Miguel’s silky-smooth voice captivates at this year’s Sound in Focus series opener

Sound in Focus - MiguelBy Rochelle Shipman //

Sound in Focus: Miguel with Gabriel Garzón-Montano //
Annenberg Space for Photography – Los Angeles
July 23rd, 2016 //

KCRW kicked off their annual Sound in Focus concert series last Saturday, bringing plenty of R&B grooves to the Annenberg Space for Photography.

Stones Throw Records’ Gabriel Garzón-Montano, who dropped the trip-hop-tinted Jardín earlier this year, got things started. Even though no one else but a drummer accompanied him, he effortlessly commanded the stage even while being tucked behind his keyboard.

Sound in Focus - Gabriel Garzón-Montano

Gabriel Garzón-Montano

Once the sun set and Miguel stepped onstage, the audience was transported somewhere else entirely. Born and raised in LA, the 31-year-old’s silky-smooth voice floated through the cool evening breeze over the twinkle lights in the trees, giving the impression of an island retreat rather than a concert in the park.

With the exception of an impromptu barstool-crooner cut, he spent the majority of his set on the tip of the stage, captivating a crowd that could have only otherwise looked away to admire the sultry enthusiasm of the ASL translators.

Nas preaches positivity while closing out this year’s Sound in Focus series in style

Sound in Focus - NasBy Josh Herwitt //

Sound in Focus: Nas with Wild Belle //
Annenberg Space for Photography – Los Angeles
July 23rd, 2016 //

It’s hard to beat summer in LA. With longer days and warmer nights, there’s always so much to do in the City of Angels during this time of the year. But part of what makes summers in LA so special are the countless opportunities to see live music and best of all, for free. From the Twilight Concert Series on Thursday nights at the Santa Monica Pier to Saturdays Off the 405 at the Getty Museum, you can catch a show — if not multiple shows — in LA every week from July to September for little to no money.

Right along those lines, KCRW’s Sound in Focus concert series is just another reason why summertime in LA has its advantages. For the past few years, the NPR member station has shown its appreciation for photography by welcoming a wide array of musicians, including indie-rock stalwarts like Portugal. The Man, Band of Skulls, TV on the Radio and Cold War Kids (read our review of their 2015 show here), to what was once unchartered territory as far as concert spaces in LA go. And in many ways, the Annenberg Space for Photography, as a result, has proven to be the perfect location for KCRW to combine its love for music and the arts by offering fans of all ages the chance to explore the museum’s newest exhibit and see well-established artists perform for free with a simple RSVP online.

After last year’s roster, which featured old-school hip-hop group De La Soul and country music legend Dwight Yoakam as headliners, it was somewhat surprising to see Grammy-nominated rapper Nas (born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) listed next to psych-folk collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and eventually Senegalese singer/guitarist Baaba Maal when the 2016 Sound in Focus lineup dropped last month (Maal’s performance was revealed at a later date). Not because KCRW had booked a hip-hop act for a second straight year, but more that it had booked a hip-hop act of Nas’ stature. You don’t have to look much further than his two million Twitter followers, in stark contrast to Edward Sharpe’s 105,000 and Maal’s 5,750, to understand that. It should go without saying then that Mr. Jones is easily the biggest artist KCRW has ever booked for Sound in Focus in its three years running.

Sound in Focus 2016 - Nas

On the other hand though, Nas hasn’t released an album in more than four years. Better yet, it’s been more than three since the Brooklyn native disclosed he had begun work on his 12th studio album, the follow-up to 2012’s Life Is Good. In this day and age of instant gratification, that’s often three years too long to keep fans waiting. With so many options to choose from, it’s becoming harder and harder to remain relevant, even for a hip-hop artist of Nas’ caliber.

But there’s also something to be said for releasing eight straight platinum records, even if Nas doesn’t have any Grammys to go along with them. So, if last Saturday’s show was supposed to be Nas’ reminder to the world that he’s still working and grinding like he always has since the early 90’s, then a whole lot of fans got to hear that message loud and clear after Wild Belle’s opening set.

With the anticipation building, Nas arrived onstage with energy and purpose, immediately diving into his I Am…. anthem “Hate Me Now” that’s almost two decades old at this point. A little bit later, he would end up waxing poetic on “One Mic”, the third single off his 2001 LP Stillmatic that was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. Yet, more important than the songs Nas chose to perform or the albums he drew from was the postivity he preached to the crowd before calling it a night. At a time of racial and social unrest in the U.S., he imparted optimism and encouraged everyone who stood before him to chase their dreams, whatever they may be. For an emcee who once proclaimed that “hip-hop is dead,” that’s seemingly quite a change in rhetoric.

