California might seem like a strange moniker for four of New York’s finest musicians, but step inside the East Village bar on a bitterly cold Manhattan night and it all makes perfect sense. Breezy four-part harmonies and blissfully bright melodies wash over the room, an oasis of warmth in the dead of winter. The band performs every week in the East Village, churning out potential greats such as “Goodbye Chelsea Hotel”, "Colorado" and "Change of Heart", yet also refreshingly veering from setlists to explore uncharted musical territory, some songs as much a revelation for the band as it is for the audience. As one sits or stands by the bar, listening to the lovely sounds and laid-back rifts, the style mimics the California sound of such renound classics as The Eagles and CSNY. Such great examples of that 60’s and 70’s music stemmed from our country’s west coast state, is exactly the inspiration behind what you’re hearing.
If the members of California—guitarists Gabriel Gordon and Jason Darling, bassist Jesse Murphy, and drummer Aaron Johnston—seem familiar, there’s a reason. Johnston and Murphy are founding members of the famously innovative and genre-defying group Brazilian Girls; Gordon spent the last decade touring the world with Natalie Merchant; and Darling earned his stripes as a solo artist, releasing four albums including the critically lauded “Night Like My Head” on Yep Roc. Individually, the four have developed international reputations as first-call session and touring players for a laundry list of stars. They each possess the chops, voice, and charisma to front the band if they wanted. But California belongs to everyone.
“The core idea of the band is just passing the musical hat,” explains Murphy. “One guy takes the lead and the others fall back in support, then the next guy takes the lead, and the others fall back in support.” The magic of California comes not from having four gifted singer/songwriters, but from having four gifted singer/songwriters who think as one, who can finish each other’s musical sentences. “We’re close enough to really listen and really follow, I mean really follow each other,” says Murphy. “We give in when we’re accompanying, and we can really lead when it’s time because we know the other guys have our backs.”
The roots of the group in fact go back to the state for which it’s named, where they all met, Gordon and Murphy as teenagers, Jason and Aaron some time later. All of them beginning their journeys into music and life. They all eventually relocated to New York, developing a tangled web of friendships and collaborations with numerous artists that blossomed at iconic Electric Lady Studios and spilled out into the vibrant bars and clubs of the Lower East Side music scene.
Gordon and Murphy began penning the songs that formed California’s early repertoire while on a tour with Natalie Merchant last year, assembling a makeshift recording studio in the back of the tour bus and stealing away at every free moment to write and record. “Sometimes on days off instead of going to the hotel where we’d have to be quiet and inhibited, we’d spend the night on the bus in the parking lot just to keep recording,” remembers Gordon. The duo laid down a flurry of demos, titling each song for the city in which it was written. “They would call Aaron and I from the road and say ‘Man, we’re writing our heads off,’” adds Darling, who was at home penning his own tunes for the band. When the four reunited in New York to pool their new material, it was clear they had something special on their hands.
Tonight, in the Lower East Side, the show opens with Darling’s “Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” It’s tender and heartfelt, and the audience grows hushed to absorb the gentle harmonies. The young couple that’s just asked the band to perform at their June wedding seems pleased. It’s cold and blustery outside, but at this show it feels more like a lovely and sunny California day