Is our coastal city the music capital of the world? Depends on how big your world is.
No, Newport isn’t Austin, Texas, which bills itself as the “true” live music capital. Newport Beach also isn’t Anaheim, Long Beach or Costa Mesa, each of which has rooms of varying sizes that attract talent ranging from internationally famous mega-bands to scrappy young locals hoping to make it big.
And yet, Yelp lists about 50 different bars and restaurants in Newport Beach and Corona del Mar where you can get your live rock/jazz/folk/acoustic/soul on during any given night of the week. There’s plenty of aural gold here—you just need to dig a little to find it.
“Live music is still cherished in Newport but there used to be much more stuff going on. People who lived at the beach would go out at night.”
There are great seven-nights-a-week music rooms like the Hawaiian-themed Billy’s at the Beach, where you can take bets with your friends on how long it takes the band to play a Jimmy Buffett song. Find a solid rotation of singer-songwriters and keyboard kingpins, such as longtime Orange County jazz player Ron Kobayashi, at Bayside Restaurant, or tune in for classic rock canon (on the Irish band off-nights) at Muldoon’s Irish Pub. And for those who say Newport can’t blast the beat, Hogue Barmichaels begs to differ. Being surrounded by shuttered-for-the-night office parks and John Wayne Airport have made it the go-to joint for the city’s loudest original rock as well as the occasional country band, female vocalist showcase or multiband set put on by the Orange County Music League.
A quieter—but still lively—scene can be found in the heart of town. Corona del Mar High School alumnus George Fryer stays close to home with a weekly slot at the Port Restaurant and Bar, armed with seemingly every hit song that’s ever been recorded, as well as his own songs he throws into the mix.
“The best thing about the Port is the people,” George says. “We have a nice local crowd that comes out, and it’s a pretty healthy scene. People order a cocktail and some food and listen to some music. They know they’ll see a good performer every night of the week. I can play pretty much anything they want to hear, but I think that just comes with experience. And old age.”
“Live music has been a major component of our business,” explains Port owner Ali Zadeh. “We like featuring new and upcoming talent, and musicians who may not otherwise have a place to showcase their art, whether it’s jazz trios, acoustic pop-rock or singer-songwriters.”
Heading further north, the Balboa area is also home to venues that draw dedicated local crowds. Original songster and Boston transplant Matt Koelsch entertained at The Village Inn recently, strumming out tunes you might be hearing on the radio (or in a car commercial) next year. Up the harbor on the peninsula side, The Blue Beet provides a steady rhythm as an old-time favorite. The comfy neighborhood bar has been a home to many local musicians since 1912. Nobody seems to remember when it didn’t have live music—certainly not Tom Canbe, who’s held a steady gig there for more than two decades and has seen as many years’ worth of changes.
“Live music is still cherished in Newport but there used to be much more stuff going on,” Tom says. “People who lived at the beach would go out at night. Maybe it has something to do with social media and people having more choices and being distracted by other things, but there are still people who want to come and see a guy playing a guitar and singing a song in front of them. It’s great when people will just wander in on a Tuesday or Wednesday and go, ‘Wow!’ There’s a connection.”
“Cover songs pay the bills. … There was a time when we always felt that if you were a songwriter and you’re doing covers, it was like taking a step back. But the thing is, there are people who are really good at playing covers, and that’s not easy to do.”
Tom plays a mix of his own songs and popular covers, a formula that guitarist Chris Cruz, who recently wrapped up a regular gig at Alta Coffee Warehouse & Restaurant, also follows. Alta is a home to a variety of sonic styles, including Celtic, jazz, blues and an Outlaws of Folk series hosted by local rocker Michael Ubaldini.
“Cover songs pay the bills,” Chris says. “It’s really difficult to play only original music. There was a time when we always felt that if you were a songwriter and you’re doing covers, it was like taking a step back. But the thing is, there are people who are really good at playing covers, and that’s not easy to do.”
While cover bands are nothing new, the platform for showcasing their talents is evolving in town. The biggest recent development in Newport’s music scene has been the reworking of the Lido Theatre as a live music room, which Lido Live director of operations Dave Schniepp says has been wildly successful.
“We really think of ourselves as a performing arts center,” Dave says. “We’ve had Missing Persons, what’s left of Oingo Boingo … and tribute bands. The Led Zepagain show we had was a sellout. I was sort of anti-tribute bands, but now I’m a fan because a lot of them are amazing. It’s great that they can keep the music alive.”
—Written by Rich Kane