Bringing Sexton’s Back


Foggy Mourning
“R.I.P. Chad Sexton’s Drum City. Anyone know the story? Post info and eulogies here.” So read the precipitous January ninth post on the Hollywood Drum Facebook page. Add it to “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The post was in reaction to the abruptly deserted North Hollywood storefront on Lankershim suddenly plastered with bright yellow “FOR LEASE” signs in the three large street-facing windows. You gave us all quite a scare there, little fella. We do now know the story and are happy to report that Drum City is alive and well—if a bit gaunt—at its new location about two miles northeast. The grand opening party was this past Saturday.

Turns out, oddly, our post was not only precipitous but also belated. The original location which opened in March 2006 actually shut down in November 2009. The conspicuous bright yellow epitaphs only seemed sudden. With loss often comes renewed appreciation. Personally, I recalled with some longing how cool it was to have a well-stocked, chill and helpful drum shop just over this side of the hill. Although, the previous nearby independent drum shop failed miserably of its own shortcomings without a sigh, let alone tears; leaving the valley momentarily without alternative to the music retail monoliths. Sexton’s was a welcome newcomer and seemed poised to succeed where its predecessor could not.

The staff, including Chad’s mom Linda and brother Mac, were inviting, informed, and customer-oriented. They even structured the space around a built-in counter-top island where drummers could pull up a barstool and wax all things rhythmic at leisure. The place was purposefully conceived to recreate the community-centered hang that defines the best corner shops—specifically for Chad, Joe Voda’s Drum City in Omaha, NE. Though the shop never seemed to capture the vibe and soul of those beloved and entrenched institutions, it fulfilled its mission on many fronts.


Moving On
The resurrected Drum City at 10424 Burbank Boulevard is a third the size; considerably more crude; cramped, cluttered and narrow; and gloriously suited for its purpose. I’d endeavor to suggest that already—Day One, this incarnation surpasses the first in vibe and soul. And, ultimately, in sustainability.

As I threaded myself through the mass of shoulders and elbows and little people at my knees on Friday, I had the sense that something was missing. Something had necessarily to be missing from the old triple-wide. I realized what it was: drums. This new leaned-out drum shop had maybe four drumsets displayed in total. Even the snare drum rack was patchy. This may change to some degree as the store matures, but it seemed an intentional decision based upon the logistical constraints, and more so upon the changing state of music retail.

Embracing Change
When even the big-boxes and web retailers are excising excess from their business models, the independents require a disciplined strategy to compete and survive. In this case the clear battle cry is, “Cut Overhead!” The first casualty (besides the AC at the height of the opening day event) in limited quarters where expensive stock is too easily overlooked outright or in preference to alternate color and size, is the seemingly essential drum. Merchandising a few entry-level sets, maybe one or two generic pro kits, and a handful of snares while custom-ordering the rest now seems pretty reasonable. Really, the exciting thing about having a drum shop nearby for me is easy access to the staples. I’m empirically not alone.

Pass The Brownies
Nor was I alone Saturday in helping celebrate, congratulate and welcome Drum City back to the neighborhood. The house was full of supporters in apparently free (uh, where was mine?!) logo-stitched ball caps helping themselves to home-baked brownies and snacks off the once again bulit-in hang-out bar, and happily communing in a dense and sticky crowd. Perhaps by the time PSAs and early prevention render the next-door smoke shop obsolete, Chad Sexton’s Drum City will be ready to expand responsibly. Until then, let us appreciate the revised diminutive, no-fuss shop; and if you got ’em…smoke ’em.

Steve Krugman

Our pictorial coverage.

Hittin’: Bernie Dresel @ Vitello’s


Movin’ On Upstairs
I like my vibey neighborhood dive bars. No fuss. No pretense. No twelve-piece bands. A couple blocks from my house, Upstairs at Vitello’s is not among them. Downstairs, maybe. The upper room is fast becoming one of L.A.’s finest jazz clubs with a consistently strong and growing schedule of some the best local and touring heavy-cats. This past Friday, fifteen bucks got you escorted to a table in the closed-door listening room for the early or late show of Bernie Dresel’s BERN. All twelve of ’em.

