Monday, April 30, 2018

The Kaya Festival - Day Two Of Rastaman Vibrations

Kaya Festival - Day Two!

I have to be honest here, and say that after the Kaya Festival Day One found us getting back to Venice at almost 4 a.m., I was kind of surprised when my brother texted to say he was on his way to grab me for Day Two. Once I got over the shock, I found my rally cap and we were back on the road. Knowing what we knew now about the event held at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino, we knew we needed a proper meal before getting there, and also made some other minor adjustments - like not carrying a heavy-ass bag all day. We looked up "Best Breakfast in San Bernardino" and came up with "Kountry Folks Family Restaurant". I don't believe in chains on road trips, and this place was definitely a trip. There were Bible verses everywhere, and families tucking into big plates of chicken and waffles. Yep. We were good (I subbed the waffle for the delicious cinnamon roll french toast - excellent decision).

After getting as full as possible for another super long concert day, we headed over to the NOS, knowing we were even later than the day before - but at least we were there! The early bands we missed - and apologize to - were Jah Stix, Bambaata Marley (son of Ziggy, who I was told isn't reggae at all, but straight up hip hop, and now I'm bummed to have missed), Kabaka Pyramid, and most of Third World, who were playing as we rolled in. The good news was that the Festival was once again mega behind schedule, so we were in better shape than we had thought. De La Ghetto was the soundtrack in the background as we once again met up with the new Day One friends in the Irie Bird bus, comparing notes and getting caught up. I'm not sure who was playing at this point, but we heard an opera aria blasting, and it just elevated us all for a moment. A cool moment.

Zion Y Lennox were a reggaeton duo singing in Spanish, so I didn't know any of their songs, but they were all fun, celebratory jams that had everyone dancing in their colorful garb in the golden hour sunshine, feeling fine. They were from Puerto Rico, they had dancing girls in bright red outfits, and I dug them. That's the gist.

"Are you ready for Chronixx?!" This was asked no less than 10 times ... and dude still didn't come out. DJ Sway kept on asking, and Chronixx kept on lagging. It was good they were spinning classic Bob Marley tunes to keep everyone grooving, because it was getting ridiculous. "I don't want to wait in vain ... for Chronixx" was the new verse. FINALLY, "The voice of the future", Chronixx took the stage with a big Haile Selassie banner behind him. He has a rather feminine voice, I thought, and people were digging it, but I was kind of indifferent - as was he, it seemed. It was a sluggish performance, and it's probably because was stoned, which is probably why it took him so long to get his ass on stage. But it was cool, so was everyone else. Chronixx gave a JAH! Rastafari speech, and that set the tone for more Marley.

Stephen Marley - the organizer of the Kaya Festival - gave us a solo acoustic turn of the Kaya hits next, with a subtle opening of seated conga drumming to "Time Will Tell". This is my favorite, the traditional, the rootsy, the flag waver behind the son of Bob Marley singing one of his all time best tunes. It was sublime. "Excuse me while I light my spliff" ... which everyone did for "Easy Skanking", and you almost could close your eyes and imagine it was Bob, as I think Stephen sounds the most like him.

"She's Gone" was wonderful, and then Kymani Marley came out to join his brother for "Sun Is Shining", and then Julian Marley joined for "Running Away". No one could have loved it more, but then Stephen introduced "My youngest brother, Damian Marley" and the place again went insane. After playing "Kaya", Damian said, "We're here to celebrate kaya!" and then played his own "Medication" ABOUT kaya. All you saw in every direction were the widest smiles, and THAT is what this festival really is all about. Thank yous from the Marleys, and we were given another long break ...

Until the mighty Cypress Hill took the stage! I had to get into the pit for this, and after all of the Marleys, of course, this was my favorite act of the weekend. B Real, Sen Dog, and Mixmaster Mike tore the place up, kicking it off with "I Wanna Get High". Festival appropriate, for real. B Real exhaled a big puff of smoke from an onstage j to let us all know that "Dr. Greenthumb" was in the house.

"Hits From The Bong" kept the hits coming (musical and weed), and when B Real (in fine form, I must say. Prophets Of Rage is keeping him sharp!) yelled, "Are you having fun at the Kaya Fest with godddamn Cypress Hill?!", he could be sure that everyone was, based on the roar that went up. "Hand On The Pump" killed it, and led right into "Shoot 'Em Up", and as I watched Sen Dog I recalled how about ten years ago to the day the guy saved me from a righteous hangover with one of his medicinal remedies when we were on the same tour together. Never forget.

