Behind the Music
Food fights and squeezing into strange costumes. Singing exercises and silent prayers. If the walls of San Diego’s backstages could talk, oh, the stories they might tell. Whether luxurious or spare, the green room or dressing room often reflects the relationship between a venue and an artist. It’s the secret place where a musician transforms from person to personality. Here is a behind-the-scenes window into four notable music venues, where a maestro, a Grammy Award – winning musician, an alternative rock singer and an electronic dance band prepare to take the stage.
Belly Up Tavern
References to green rooms can be traced back to the 1700s, when Shakespearean actors had to wait outside on a patch of grass, or an outdoor green room, before making an entrance. The Belly Up Tavern, a surf-themed, 600-seat venue serving San Diego since 1974, is the only place we visited with dressing rooms that are actually painted green. John Mayer, Michael Buble and members of blink-182 have all faced the welcome sign posted on the door:
Please note that you will be held financially responsible for any property damage that you may cause during your stay at the Belly Up. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation in this matter.
Inside the L-shaped room, a gilded mirror hangs over a comfy brown couch with a glimpse of white stuffing that pokes from a gash in the middle. There’s a refrigerator against one wall. A stack of surfboards is mounted like a work of sculptural art. An electric keyboard stands next to an ironing board propped against the wall, and Liz Phair’s set list sits on a plain wood table surrounded by four matching chairs.
A bowl piled high with fruit adds a dash of tropical color to the space. That’s because Phair, best known for her album Exile in Guyville, requested it as a rider on her contract. This gig introduces her new album, Funstyle, a selection of songs that celebrate Phair’s notorious cynicism and sly humor.
“Normally I ask for herbal tea on my rider — and for sure, room-temperature water and fruit,” says Phair. “I eat raw half the time; I’m a vegetable and fruit nut. And I always do a vocal warmup. We don’t do anything freaky backstage —though we just got in a fight about UFOs.”
House of Blues
Five years ago, juke-joint-inspired House of Blues opened downtown, with a 1,000-person capacity concert room. The national chain raised the bar for San Diego’s live music scene, with a reported $1 million sound and lighting system and a TMZ-worthy talent roster that has included Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, the Jonas Brothers, Tenacious D and Justin Timberlake. Like many venues, the House of Blues can be rented for private events, and on this autumn night, the Pink Party, an annual fund-raiser that supports breast cancer research, is presenting a fashion show and the four-member electronic dance band, Soul in the Machine.
Soul in the Machine uses six custom instruments, including a towering laser harp and the “Drumwall,” which supports 25 drums. The instruments are embellished with LED lights that pulse with the beat, creating a visual and aural extravaganza. The band members wear cyberpunkish costumes (welded by Henry Chang) made of stainless steel tubing, which complement their futuristic instruments. The sculptural costumes are expertly packed inside a black wardrobe trunk that stands more than 6 feet high.
Two side-by-side dressing rooms with ruby red doors were equipped with coded locks and packed with models for the fashion show. But there was no room for the guys in the band.
Inside one dimly lit room, young women were perched on every inch of a zebra-print couch. Through a haze of hairspray, one could make out an oriental rug, glittery gold walls and a bulb-framed mirror.
“This is a good situation, with two green rooms,” says Chang. “They are inhabited by models, which I don’t mind, by the way. I’ll have a lot of models around any day of the week. We’ll get dressed in the hallway.”
Copley Symphony Hall
While many touring musicians spend one or two nights occupying a particular backstage, members of the San Diego Symphony have called Copley Symphony Hall home since 1985. The historic venue originally known as the Fox Theatre opened in 1929 and has faced many renovations over the years.
But backstage remained a bleak setting until the 2008-09 season, when a nearly $2 million renovation project transformed the space into the Grosvenor Family Musicians Center. Now there are three soundproof rehearsal rooms, separate locker rooms equipped with showers, and a main room with comfortable seating areas. Corian counters support a coffee bar with a microwave, situated next to a large stainless steel refrigerator. A flat-screen monitor is mounted from the ceiling, giving musicians a view of the stage.
“It was a narrow, dingy hallway with a bunch of small, damp rooms branching out,” recalls clarinetist Frank Renk. “There was no gathering area. I remember when it was done — the aesthetics were so pleasing.”
Conductor Jahja Ling occupies a private dressing room with his name on a plaque next to the door. Inside, the décor and paintings are Asian-inspired and elegant. A tall white paper lamp near a chocolate suede couch bathes the room in soft light. There’s a desk with a computer, a clock in the shape of a music note and an exquisite antique piano built in 1890 by John Broadwood & Sons. A door in the back leads to a separate bathroom equipped with closets. Ling’s most prized backstage possession is a painting of his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, which hangs next to his desk, near an October 2, 2004, Proclamation for Jahja Ling Day from the mayor of San Diego.
Before every concert, Ling has a ritual: “I just say a little prayer, that my work glorifies God and that people will be touched by the music.”
A plush, 300-seat supper club in Little Italy, Anthology is renowned for its steady lineup of jazz and blues greats. But Alanis Morisette, country singer Hal Ketchum and Latin artist Arturo Sandoval have also starred here since the venue opened in 2007. On a rainy October night, Shawn Colvin, who won Grammy Awards for her album Steady On and the song “Sunny Came Home,” is about to play a solo acoustic set.
An elevator to the second floor leads to the backstage area, which looks like a well-appointed living room. Just outside the door, a bus tray filled with ice chills Colvin’s backstage necessity, Coke in a can. Not in plastic, please — always a can. On the floor, there’s a green guitar case with a single red sticker that reads “Fragile.” It contains a six-string Martin, the Shawn Colvin signature model. Burnt-orange walls surround cream-colored leather chairs and a suede couch inside; a standing lamp emits a soft gilded light, and there’s an attached changing room in the back. Large posters of Winton Marsalis, Natalie Cole and Pat Metheny in black lacquer frames decorate the walls.
Colvin says some of her backstage experiences have been loud and ugly, with dirty cement floors, rodent sightings and a Lilith Fair singer in an adjoining dressing room who loudly “bitched out her whole band.”
“But this is a great backstage— exceptional, actually,” Colvin says with hushed reverence. “There’s even a closet, and the lighting isn’t fluorescent.”
Anthology also is known for a menu that showcases the talents of executive chef Todd Allison, who often creates dishes that complement the genre of music on tap for a particular evening. For the performers, getting a gourmet meal is considered a luxury.
“I don’t ask for dessert,” Colvin says. “But it’s always nice to get it.”