Cold War Kids are finally getting the respect they deserve

Sound in Focus - Cold War KidsBy Josh Herwitt //

Sound in Focus: Cold War Kids with Other Lives //
Annenberg Space for Photography – Los Angeles
August 15th, 2015 //

Back in 2004 while attending Biola University, a private, evangelical Christian liberal arts college in Southern California, Nathan Willett and Matt Maust met at a friend’s apartment above an Italian restaurant called Mulberry Street Ristorante in Fullerton, Calif. It was there that Maust, influenced by his travels in Eastern Europe, would come up with the name for the band that he would soon start with Willett. Considering both were ones themselves, the name “Cold War Kids” quickly stuck, and it wasn’t long after that they were relocating to Whittier, Calif., to record their first demo.

Now a decade later, with five full-length albums and a handful of EPs (including their debut Mulberry Street) under their belt, Cold War Kids — even with Willett (vocals, piano, guitar, percussion) and Maust (bass) standing as the only two remaining founding members — are finally getting the respect they deserve. Their latest single “First” from 2014’s Hold My Home has become the band’s highest charting single to date, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, and there’s a good chance that you probably heard it this past spring if you saw any previews for Cameron Crowe’s latest film “Aloha”. Riding that recent wave of popularity, the quintet has continued to grow its fan base thanks to some high-profile festival performances this summer at Lollapalooza and Outside Lands (read our review of the festival here). So, needless to say, things are at an all-time high for these Cold War Kids right now.

Sound in Focus - Cold War Kids

But like most bands, Cold War Kids have also faced their own set of challenges along the way. While they moved around Southern California before making Long Beach their official home in 2008, they’ve endured some lineup changes along the way, too. One of them came in 2012 with the departure of founding member and lead guitarist Jonnie Russell, whose apartment served as the original meeting place where the band was first conceived. The other came a year later, when drummer Matt Aveiro left the group before eventually joining LA alt-rock outfit Bootstraps.

Willett and Maust, nonetheless, did one hell of a job in finding their replacements. They went after two former Modest Mouse members in guitarist Dann Gallucci, who also served as the band’s live sound engineer during Russell’s final three years, and drummer Joe Plummer, who also plays in The Shins and just released his first solo album Built in Sun less than two weeks ago. Consequently, it’s created a winning formula, with Cold War Kids sounding better live than they ever have before.

Sound in Focus - Cold War Kids

Ringing in the final performance of Sound in Focus, a summer concert series presented by the Annenberg Foundation and KCRW that also featured free-to-the-public performances by TV on the Radio, De La Soul and Dwight Yoakam over the past four weeks, Cold War Kids ripped off 19 songs for an all-ages audience with a mix of fans and families in attendance. The group, of course, has never shied away from showcasing its biggest hits live, and longtime crowd favorites such as “We Used to Vacation” and “Hang Me Up to Dry” came relatively early in its set. But much of Cold War Kids’ newest material from Hold My Home, tracks like slow burner “Harold Bloom”, the symphonic “Nights & Weekends” (the band has been playing live with a pair of backup string players and backup vocalists now, too) and the ska-punk vibe of “Hot Coals”, exuded their own unique energy.

When I caught Cold War Kids back in mid-November at the brand-new Regent Theater (read our venue review here) in downtown LA, it had been only a month since Hold My Home had come out. With the band supporting the album on tour over the last 10 months though, it’s not a surprise to see it operating like a well-oiled machine at this point. Even so, Cold War Kids have never been afraid to switch things up, much like they did during their two-song encore, which started off with a cover of John Lennon’s 1970 single “Well Well Well” and concluded with the irreverent “Saint John” from 2006’s Robbers & Cowards, the album that ultimately put the ball in motion for Willett and Maust. And as that ball continues to roll on now, there’s no telling when it will slow down for these hometown heroes.

Miracle Mile
Minimum Day
We Used to Vacation
Louder Than Ever
One Song at a Time
Loner Phase
Hang Me Up to Dry
Harold Bloom
All This Could Be Yours
Drive Desperate
Nights & Weekends
Hot Coals
Hospital Beds
Something Is Not Right With Me

Well Well Well (John Lennon cover)
Saint John