"The Phuncky Feel One" told me how B Real got the name for his Phunkcy Feel tips, and also showcased "Mixmaster motherfucking Mike!" Yeaaaaah. "We're gonna play this next one real aggressive", and play "Shots Go Off" aggressively they did. Phew. "Wanna do some Latino shit, Sen Dog?" asked B Real, and they did, but I don't know the name of that one. Lo Siento. "Rock Superstar" was classic and amazing, as is the fact that these dudes have been doing exactly this for over 20 years now. "We try to keep it hype in this bitch, alright?!" They sure did, when they hit us with the trifecta of "Kill A Man", "Ain't Going Out Like That", and "Insane In The Membrane" all at once! "Ain't no party like a West Coast party, 'cause a West Coast party don't stop!" It really did feel like it would never stop - and that we'd be more than o.k. with that. We all took a group photo with peace signs raised, and BAM. Cypress Hill was out of there, having taken no prisoners.

SOJA was up next, and though they're not really my thing, they are many peoples' thing, because there was a lot of singing along and female shrieking. The man next to me said, "OK ... It is what it is." I would have bet money that the white guy led reggae band with many members would have been from Colorado or Hawai'i, but it turned out to be D.C. Huh. Homie next to me said, "You gotta respect them just for playing. That's what this Festival is all about." He was right, and right when I was thinking that they should not have followed Cypress Hill (!), the singer said, "I went through high school listening to Cypress Hill! I had every t-shirt that there was!", so then I thought he was cooler. That's the thing about Festivals too, every act is someone's favorite.

I heard so many people singing along every SOJA word, and overheard a woman saying that they were the only reason that she had made the trip, so there really was something for everyone, and everyone was happy. Until we had to literally wait over an hour for Lauryn Hill to take the stage. UGH. It was the 20th Anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album that meant SO much to me that it was really WHY we came back out for Day Two. Now we were all standing there, packed in, sore, exhausted, hungry, thirsty (everything had closed down as it was now well past 1:00 in the morning), listening to DJ dude yell "Are you ready for Ms. Lauryn Hill?!" even more times than he'd asked if we were ready for Chronixx. YES. WE WERE. It was outrageous, and you could tell the DJ and the crew were feeling the heat as people in the crowd were yelling "Let's GO!" over and over (in between singing along to "Three Little Birds" to calm our asses down).

Ms. Hill must realize that the people that love and care about her seminal album the most probably have sitters and jobs and things to get back to on the next Monday morning that was fast approaching, and we were all still waiting for her in San Bernardino. "We apologize for the technical difficulties", said the DJ, but I'm pretty sure it was just diva stuff. It shortchanges the artist too, because now everyone was getting tired of it, and crabby, and when "Make some noise for Lauryn Hill!" was yelled for the 100th time without her showing, there was almost no noise left to make. "I can't hear you!" - yeah, because we're nearly dead. The band finally started intro music, that they kept having to repeat, to where we all really thought she wasn't going to show. Then, like a marvelous vision, Lauryn Hill (or we might have just been sleep-deprived hallucinating, but I'm pretty sure it was her)!

Clad in a long fur coat and a golden headdress, Ms. Hill came out to happy - and relieved - applause, and then said,"You're gonna have to bring the energy up!" Yeah, you're right, except that YOU are gonna have to do that, Lady. I love her, but I was pissed too. "Everything Is Everything" made sure that (almost) all was forgiven. It - and she - are still so so good. I gather that Hill is a bit of a control freak, based on her constant directing and giving orders ... the woman is IN. CHARGE. "Ex Factor" showed off a powerful woman in total command, and more gorgeous than ever. She was already dabbing sweat off of her face, so maybe the fur coat could have been tossed out to me to warm up in (San Bernardino gets freezing cold at night, we discovered). Anyway, her rapping was on laser point, and we all remembered just exactly why her album was such a monster hit.

"You can get the money, you can get the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour!" "Final Hour" got us all sweating, and when they said, "Ms. Hill at Kaya Fest is real!" we finally believed it. "Lost Ones" is one of my all time favorite jams, and I just heard it live! I was rocking out on that one, and my brother came out of the photo pit and gestured "Let's go" (it was after 2 a.m. and brother had to work the next morning - AND still drive back to Venice!), I was o.k. to, because this was a high note for me. I can't stand to - and almost never do - leave early, because you never know what you'll miss, but I knew that Hill was taking her whole show on the road this Summer, so I can catch it when we're not beat down reggae festival zombies.

