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Hot Scene: The Return to Laurel Canyon

The former L.A. home base of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne is now a hub to a new wave of hippie rockers

August 28, 2012 3:06 PM ET

Dive into Laurel Canyon — click above for a tour of the home of Cali rock by the Entrance Band

The winding steps that climb from Laurel Canyon Boulevard to Jonathan Wilson's hillside house might as well be a time warp: Walking into the guitarist's Wednesday-night jam session is like being transported back 40 years, to an era when this neighborhood a few minutes off the Sunset Strip was home to rock & roll royalty including Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, David Crosby and Jackson Browne. Tonight, a dozen or so longhaired dudes are milling around the Nag Champa-scented living room, where tie-dyed tapestries and Wilson's guitar collection cover the walls. On the patio, Yogger, a husky with a thick coat of white fur, is asleep on an Aztec-pattern rug. No one knows where he comes from, but they all say the dog shows up when there's a jam.

Pedal-steel whiz "Farmer" Dave Scher gets busy setting up his gear for tonight's party, where an assortment of local musicians will spend the hours between now and sun-up working classic grooves like Creedence's "Effigy" and J.J. Cale's "Call Me the Breeze" as players rotate in and out. In the kitchen, girls in flowing skirts and glittery eyeshadow — the modern "Ladies of the Canyon," for sure — light a joint of impressive girth. "I've got tequila buried in the woods," singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice offers as the spliff circulates. "Peace, love and understanding is big with this crowd, but fuckers will still steal your beer."

Laurel Canyon is one of rock's most mythic neighborhoods: This is where Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young first folded their voices into one beautiful harmony; where Zappa welcomed artists including Hendrix and Mick Jagger to parties at his infamous "Log Cabin" in 1968. Laurel Canyon was the inspiration for the Doors' "Love Street," the Mamas and the Papas' "12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)," CSNY's "Our House" and an entire album by British blues legend John Mayall. It's where music-business legends David Geffen, Jac Holtzman and Elliot Roberts helped build the recording careers of the singer-songwriters who defined the very essence of the Sixties California sound.

The music in the Canyon quieted in the Eighties, when rock stars sought greater privacy in places like Malibu and Topanga Canyon and hair metal took over the Sunset Strip. But since Wilson, 33, started hosting jam sessions a few years ago, an expanding group of artists — including the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson; the Jayhawks' Gary Louris; Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and her boyfriend, singer-songwriter Rice — plus up-and-comers like the Entrance Band and the Whispertown 2000 have been reviving not just the old-school Canyon sounds but also that scene's spirit of collaboration. "It's not a coincidence that all these people have gravitated to this place," says Barry Goldberg, a keyboardist and songwriter who played with Mike Bloomfield's Electric Flag and on Crazy Horse's Crazy Moon back in the day, and who still lives in the Canyon and plays at Wilson's jams. "There's something very special about the Canyon.

"First time I went to Jonathan Wilson's house and walked through the beaded curtain, I almost had a flashback," he says. "I started crying because of how proud I was of these kids for carrying it on with reverence and not just bullshit or jive."

The musical influences vary from blues to folk to Motown, and some of the players prefer solo Crosby albums over solo Nash albums, but they all articulate a desire to make music in a free-spirited, collaborative way. "It's such a beautiful place, in the middle of brutal Hollywood traffic," says the Whispertown 2000 singer Morgan Nagler. "We call Jenny's house a Xanax. You get there, and all you wanna do is go outside and play guitar."

This could easily devolve into a re-enactment of Sixties clichés if not for the fact that the jams are frequented by original talents who are seeking a deep connection to the music and that most intangible of forces: the vibe, man. "They want to be loose, like we did," says Goldberg. "They want to have the freedom to groove their own grooving. And to groove with them, to me, is really special."

"I've never seen such a group of people get together, just for the simple reason to make great music and enjoy it," says Louris, whose recent solo album features Wilson, the Chapins and Lewis. "I think they're a little anachronistic. Wilson's the mad genius and the moderator. Farmer Dave brings this tripped-out quality to things, but in a good way." Louris notes Lewis could be the Emmylou Harris.

Wilson started putting together impromptu jams three years ago, after he moved into the house on Laurel Canyon Blvd. A North Carolina-bred singer-songwriter whose old band, Muscadine, put out one major-label album and a live EP, Wilson says he wasn't chasing the Canyon legacy, but he was definitely looking for a community. In the early 2000s he spent a few years camped out with 125 other hippies in bunch of shacks and shantys they built in Topanga. It ain't cheap to live in Laurel Canyon, but Wilson has a thriving business making faux-vintage guitars for clients including Maroon 5 and Aerosmith, and he runs his shop out of the back of his house. With indispensable encouragement from Robinson, Wilson began recruiting characters like Scher, whose old band Beachwood Sparks introduced a lot of young indie rockers to the Canyon "It started for me when I was a senior in high school in 2001. And I had the Beachwood Sparks album Once We Were Trees," says Rice, 25, who was born in Glasgow, came of age in Virginia and now lives with Lewis at the Xanax house — a quaint cottage with a gazebo out back where he can work on music between tokes on the vaporizer. "There was no other band I knew of that was so obviously influenced by the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, and it made me think about Los Angeles and what could possibly take place there."

Scher and Wilson met over mushroom tea in New York and connected because of their mutual love of the Grateful Dead — one of this group's biggest non-Canyon influences. "The Dead had really incredible moments," says Scher. "You can't get those without completely going into abandon. You have to trust that you've got a good crew and then jump in." That's a strategy that Lewis employed for her new CD, Acid Tongue, on which her crew includes Wilson, Rice and Scher. "There was a lack of community in L.A. until this thing started happening," she says. "When you were 13, you jammed because it's fuckin' fun," says Wilson. "If you play music for a living, you think if you don't have a soundcheck, you can't play. And that's just bullshit."

Whether you credit the mythos of the place, or California's relatively lax marijuana laws or the coincidental arrivals of a bunch of like-minded musicians, this group has tapped into some rare combination of mastery and open-mindedness. Says Lewis, "When you listen to J.J. Cale, which is another person I recently discovered, it's not just vibe-y, it's also really well-executed. There's a maturity in being able to openly play music with your friends in that way." And as Rice notes, there's another benefit to breaking out of the indie-rock scene: "It makes growing old sound so sweet."

Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin

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