil Young and Jimmy Page), has not performed in this country in nearly the same time. Ruthann Friedman, part of the storied Laurel Canyon scene, is also making a rare appearance.
Liz Garo, a talent booker for Spaceland Productions, which has produced several Arthur musical events, says that there is not anything like the Arthur Nights lineup. "It really is an eclectic mix, from what people call 'freak folk' to heavy psychedelic rock to freeform jazz. New and old, different worlds. That's kind of the beauty of it."
Babcock, pre-Arthur and occasionally now, is a freelance music writer for publications such as L.A. Weekly and Mojo. He says he started the magazine because he was frustrated with the way arts were being covered in the late '90s cultural publications.
"They all devolved into shorter stories, knee-jerk, snarky, ironic pose, pandering to the lowest common denominator, and there was homogenization of the author voice," he says.
The anti-corporate, sometimes 1960s-reminiscent Arthur aesthetic, present in both the magazine and its events, is a rebellion. "It's all very romantic, but it's all very doable if you're willing to be poor. If you give up needing a salary and you're willing to not buy new clothes and not have a new car every three years, you can opt out of a lot of [expletive] and a lot of compromises, all the things that have ruined culture in this country," Babcock says.
He is unabashedly self-righteous, but because he is in the service of such righteous ideals - and because most of us, even if we smile on such Aquarian concepts, do not ultimately walk the walk - it's not only forgivable, but strangely endearing.
Besides, for every preachy (albeit thoughtful) mini-diatribe Babcock dispenses, there's a lighter moment. He is excited, for instance, by the Palace's funky beauty and the fact that the nearby old-school Broadway diner Clifton's - it of Yogi the Bear decor and an expansive Jell-O selection - is staying open late to accommodate Arthur Nights attendees. Roger Maldonado, manager of Clifton's, confirms that for the first time he knows of, the restaurant will stay open until 9 p.m. for the first two nights of the festival and for the remainder of it if diners appear as promised.
Babcock assures that the festival will do just that, with the attendant merry-making. "It's not like an NPR thing," he says. "It's not like, 'This is good for you.' At any moment, something is going on that you will find fun."
Arthur Nights is Oct. 19-22 at the Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway. Tickets are $24 per day or $80 for a four-day pass. Information is at arthurmag.com.
page 30, 10/16/2006
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