We walked back to the car singing. We drove back to Venice singing (mainly to stay awake and alive). I'm still singing now, with memories of a sunny weekend in sunny California with reggae lovers and a whole bunch of believers in One Love ... because that really IS what it's all about, and this weekend proved it once again.

One more time ... JAH! Rastafari.

*All photos by Paul Gronner Photography
**Reprinted from Juice Magazine

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Kaya Festval - 40 Years Of Kaya With The Marleys And Friends (Day One)

The Kaya Festival took place over the weekend in San Bernardino, celebrating 40 years since the release of Bob Marley's landmark album, Kaya. Marley's children got a bunch of their friends and fellow reggae legends together to fill the NOS Events Center with positive vibrations - and a whole lot of kaya for good measure.

Day One

My brother, Paul, and I were going to head out from Venice to the I.E. to cover the Festival for Juice Magazine, so that meant that we would pretty much for sure not make it for the first bands, because L.A. traffic just doesn't allow that. We stopped to eat at Mitla Café in San Bernardino to fuel up before the long day, and because I'd just seen it on Ugly Delicious and learned that Taco Bell began by copying Mitla, who are celebrating their 80th Anniversary there on historic Route 66.  It was a delicious and delightful way to begin our S.B. adventure, and also THANK GOD - as the food lines at Kaya Fest were ridic. Apologies to Day One openers Ahuhea, Indubious, and Roots Of Creation who we rolled up in the middle of. I'm sure you were great, there was just no way. Also, 12 hours is a hella long concert, so I'd be surprised if much of anyone was there by the doors opening at noon. And kudos if you were!

The rasta vibrations were felt the minute you walked up, with Roots Of Creation providing the beats as we checked in and went to find the Media tent and get the lay of the land. There was a rasta bus called the "Irie Bird" parked back there and inside the kind people from Greenwood Farmz were supplying everyone with the kaya that we were celebrating - legally now! They also had coffee, tea, water, lollipops, and shade, so it was an excellent place to take a load of here and there during the days. Thanks to the Irie Family!

Native Wayne took the stage to introduce Jamaican legend, Marcia Griffiths, who made me say "Wow" when she took the stage, so regal and elegant was she in her cape and headdress. It was super hot, super sunny, and the audience was probably the most colorful one I've ever seen. Rastafari colors of red, green, and yellow were the order of the day, but any color was good, as long as there was a lot of it. There were a lot of women in awesome turbans and a whole lot of dreadlocks, on men, women, and children alike. JAH! Rastafari.

"Sweet Bitter Love" was awesome, and also when we realized that we'd probably need ear plugs in the pit. The bass was so heavy that I could feel it in my heart, and I heard mention of someone nearly losing their bowels from the bass, so it was no joke (though other factors may also have contributed). We were in the presence of Reggae Royalty - and would be all weekend. "I Shall Sing" made everyone shout afterwards, when Griffiths yelled, "Is everyone feeling Irie?!" I mean, how could you not be? Griffiths ended her set with "Buffalo Soldier" and had everyone singing along, of course.

Between the heat and the tons of weed and the long lines at the food and bar booths (and the even looooonger lines at the bathrooms), it was an endurance festival, for sure. Paul got an acai bowl to give him back life, and that allowed him to get in the photo pit to shoot Common Kings, who took the stage to the Game Of Thrones theme. I'm not sure why. I didn't yet know the Common Kings, but the ladies did, as there were several high-pitched shrieks when the singer came out with his very coiffed facial hair and green satin Bob Marley jacket. It was harder rock reggae, with shreddy guitar solos and all. "Lost In Paradise" seems to be their big hit, though "24/7" got all the ladies worked up with its "You taste so good to  me, I know you love it when I go harder", causing some blushes down front. They got the crowd dancing, and the guitarist even took his licks out into the crowd while the singer shouted, "Love! Love! Love!" It was just that kind of a day.

We took the long lull (between every band, both days) between bands to walk the grounds and see what we could see. We found Paul a sweatband to keep it from dripping in his eyes while he shot, and cooled off over by the fountains at the entrance. There were merch tents, food areas, a dancehall, a yoga area, and plenty of grassy situations for people to relax (or collapse) on as you did some fantastic people watching.

