by Alex Palmer
There’s more culture to Downtown LA than the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s true that Grand Avenue in the Bunker Hill District of Los Angeles is best known for the refinement of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the hard-to-miss Disney Hall, which attract much of LA’s elite art community seeking an evening’s entertainment. But this summer as the LA Philharmonic ends its season and the weather gets warmer, the few blocks of Grand between 1st and 4th begin to cater to a younger and more laidback crowdwith art, film, and especially in its music and wine options.
Some of this summer nightlife comes from MOCA itself with the experimental and unbuttoned entertainment of its Night Vision series (www.moca.org/nightvision). Taking place on 15 Saturday nights from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the museum stays open late to show films, art, and music. They also provide something else you don’t get during a typical MOCA visita cash bar.
The wine selection at the bar is not particularly adventurous, but has its share of diversions. A glass of Beringer merlot receives an added spice from the warm evening air as you mingle with the other MOCA guests in the outdoor Sculpture Plaza. The tame merlot also balances the sometimes familiar/other times obscure mix spun by Night Vision’s resident DJs Part-Time-Punks. The duo spins most of the Saturdays, warming up the crowd with a danceable mix of 70s punk, 90s grunge, and motley variations in between.
The Night Vision program has a free-flowing, multi-media atmosphere with a variety of entertainments. Pop in to the screening room for a short film, then catch a few songs from the night’s musical act or take a quick tour of the Rauschenberg exhibit before everything closes up at midnight. The crowd is mainly 20- and 30-something students and locals and a general sense of friendliness and freewheeling energy pervades the evening. The volunteers behind the bar are especially friendly and knowledgeable about the works and artists, and it’s worth chatting with them as you order your next glass of cabernet.
Besides Part-Time-Punks, a half dozen other DJ acts are scheduled to play sets over the summer, including hip-hop DJ Sloe Poke on July 15 and indie music don Steve Aoki (aka Kid Millionaire) on July 8th. All-girl trio The Like perform on July 22, offering the dreamy and delicate music that has made them a local favorite with LA’s indie crowds. A sweeter tasting winelike the house sauvignon blanc or chardonnaybetter accompanies the warm and smooth singing style of The Like.
If the museum bar does not offer enough of a wine selection, slip away to the Spiral Court right next to MOCA and grab a patio seat at the Tesoro Trattoria. On summer evenings this Italian restaurant caters to young artists and college students as much as it does the museum and symphony crowd. Especially on weekends, arty t-shirts and Sketchers shoes are as common as tuxedos or heels.
The more than 300 entries on Tesoro’s wine list emphasize Italian and Napa Valley vintages that go well with a hearty pasta dish or a light salad, or maybe just by themselves. The sound of the patio fountain serves as relaxing background music as you sip on a glass of Stag’s Leap syrah or Sterling Vineyards’ Three Palm merlot.
Inside the place bustles on weekends and the paintings of Venice and large portions create a relaxed but stylish atmosphere. Outside, over the hum of flowing water and conversation, it’s possible some nights to hear the strains of jazz piano or violin seeming to come out of nowhere. In fact the music wafts in from the adjacent California Plaza stage, where another local art foundation, Grand Performances (www.grandperformances.org), hosts its weekly shows.
The nonprofit group is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer with another exciting lineup of music, dance and theater from all parts of the world. Held under the open LA sky, events this summer include DJ lessons, Congalese rumbas, and performances by Mexico’s only deaf theater company Se√±a y Verbo. Better yet, all the shows are free.
One of the unconventional acts is the Senegalese hip hop trio Daara J who perform on July 28. Incorporating reggae, funk, Cuban and French rap into their hip hop, the group will be mixing standard samples with acoustic guitar for their July show. Though Tesoro has little in the way of South African wine, the bold but dulcet tastes of Tesoro’s Jade Mountain Syrah suits Daara’s combination of gritty rap vocals with a surprisingly melodious undercurrent.
Moving from South Africa to South America, July 29th is the Sounds Eclecteco concert, cohosted with KCRW and featuring Tijuana-based Nortec Collective and a handful of other banda performers and artists. To accompany this mix of music, with its optimistic, accordion accented melodies, a glass of one of Tesoro’s chiantis would be a good match, particularly the Ruffino Ducale Gold or Monsanto with their light fruity taste and dry finish will leave you feeling warm even if it’s one of LA’s rare cold nights.
At the end of most shows, Grand Performances hold an open discussion with the audience to get thoughts and interpretations of the event, emphasizing the communal nature of the music and Los Angeles in general. It’s hard to imagine seeing that at an LA Philharmonic show.
This uptick in cultural events around Grand Avenue comes at a time when downtown, and these couple of blocks in particular, are about to go through a significant revitalization. The Grand Avenue Committee and The Related Companies have commissioned Frank Gehry for a massive renovation project, of which the Walt Disney Concert Hall is just a prelude. Gehry hopes that phase one, which will add a towering hotel, retail area, and pedestrian walkways to the block across the street from Disney Hall, will help transform this growing cultural center into a vibrant meeting place for a wide range of Los Angeleans.
With demolition set to begin in early 2007, this summer is a good time to stop by Grand Avenue for a performance and a couple glasses of wine. In a year you may not even recognize the place.