There are people who feel that Los Angeles is a city you know about right away: you pull in, and immediately know in your gut if you're going to love it or hate it. Conversely, I've heard that LA is so big, so diverse, that you really need to spend a couple of years submerged in it before you really have a handle on how you feel about it.
For me, as the most superficial of interlopers into the greater LA biosphere, I can say that it seems very much to be a place with a purpose. Not so much a city, as a tool. As such, I can understand why some people live here. If you're involved in entertainment in just about any way, LA is where you have to be. So for actors and screenwriters and directors and media types, I get it. I can see why people are here. What I haven't figured out quite yet, is why people would WANT to live here, all things being equal. The greater allure of the city, outside of the entertainment industry, has so far eluded me.
There's a shabbiness to LA. Part of that is affected. Shabby-chic is a definite way of life here. But another portion--I'd wager the greater portion--is just how the city has become. It looks tired. The people and their cars are all very shiny and well maintained and beautiful. But the city around them, the set upon which everyone plies their trade, is worn and frayed at the edges. You can see it in the trees and on the faces of buildings. A lot of it is unquestionably the fault of this great drought that is ravaging much of the American west, and hitting California particularly hard. But it's not the only explanation, because there is a general weariness that you can feel in the spirit of the place. I don't know if I've seen more than a handful of genuine expressions of emotion or desire in my time here.
There's also an aesthetic to the city that permeates everything. So much of the town is built up around the Hollywood machine, that you can see a kind of worn down cinematic flair in everything from apartment buildings to street corners. Everything seems to have been constructed with the thought "what would an early career Liberace think of this?"
There are pockets of the town, however, that are really good. Walking into Bar Lubitsch for the first time, I can immediately see the appeal. A Russian themed joint, everything is decked out in red and Cyrillic. The performance space is behind the actual bar area, and set up to seat 50 on a good day.
It's also about as close as Sara Routh has to a spiritual home. Which is ironic, considering where it's at.
Routh lived in LA for eight years, over a couple of stints. Each time, to some degree or another, she was getting away from something. So, for as much as LA might have felt like home for a while, and as much as those eight years helped to form the person she is now, LA was a tool for Routh, as well.
Coming back to it now, exactly a year after she last played a show in town, she's honest in what the town means to her.
"I miss this," she says, waving an arm over her head, gesturing to the bar around her. "I miss these people. But I don't miss LA. Going home was the 100% best decision for me."
And yet, because she has only been back for a year, there's no place in Des Moines that feels the way Bar Lubitsch feels for her. Her performances in Iowa -- all great, with the exception of that first, drunken stumble at Gas Lamp -- have been tinged with a certain feeling of earnest uncertainty. If you ask her, she will tell you that she doesn't yet feel like there is a venue she can really call home yet. Which is probably true; I haven't seen her play more than twice at any one venue in town. But as with anything else in life, the story doesn't just have one answer. If you ask me -- which nobody has directly, but it's my blog, so some questions are implied in the reading -- I think there's a need to prove herself. Not to any person in particular, but a general desire to show the folks back home that she's made good. Des Moines still feels to her like a place where she needs to earn fans.
LA is not that place. She has only been gone a year. She still has a brother in the town, and on this night, Bar Lubitsch is full of close, close friends. By the time Rae Davis takes the stage to open the night, there are about 20 people in the back room, with double that still talking to Routh in the bar proper. Midway through Davis' set, there's no place left to sit, and people are ringing the back wall.
Both performers give their best sets of the tour thus far. Davis is flawless, up to her final song, and people are clearly impressed with her voice. I've seen Davis now with her band, The Honeybees, singing with The Tighten Up, and with her other act, Cover Grrls. And yet, I think I prefer her solo. The fewer things she has on stage to muddle the sound, the more clearly you can hear her voice, which is easily one of the most underrated in town. As a songwriter, she has a great feel for her own capabilities, and writes to her own strengths well. She made some fans tonight in LA.
When Routh takes the stage, she is a woman transformed. Seeing her here, in a space she is completely comfortable in, is a revelation. She does not introduce herself or say hello as she approaches the mic, she simply launches into her first song. This room, this crowd, is hers.
Just like Davis, she turns in a strong, quality performance. Her songs flow into one another effortlessly. Banter comes easier to her here, as well. This is Sara Routh firing on all cylinders, and once she finds a place in Des Moines where she feels as comfortable as this, good things will happen.
We have one more night in this huge, strange, sprawling, back lot of a town. One more performance in a city where Routh is as comfortable as she's ever going to be. There will be friends to say another round of good byes to, and favorite haunts to re-visit before moving on. But when the sun rises and the Black Sheep Tour continues on to its next stop, Routh will do what any other good workman does with their tools, and LA will go back into its proper place on the metaphorical wall. This space means the world to her, but she does not need it.
Miles traveled: 2,255