"The bad boys of reggae music" were up next, and that meant Inner Circle. The band (formed in 1968) opened with "One Draw" and its "I wanna get high ... so high" opening got the yells from the crowd, who were mostly all doing exactly that. It was so refreshing to have it out in the open, de-stigmatized and fully enjoyed. Passing a joint from stranger to stranger at a reggae show in the sunshine is one of the best things ever - it breaks down all barriers in the pursuit to actual One Love. At least that's what it felt like just then. The party anthem of the weekend (and that's saying a LOT) might have been Inner Circle's "Young, Wild & Free", with everyone singing along the "So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed? We're just having fun, we don't care who sees!" chorus, and truly feeling the sung sentiment all the way. What a blast. "Sweet Jamaica is calling you!" yelled the singer to close their short set, and he was right. I cannot WAIT to return to sweet, wonderful Jamaica.

We cruised around for a bit, and marveled at how cool and also how hard it must have been to have kids with you at this festival. They were running all over, playing by the fountains, around an inflatable Lion of Judah, on the dance floor, rocking out up on someone's shoulders, eating ice cream, having fun. One woman I met wanted this to be her child's first concert (how cool! The Marleys playing Bob's Kaya 40th Anniversary as your first concert ever?! Awesome.), and when I saw her in the daytime it was all happy and good. I saw her waiting out the long wait for the Marleys after midnight, and it was not looking as fun. The Kaya Festival definitely has some logistics to work out ... endless lines for food and drink, even longer bathroom lines, and way, waaaaaay behind schedule. People get sitters and have to work and all of that, and when artists make them wait for literally hours at an already 12 hour show - it gets to be a bit much. (More on that for Day Two.) For most of both days we were starving, thirsty, and had to go to the bathroom, but the good vibes made it all somehow ok.

                                                                                                                                 (the bathroom lines)
Action Bronson was next, and my least favorite set of the weekend.  He came on saying, "I need you all to put your middle fingers in the air!" He opened with his "Chairman's Intent", rapping, "You don't even know me!" He was right, and I'm fine with that. He reminded me of a white DJ Khaled, and that guy gets on my nerves too. "Terry", and "Actin' Crazy" were pretty bumping and I got it, and I found out Bronson has a food/travel show called Fuck, That's Delicious - and he skates, so that's cool. He ended with "Baby Blue", yelling, "Why you gotta act like a bitch when I'm with you?" and turned me off again. I'm not down with the "bitch" talk. Ever. Lowlight.

Now the sun was setting, and the pink full moon was rising - perfect! The planners did get that right, a full moon over the Marleys! That also meant it got chilly, and we were high-fiving ourselves that we'd chosen to lug around our jackets all day. It got SO cold, which made the extra-long delays even more irksome. The bathroom lines were so super extra long (even in VIP - not good) that it caused me to miss most all of Yandel, who sounded very Latino. He had dancers shaking it, some catchy jams, but I assure everyone that I never, ever, EVER need someone ever to yell "Make some noise!" again. It's SO played out, and I bet we heard it 10,000 times this weekend. Paul turned to me and said, "Is this Reggae? Ton?" Haaa. Yes, I think it is.

We left the venue at this point to walk to try and find some food. There was a taco place nearby with ONE lady working with like her two remaining ingredients. No go. Back to the venue, stomachs growling, as by now most of the food booths had shut down because they'd run out of ingredients and they still had the next day to deal with. We got back in time for "The Mighty Toots and the Mighty Maytals!" and all was forgotten.

"Beautiful people, it's good to be here!" shouted the wonderful and legendary Toots Hibbert, clad in all rasta colors. "Pressure Drop" kicked things off and got everyone dancing again, and then he strapped on a guitar for the classic, "Never Grow Old". It was as awesome as to be expected, as was "Funky Kingston". Hibbert was buff and spry and rocking, and you'd NEVER guess the dude was 75! The set felt a little short (perhaps because they were so far behind), but we got "Monkey Man" and an extended jam to end their time. Long live Toots and The Maytals!

The entire venue was PACKED (I overheard someone say the venue was 6,000 capacity, but they'd let in 13,000, explaining the lines and the being way underprepared), and they were all there to see the Marley brothers. It felt exciting in there, and as if everyone had collectively found their second wind. I ran into an entire crew from Venice, and Block got everyone together for a photo by the Kaya album cover. It's always fun to run into Venice when you're out of town, and that it was for THIS, made it even better. The hype man hyped everyone up, and  the whole crowd was singing along to recorded Marley tunes. Skip Marley (son of Cedella Marley/Katie Perry collaborator) came out and got everyone hyped up for the Marleys with his tune, "Calm Down". He is clearly carrying on the family tradition, and both looks and sounds the part, especially when he shouted, "One Love! One life to live!"

