By Jen Lothspeich
When I moved from La Mesa to Normal Heights four years ago, I thought I was going to reside in a hotbed for live music, as I’d be walk-ably close to Adams Avenue and North Park with their plentiful venues and numerous street fairs.
Little did I know La Mesa was going to experience a live-music renaissance of its own, with an up-and-coming culinary scene to boot.
What started with a handful of music venues in the area, has blossomed into a saturated scene where one can find live performers in the usual locales like coffee shops and dive bars, but also in offbeat spots like ramen shops and sports bars.
For fans of rock ‘n’ roll and alternative music, the Riviera Supper Club remains the premier spot to find such acts with a consistent lineup and live music most nights of the week. Pete’s Place also hosts the occasional rock show and both Bolt Brewery and Helix Brewing Co. attract such acts on weekends.
With many locations in La Mesa and its nearby areas incorporating music into their business model, some bands have adapted — playing in stripped-down configurations to fit the atmosphere of smaller eateries.
Blues-rock band Black Market III is one such band who can be raucous and heavy in the right setting but also play acoustic sets as a duo in places like Sheldon’s Service Station and Blvd Noodles.
“The Village is still quaint, but the level of dining, drinking, and music offered is on a higher level,” said Black Market III frontman Scottie Blinn. “As I’ve maintained for years, if a venue offers quality music on a consistent and regular basis, they’ll find attendances on the whole increase.”
It seems a lot of places are following that motto, much to the delight of customers.
Sheldon’s Service Station might be making a name for itself serving breakfast and lunch with inviting outdoor seating; but coffee shop hasn’t shied away from employing local talent. On Saturdays and Sundays, solo artists and duos fill the patio with melodies and rather than fade into the background, the artists enhance the experience.
When I stopped in for a quick weekend morning coffee, I was welcomed by the sounds of a duo playing both slowed-down covers of familiar songs along with original numbers.
It was refreshing to see brunching friends pause to take photos of the performers, older couples applauding after each number and a dad walk his adorable toddler up to drop a tip in the singer’s guitar case.
A similar experience can be had a bit further east on La Mesa Boulevard where The Hills offers a sports bar setting with a little something extra.
The bar has lengthy list of craft beers plus cocktails and even decent wine selections. Their bar fare is notable for balancing tradition and taste. And along with chicken wings and pretzel bites, you may just find a live performer looping tracks and performing recognizable songs solo and with guest accompaniment.
On a recent Saturday afternoon visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the music was not merely a footnote to the experience offered, but rather an enthusiastically welcomed addition. Cheering for the singer was louder than any for the college football or baseball games on their numerous TVs.
For those that might not venture out late at night, the timing of performances around La Mesa also holds an appeal.
“The La Mesa demographic is older and family-oriented, so there are a lot of performances happening during the day or earlier on in the evening, since that’s when the venues are operating,” said singer-songwriter Ezekiel Jay who performs around La Mesa regularly. “The performances are often geared toward being a part of a dining or drinking experience where you can still hear conversations, but also get up and dance.”
While La Mesa venues do have a more mature audience to appeal to, there are some making a concerted effort to bring out a younger set.
Local radio station 91X DJ Tim Pyles, who champions local music in all its forms, has set his sights on engaging underage music lovers in the area.
Pyles is bringing his keen ear and immense passion to La Mesa with a “Locally Grown” series at Public Square Coffee in the Village area.
The first outing earlier this month was a seeming success with wall-to-wall people and even some spilling out onto the sidewalk to enjoy three local bands that played as loud as they would in a rock club.
As all these venues flourish with music in their lineup, it will be interesting to see the directions in which the scene grows.
La Mesa Village garners large crowds with their car shows, antique events and annual Oktoberfest; it seems the area could become an epicenter for live music with a street fair to rival established events like Adams Avenue Street Fair and North Park Festival of the Arts.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
“The charm of the Village is fantastic,” said Blinn. “[I] can definitely see it becoming a hot spot like Adams Avenue. La Mesa Boulevard and its side streets would be ideal for hosting a new Street Scene — one that is more like the original ones held in Downtown San Diego before all the corporate [expletive] ruined them.”
“I would say that La Mesa Village would be a great place for street fairs, since so many people already seem eager to come out on the weekends,” said Ezekiel Jay. “If La Mesa focuses on the more family, mature demographic, I really think it can pull some big crowds and become the new Normal Heights.”
So it looks like my journey has come full circle right on time. I moved back to La Mesa this month — excited to be even closer to family, in walking distance to a selection of entertainment and eateries, and, hopefully, coming home just in time to see this music scene really take off.
Blinn, a seasoned San Diego musician, summed it up well:
“My hope is that things continue to progress for music and the arts in La Mesa, but never gets too big to where it loses its small town vibe.”
—Jen Lothspeich is a wine-drinking, cat-cuddling native La Mesan who dreams of writing a best-selling true crime novel. Find her on Twitter at @Jen_Evel.
Where to see live music in and around La Mesa with upcoming show selections
9143 Campo Road (Spring Valley)
Nov. 18: Spice Pistols, Schizophonics and Pony Death Ride
8179 Center St.
Oct. 20: Camino Paz
8325 La Mesa Blvd.
Oct. 7: Heather Nation
De Oro Mine Co.
9924 Campo Road (Spring Valley)
Oct. 6: The Homesick Hitchers
Helix Brewing Co.
8101 Commercial St.
Oct. 6: Hank Easton
8758 La Mesa Blvd.
Bands play Saturday afternoons
Hoffer’s Cigar Bar
8282 La Mesa Blvd.
Hooley’s La Mesa
5500 Grossmont Center Drive #247
Sept. 30: Sara Petite
La Mesa Wine Works
8167 Center St.
Sept. 29: The Sock Monkeys
Public Square Coffee House
8278 La Mesa Blvd.
Oct. 27: Manganista
Riviera Supper Club
7777 University Ave.
Oct. 14: Tori Roze & The Hot Mess
San Pasqual Winery tasting room
8364 La Mesa Blvd.
Oct. 28 Stage IV Jazz
Sheldon’s Service Station
8401 La Mesa Blvd.
Oct. 21: Ezekiel Jay
Wong’s Dragon Room
7126 University Ave.