If the dives are my favorite pair of patched-up Levi’s, my neighborhood jazz clubs (plural—pretty sweet hood) are that stylin’ fitted vintage suit just off to the side of the closet. Vitello’s is a perfect fit. An old-school Italian ristorante in Studio City’s Tujunga Village, the once upstairs banquet room has been transformed into a dialed-in, intimate, and somewhat magical music venue. A mere floor but a total world apart from the ground-level red Sicilian dining room, the darkened performance space along with its inviting reception area, hostess stand, and showtime marquee could be anywhere beneath the buzzing streets of Manhattan. It just feels like a jazz club.


No Hipstamatic used in the making of this photo

Of Many, One
Bernie’s a friend of He regularly updates his dates for the calendar. He works a lot. There’s good reason—we’ll get to that. Though I’ve seen BERN before at regular Cafe Cordiale gigs, when he invited me out to the Vitello’s show featuring guest bassist, Neil Stubenhaus, I had a sense that this setting might offer a bit different perspective on the band and make for an ideal Hittin’ review. The verdict is in on that first point. Seeing BERN in a dedicated performance venue showcased the band beyond the limits of a relatively chaotic restaurant and bar. Despite arranged renditions of Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and James Brown staples, this is not simply a good-time party band; it is a seriously grooving, stylistically diverse, improvisational ensemble comprised of some of the best players in town—which is to say, around. BERN doesn’t just withstand the scrutiny of an attentive audience, it warrants it.

With full rhythm, four horns, a percussionist, and three singer/entertainers, there are plenty of individual options for an audience’s attention. Or, as it occurred to me, a band this big, tight, and intuitive naturally directs focus on the whole of its parts. Kind of like the best symphony orchestras, it moves collectively as one mass organism. In the same way that David Blaine can make the illusory real, while the roaming magician at a cheap steakhouse makes the feigned awkward, a band this large and arranged succeeds brilliantly or falls painfully short along with its level of mastery. With BERN you never see the palm.


Nice splice

Pieces Of Twelve
Horn players seem to thrive in herds. The section is to horns as the peloton is to cyclists or the gaggle to geese. These often dark-humored musicians seem content building chords among their like, and happy for the increasingly precious opportunity. So it was with this section anchored by Lee Thornburg—punctuating the music with concise and well-placed dots and dashes, and adding full-frequency excitement onstage. And oh! what joy to hear the real thing over synthesized artifice. These four men elevate BERN from a great band to an event.

The foundation of that great band on this night was Bernie on drums and one Neil Stubenhaus on bass. I understand that this was Neil’s first performance with the group and he was very near, if not totally, dry-reading the book. The ability to never allow the eyes to interfere with the ears is the stamp of a seasoned session pro. The notes were right, but more importantly—as always—they were in the right places. Rounding out the rhythm section were the super-hip Kay-ta Matsuno on guitar, Mark Le Vang on unimpeachable keys and vocals, and Walter Rodriguez on well-played and playful percussion.

The three singers are the face of BERN—and sometimes the rear-end. In a truly charming manner, these three often turned to face a soloist and cheer them on with varying degrees of writhing, hip thrusting, and air punching. When stage-forward they do indeed have serious voices. It might be interesting to experience two versions of BERN: BERN, the restaurant-bar party band with the energetic and entertaining singers; and BERN, the instrumental big-band-esque ensemble fully spotlighting the stellar musicianship of this lineup in listening rooms such as Vitello’s. The thought did occur.


Bernie, Neil. Neil, Bernie.

Bernie Dresel is a smart drummer. Yeah, the guy is studied and can nail a chart; but there is more to making wise musical decisions. Aspects of wise musical decision-making are subjective to be sure; certain primary others are less so. Allowing sonic space and avoiding clumsy redundancy within dense orchestration. Confidently driving a large band with solid high-res time, set-ups, and articulation. Controlling the live mix with deliberate and contoured dynamics. A commitment to feel. Bernie does it all with a grace and style his own. And I’m not just referring to his rock-a-billy (however muted these days) pompadour. He’s not all about support. His rhythmic flair was displayed on samba and salsa interludes, and his funk syncopation is Oakland Bay greasy.

For some drummers, fronting a self-named twelve-piece band could be considered pretentious—afterall, there are some humbling precedents. For Bernie Dresel, it simply seems fitting. There is a sense watching this band that is poised to continue evolving and expanding—not necessarily into thirteen or more pieces, but simply into its vast potential. After the remarkable show I saw Friday night, that will definitely be something to write about.

Steve Krugman