Jo Mersa Marley (son of Stephen) gave us "Burn It Down", and he brought out his "little brother" Johan, for some more reassurance that the Marley name is in good hands. Arms and flags were waving in the audience as Jo Mersa yelled, "Say 'Love' if you're with me!" "LOVE!!!!!" Yes. We were in the right place exactly in the world that we needed to be in right then.

By the time the sons of Bob Marley took the stage, it was ON. Ziggy, Stephen, Junior Gong (Damian), Kymani, and Julian Marley took the stage together as every lighter in there (yes, lighters, not phones) was way up under the pink moon to welcome this legendary and historic family. It was awesome.

"Do you love Bob Marley?!" was the question, and thunderous shouts were the answer in the affirmative. How cool for his kids that they live their lives knowing how beloved their father was - by everyone in the world. They do him justice, and carry on his legacy with love. And every Bob Marley song still has significance today. A lady near me said, "It's weird how his lyrics are still so true now." And they are. They played "Crazy Baldhead", changing the lyrics to "Chase those crazy Marleys out of town!" The entire crowd sang along for every song, because we all know all of those true lyrics for a lifetime. It felt very special. And it was.

"Kaya" was the first track played, appropriately, and the crowd really did go wild. I got emotional, like choked up and teary eyed, totally out of the blue. I think it was that it just felt so good to have so many people feeling the same vibes, originally put out there 40 years ago. All the Marleys are wonderful, but when Damian takes over, it's a whole different thing. He gets the crowd riled all the way up, and the energy is instantly jacked up a whole bunch of notches. He spat out some riffs on "Kaya" and immediately updated the tune for the right now. He said, "We are the Marley brothers!" and we all just felt grateful to be there.

"Rastaman Vibrations" brought the positivity, and Ziggy went solo on an acoustic guitar. "So Much Trouble In The World" was next, and found the brothers alternating verses, as they did on most of the tunes. It wasn't all about Kaya either, as we got deeper Marley tracks like "The Heathen" and Damian Marley's "More Justice" hyped up the crowd anew.

"Misty Morning" had Stephen taking lead, and Damian dancing around the entire time. "Is This Love?" featured Julian Marley on lead vocals, and he fired it up with extra enthusiasm. Kaya has so many classic Marley tunes on it, it's almost a greatest hits album. A must own. "Rebel Music" and "Top Rankin'" were off other albums, so you got something from everything. "They don't want us to unite" is a verse, and also, too bad for "They". We were a super united group in this space and time, and something the whole world would do well to emulate.

"We and Dem" led into "Get Up, Stand Up", and as late as it now was, it really did feel like it could go all night and no one would care (aside from aching feet and backs, starvation and full bladders). "Satisfy My Soul" kept the grooving going. Julian Marley took over for a tune of his I didn't know, and it was then that I noticed that there were about as many people on the stage as in the audience. The crowd had doubled from just Marley friends and family, I'm pretty sure. And they were all having a blast.

Kymani Marley's "All We Need Is Love"  was great, as was Ziggy Marley's new title track from his new album (Rebellion Rises - Out May 18). There are many new Marley albums, and Damian next played his "Medication" off of his excellent recent release, Stony Hill. He also explained that "Kaya" means "Cannabis" - we got it. After that party jam, Ziggy said, "We'd like to welcome our friend, he was raging against machines, and now he's a prophet of rage!" - and with that, Tom Morello took the stage to join the brothers for "Exodus".

The brothers all lined up bouncing in excitement, as they knew Morello was about to blow some already very blown minds. When it came time for Morello's solo, he went nuts. Metal arpeggios to the constant "Exodus" backbeat might have been incongruous, but it worked, and definitely got the people all amped up. When he went for the solo with his teeth, he revealed that the back of his guitar had a "Fuck Trump" sign on it, and that got huge cheers all the way to the back row. Damian and Morello jogged in place together all the way to the last note, yelling, "We love you!" at the end. It was SO good.

We got one more, the timeless, "Could You Be Loved?", and it was so happy and festive in there, you just wanted to bottle it. The Marley brothers took a group bow, with their flag-bearer waving the Jamaican flag behind them, waving as they left an entire event venue exhausted and totally spent, but happy and IRIE.

