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Concert Review: Hotel Cafe Tour @ Henry Fonda Theater, 4/12/08

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39 days • 12 musicians • 1 bus

Though this may sound like the setup for “The Real World: Singer-Songwriter Edition,” it’s actually the description of the Hotel Cafe Tour—a traveling showcase of some of the best musical talent in the country, most of whom are LA residents and regulars at the Hotel Cafe on Cahuenga.

You might think that with so many creative people packed into such a small space, drama would naturally follow. Surprisingly, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do the singers all get along, but they also seem to genuinely support each other. But it’s not all serious—this group knows how to have a good time, and LAist got a backstage perspective of the Hotel Cafe Tour during one of their last North America tour stops at the Henry Fonda Theater on April 12.

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The backstage area was a hive of activity, and there was usually a group hanging out and having fun in the lounge area. At one point, Cary Brothers accidentally got a stain on his shirt, and Jesca Hoop was more than happy to fix the situation by drawing a tiny cartoon over it. A few minutes after that, Joshua Radin noticed a skateboard propped up against a chair, and even though he hadn’t skateboarded since he was in his early teens, he attempted an ollie to see how much air he could get (and it was pretty impressive, considering).

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The show began at 9 p.m. and lasted well past midnight. Given the number of performers, the Hotel Cafe Tour did a great job of mixing things up—each artist performed for 10-20 minutes each, with some returning later in the show for a second set. Thanks to a talented backup band (Jason Kanakis on guitar, Jonny Flaugher on bass, Brad Gordon on keyboards/trumpet and Marco Meneghin on drums) the show continued without interruption.

Following are a few highlights from the evening:
Greg Laswell got the night off to a great start with songs from his last full-length album, Through Toledo and his new EP, How the Day Sounds. Laswell was followed by Priscilla Ahn, who took the stage with a guitar, harmonica and even a kazoo, which she used on “The Boob Song” and really got the audience cheering.

William Fitzsimmons took the stage next, and showcased his humor in between some rather entrancing songs. Then he invited surprise guest Joshua Radin up on the stage to sing a cover of “Cecelia” by Simon & Garfunkel.

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Meiko followed, in the first of two sets. During the night, she had to contend with a rogue mic stand, but handled the situation with humor. Although her song “Reasons to Love You” was an audience favorite, another highlight was her sampling of TLC’s “No Scrubs” as she closed out one of her sets.

Jim Bianco also played twice on Saturday night, and really got the crowd going with a high-energy performance that included him playing one of his bandmate’s guitars with his teeth and a random eruption of confetti. One memorable moment was he performed his sultry song “I’ve Got a Thing for You” while bathed in red light. His second set brought together most of his tourmates—and they ventured out into the packed crowd to perform his new song, “Sing.”

Jessie Baylin’s sets consisted of songs from her upcoming CD, Firesight. Highlights included an old favorite, “Contradicting Words” and a “The Glitter,” a song about her early experiences in Los Angeles.

At this point, it would probably be good to mention something that the audience wasn’t able to see. Rather than heading back to the dressing rooms after their own performances, the other artists would position themselves off to the side of the stage, behind the curtain, to support their friends. At various times you could see people dancing, mouthing lyrics and clapping for whomever was singing.

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Ingrid Michaelson’s two sets showed off both her musical ability and her sense of humor. Near the beginning of her first set, she heard a harmonica in the audience and ended up extending one of her songs to give the audience member a chance to play a (surprisingly good) solo.

Songs like “Die Alone” and “The Way I Am” were as great as expected, but her cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was definitely another highlight. Just as she was beginning the song, however, one of her fellow songwriters yelled out “Look what I can do!” (in an imitation of Michael McDonald’s “Stuart” character from MadTV). This caused Michaelson to start giggling and she had to start again. Another fun moment was when Michaelson invited the gals from the tour (along with her backup singer Allie Moss) to sing her song “The Chain” in a round because, as she said, "there just aren’t enough rounds nowadays."

Cary Brothers has a voice that can really fill a room and songs like “Who You Are” showcased his range. He also involved some of friends during his two sets, such as Radin’s turn on the electric guitar during “Ride," Michaelson joining him on vocals for a cover of the Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here," and the whole group joining him for “Blue Eyes.”

Jesca Hoop was up next with songs from her album, Kismet (plus some new material if I’m not mistaken). During her set, one of her fellow artists exclaimed backstage, “It is just amazing how good she is!”

After some of the artists sang a second round, the three and a half hour show concluded with most of them coming together for a sweet rendition of “The Rainbow Connection.”

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After the show, LAist caught up with Cary Brothers for a short follow up to his earlier interview:

LAist: What are you going to miss most now that the North American tour is coming to a close?

"The camaraderie of the tour is what I will miss most. I love playing solo shows, but there’s something wonderful about the feeling that everyone has to play together like a team to make the whole night work. It’s more of a challenge, and when it does work, there’s something even more satisfying about that than a typical gig.”

What was your favorite memory from the tour?
“Well, the homecoming show at the Fonda was my favorite show for sentimental reasons and because everyone really brought their ‘A’ game that night. As far as single moments, I loved everyone sitting backstage in Madison and watching Dan Wilson play his hit [with Semisonic] ‘Closing Time’ and explain, line by line, that it had nothing to do with being at a bar but was actually about the birth of his child. All of us fellow performers were turned into drop-jawed music fans for that one moment, and it also showed how great a songwriter that guy is. Friendship and love of music is what this tour is really about.”

The Hotel Cafe Tour ended its North American leg at the El Rey on the 13th before heading to Europe. For those who missed this year’s tour, there’s still hope—a number of the singer-songwriters are regulars at the Hotel Cafe and will have individual concerts in the coming months. To view a schedule, visit the Hotel Cafe website.

Keep checking this site for more information, as over the next few weeks, LAist will be featuring interviews with Jim Bianco, William Fitzsimmons, Jessie Baylin, Greg Laswell and more.

Photo essay coverage:
Hotel Cafe Tour 2008 w/ Greg Laswell, Priscilla Ahn, William Fitzsimmons & Joshua Radin

Hotel Cafe Tour 2008 w/ Meiko, Jim Bianco & Jessie Baylin

Special thanks to the artists and management of the Hotel Cafe Tour as well as the Henry Fonda Theater staff.

Photos by Koga for LAist