We limped back to the car, and after a long while of looking for a room in the fully sold out town, we headed back to Venice to sleep a couple hours, bathe, and head back out to San Bernardino to do it all again. JAH! Rastafari.

*All photos by Paul Gronner Photography 
**Reprinted from Juice Magazine

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Downtown Women's Center - Still They Rise

Anyone who lives in Venice - Greater Los Angeles, really - knows all about the homeless epidemic. The U.N. sent a representative to tour Skid Row. Ben Carson (current head of HUD) was just there the day before - for his first time, though this is his JOB to know about. He said it "tugged at his heartstrings", and he was right. It does. You cannot believe what you're seeing is the United States when you're walking the 50 square blocks of squalor downtown. My friends and I figure we're all in this together, and rather than just talk about it all the time, we should DO something. So we did.

My friend, Christina Conway, spearheaded our first volunteer mission for the Downtown Women's Center and we decided to first do the toiletry kits that are so needed for ladies who have been living on the streets. Between everyone we know, there's a lot of ways to get supplies, like hitting up p.r. firms and hotels and corporate businesses (who should be doing this anyway) to get donations of travel size shampoos, conditioners, lotions, toothpaste, brushes, dental floss, deodorant ... the basic needs we all have. If we couldn't find things that way, there was always the 99 Cent Store.

We got together on a Sunday afternoon at Christina's house, and had a blast assembling the bags, while we also got the bonus of catching up with each other in our busy lives. Christina put out a great spread and jammed good tunes while we chatted and collated all the things that had been found to include. Hair ties, cotton swabs, energy bars, hand sanitizer, whatever we could get to make a woman feel a little better about herself, along with notes of encouragement and love handwritten by everyone there to let the women know that people DO care.

Christina and I got together yesterday to go downtown and deliver the goods to the Downtown Women's Center, and were once again horrified that the absolute Walking Dead scene that is Skid Row is allowed to exist here in "The Greatest Country In The World".  When you hear that phrase now after ever seeing Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles, you know that it now seems like just a bad joke. It couldn't be further from the truth these days, and the People are just going to have to take care of each other. We HAVE to.

We brought in the boxes of bags, and it was a fun atmosphere inside, a welcome reprieve from the hot sun and total poverty outside. Missy Elliot was blasting, ladies were chatting, and volunteers were running around taking care of things. It was encouraging to see that we were not nearly alone in our dropping off of Care packages, as there was a steady stream of like-minded ladies bringing in their own versions. We saw the kitchen where we will soon be going to prepare a meal for the clients, and the dining room where the women assemble to eat and gather. There are a whole bunch of programs going on all of the time, from movies to music to games to seminars. There is a big sign behind the check-in counter that says "Still I Rise", after the Maya Angelou poem, and here ... you can believe these women will, with the good work and support these people are doing. (We took no photos here, because of respect.)

We met Andy Motz, the Communications Coordinator, who took us on a little tour of the facility. There is a health clinic in-house, so twice a week women can get checkups and referrals. This includes the very, very needed mental health workers also. There is a t.v. area, where the women can just check out of reality for a bit. There is also permanent housing available here upstairs - also with support services -  and we saw the sitting area where the residents can hang out in the lobby.

Motz took us outside and showed us the very impressive "Made - By DWC" storefront outside. There are lovely gifts that would be right at home in any shop on Abbot Kinney, from candles in beautiful teacups, to handmade journals and soap. The women from DWC make all of the products themselves, and all proceeds go back to the Center. Next time you need a great gift (Mother's Day is coming!), this is the spot, because you'll make Mom smile AND help get the women of Los Angeles off of the streets.

Next to the handmade goods is a little café, where women can work, and again, the profits go back to the DWC. The sandwiches were freshly made from Homeboy Bakery (the fantastic organization helping keep people out of gangs), which were great and again helping TWO organizations just by eating. We vote - and help each other out - with our dollars. Christina also said that they have the best chai latté in town, so take note of that if that is your flavor!

We had a zillion questions and Motz answered them all thoughtfully, and we all shared our mutual gratitude for each other, and the true relief that at least there are still some people who care and are trying to do something about this horror story that is the homeless situation here in Los Angeles ... and around the whole country, really, but it is honestly just not right. Not with all of the (unevenly distributed) wealth in this city, that often just drives right past with the windows up. Or in Venice, steps over fellow human beings on the sidewalks on the way into their BUB.

Not us, and I hope not you. There are SO many opportunities to help. You can volunteer, either as an individual or a group (and the group thing makes it so simple and fun and gratifying!) at the DWC, or a zillion other organizations. You can prepare a meal and serve it. You can donate toiletry kits, clothing, and dollars. You can answer phones. You can listen. You can console. Just letting someone know that someone else cares, and will look them in the eye and hear them makes such a massive difference in someone's day. There are so many problems needing solutions in our world right now, but you have to start somewhere. And that somewhere is CARING. And then going out and doing something - ANYTHING - about it.

Thank you to the great folks at the Downtown Women's Center, and to Christina for getting us all involved. As ever, love is the best answer.

*Photos by Christina Conway

Friday, April 20, 2018

Venice Lights Up For 4/20!

Venice woke up to a new addition to the Venice Sign this morning, with two weed leaves (created by metal artist Alberto Bevacqua and his son, Ara) adorning either side, in honor of 4/20, and the end of the ridiculous marijuana prohibition that this country has endured for ages. It's pretty much 4/20 every day in Venice, but it's still nice to acknowledge the day this year, especially now that it's legal (here).

And it should be. It's medicine. Plain and simple. I remember asking a friend if they ever thought they smoked too much weed, and they said, "No. It helps me not want to kill myself and everyone around me." While that's an extreme example, some days I sure get it. A person posted on Nextdoor this morning that they were "overly offended" by the new sign's leaves, and to that I would agree. You ARE overly offended, and probably shouldn't live in Venice either. It's really no big deal, and I'd much rather have kids see that than alcohol ads. No one does anything bad on marijuana (other than perhaps overeat with munchies), and we all know all the damage that alcohol has done historically. I've also never heard of alcohol ending children having seizures. Or shrinking tumors. Or bringing comfort to chemo patients. Etc. Etc. Etc. Please.

The sign probably looks much cooler lit up at night, but I'm not going to be down there tonight, and it's to celebrate today. I was heading back when I saw these two cheery guys strolling down the street in their "Best Buds" shirts, and they were SO excited when I told them to go take their picture under the sign with matching leaves. Cute.

We used to have a croquet tournament on this day every year in memory of our dearly beloved Sponto, but now people are all over the place and it's hard to set up, but the spirit remains, and today is sunny and beautiful and Friday, and time to cut loose with some extra good vibes. So, HAPPY 4/20 to one and all, and YOOOOOOOEEEEEEE SPONTO!!! This one's for you.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company - Serving Venice Since 1973

I've been a big fan of Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company ever since I moved to Venice in the 90's, but that makes me a rookie, as they've been serving up their wonderful steak sandwiches on the corner of Lincoln and Superba since 1973.

The spot was actually a sandwich spot before that as well, run by Philly people that had relocated here, but THIS incarnation has been around since Richard Sohn took it over in 1973, and ran it for 25 years. One of his early workers, Sergio Perez, Sr., took over the business with a partner 20 years ago, and he now owns and operates this Venice institution with his son, Sergio Perez, Jr. Perez, Jr. was essentially born in the shop, and says it was "my after school, my detention, my suspension, my 'you're gonna come work and peel a sack of onions so you don't do that mistake again' job. Helping my Dad saved me. Growing up in Oakwood, lots of those friends are gone or in jail, but I learned to respect EVERYONE in the Community ... Black, white, and brown ... and you get it back."

That sense of Community isn't felt as much these days, but Perez agrees that the "Heart and spirit is still here." The sidewalk in front of the shop used to have so many drug addicts and hookers cruising up and down, police thought they had a piece of it. You couldn't walk there after dark. He grew up having drive-by drills at Broadway Elementary during their lunch hours, so "you grew up knowing the dangers of Venice, but you didn't want to live anywhere else." Kind of like now.

The menu at "Hoagies" (as pretty much everyone calls it, and how they answer the phone) has never changed, and people would be mad if it did. They even got upset just when they changed the menu hanging inside! Change is hard, but it also speaks to how beloved a place it is.  Perez, Jr. told me, "You see things come and go, and it hurts, because you lose people. We don't get having $300 t-shirts on Lincoln, but you can come here and get a meal for under $10, and we're gonna keep doing it, because we're a staple."  They truly are.

While Perez, Jr. and I sat outside at one of the outdoor tables at Hoagies and chatted, I could tell how much this place truly means to him and his family. He got on a roll, and I sat there, listening and nodding in full agreement, almost getting emotional.  He spoke enthusiastically and seriously, "We provide a service, we're here for you, we were a part of your growing up, and that's what we do it for. It hits your core when you grow up with something and it stays the same. Everything changes, but if ONE place stays the same, it lets you know that it will be o.k. ... . Nostalgic places are around for you to feel that way." We've all got ours. "In chains, you're just a number, but we have camaraderie. You can vent, reunite, catch up, GATHER ... It's important. And it's important to a lot of people."

NBA stars (Kobe, Robert Horry - my favorite, who would wait outside in his car for people to leave before coming in, so as not to make a fuss). Biggie Smalls' kids and wife, Faith Evans are regulars who live off of their sandwiches. Philly transplants (as the sign says, "It's 3,000 miles to Philly, eat here!"). Venice locals. Kids from Animo Venice ("We provide a sanctuary for them as they flirt with independence. It's that sacred walk between school and home."). Single parents, maybe not connecting with their kids, but they can sit down and relate over a cheesesteak, "and that's all that matters then." It's clearly more than just slanging sandwiches for this wonderful Venice family. And it is a legit family affair. They are there every single day, and they love it. Their history is right there on the ceiling for all to read.

The Perez family doesn't own the land, but the Korean family who sold it to them does, and they love the place, so it looks to be safe, but if ever forced to move, they've got ideas. They could be in the new football stadium (They could be there - a second location - even without moving, Magic Johnson, give them a call!). They could be a food truck. They could move over to Hampton, closer to the beach. There are options, but we all know no one wants them to change. They get offers to buy the place every day, and they just tear them up. "It's not about money, it's about a fulfilling, meaningful life. I don't want to knock anyone else's hustle, but you can't know what it means to us. Like, you went to Hoagies, and now it's a good day." I love them. Perez, Jr. told me they're toying with the idea of having merch, like shirts and trucker hats, but "It would piss me off so much if I saw some fake hipster wearing one, so we haven't done it yet." Haaa. I get it  - and definitely want one.

As much as Hoagies gets from Venice, it also gives it all back. They sponsor a toy drive every Christmas, with bands and a party in the parking lot. They are involved with the Venice Car Club, with Perez, Sr. riding in a low-rider in the Cinco de Mayo parade, and donating gift certificates to the raffles. They want to utilize the parking lot space more for community events too (he's thinking something for the homeless that are their neighbors), so add Hoagies to your list of cool spots to host a shindig.

"In Venice, you grow up knowing 'crazy' is really just hard times, so you want to say hi, help them, feed them ... it's understood that they need help. Venice makes you aware of these things. You're more careful. It gives you a thicker skin. It's all we know and how we roll." And have been for 45 years.

Cheesesteaks. Burgers. Hot dogs. Chips. Homemade lemonade. Sodas. That's it. But it's so much more. The murals on the walls are all by local artists. You will see locals at the tables. It's still cash only, but if you don't have cash and need to go across the street to get some, they'll put extra cheese on for you while you walk. The prices are weird, like $3.54 for a hot dog (dinner under $5!) and 7.63 for this one sandwich, but that's because they've gone up in increments since 1973.

"These aren't Philly Cheesesteaks, they're VENICE Cheesesteaks. Philly people say, 'You took me home today', but the vibes and feelings and the simplicity of knowing that you'll get what you want is Venice. We know how bad it can get, and we're aware of the tightrope walk between good and bad, but we're here for you. The whole spirit of Venice unites, binds us to do better together, so that EVERYONE can rise, and all of us are up there!" That really is the spirit, and it does not go unnoticed by locals. During the Superbowl this year, Hoagies had to close down because they ran out of all their supplies, even though they had ordered way extra. During the World Series Game 7, I walked to Hoagies, and while every t.v. in town was tuned in to the game as I passed by, the phone was ringing off the hook at Hoagies, where they were listening on the radio. They're simply a part of our lives here in Venice, and we're so lucky to have them.

They feel lucky too. Perez, Jr. loves the skatepark. "Every single sunset I go down there and say thank you to the sun, and welcome to the moon." He likes La Fiesta Brava and Casablanca and the Indian place at the beach, but really, "The sunset in Venice is where I like to be." Me too, brother.

Even running the same ad in the Beachhead since the early days, Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company has been a solid mainstay for Venice every day they've been open. Stop in, say hi, eat a great, affordable meal, and say thanks. This is the kind of joint that keeps Venice real.

Long live Hoagies!!

Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company
1720 Lincoln Boulevard
10-10 every day.