Monday, September 28, 2015

Back at the Baked Potato

Thomas Wolfe said, famously, you can’t go home again.  Nonsense!  Saturday night, I went home, and for once, I found nothing had changed.

A huge chunk of my high school years was spent at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood.  My friends and I generously thought of ourselves as musicians.  We were too cool for school.  In reality, we were dateless and desperate.  Rather than admit our inability to get laid or be accepted into the cool group, we formed our own allegedly suave clique and spent our time at the Baked Potato, music nerds to the core.

The band we went to see with religious devotion was Don Randi and Quest; the name alone smells like the 1970s.  Randi was the keyboardist for a group of studio musicians in the 60s and 70s known as the Wrecking Crew.  A lot of their work became part of producer-turned-murderer Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound.

In 1970, Randi opened the club in North Hollywood and Quest became the house band.  The place was a hangout for L.A.’s best studio musicians—Jeff Porcaro, Steve Lukather, Lee Ritenour and Alex Acuna.  So many others.  The posters from those gigs are tacked up on the walls, faded and torn, a kind of Los Angeles musical history wallpaper.

When I arrived Saturday night, I was surprised to find nothing had changed.  Well, almost nothing.  Don Randi’s seven-foot grand piano and Rhodes electric keyboard/synthesizer combo have been replaced by a single Yamaha digital keyboard.  Better sound.  Only a little more room in the tiny space.  Randi’s son, Justin, now runs the place and tends bar.  He also sings, stepping into his father’s set for a few Neil Diamond numbers.  The air inside the club is historical, musty and warm, cozy on an end-of-summer, first-days-of-fall evening.

Not a single musician remains from my high school era Quest, except for Don Randi himself.  This didn’t surprise me.  The personnel was never set in stone, but subject to who was available on a particular night.  The line-up on Saturday was Larry Klimas on Woodwinds, Frank Fabio on guitar, Chris Roy on bass, Peter Korpela on percussion, and Todd Wolf on drums.  Halfway through the first set, drummer Miles Robinson of the Fifth Dimension sat in.  He was the one we all idolized back in high school.  He is an incredible, energetic performer whose presence on this night seemed to revitalize Don Randi as they ran through the chord changes of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

The music was as dated as the ruffled tuxedo shirts we didn’t wear to prom (dateless, remember), but it was a nice trip down memory lane.  And actually, after my fellow musicians graduated high school and went off to college, I did take a few young ladies there, including my future wife who on this recent Saturday night also found the music a little too middle-of-the-road smooth jazz.

Don Randi, himself, was in fine form.  He talks more now than I remembered.  Maybe it’s because he has a book coming out:  You’ve Heard These Hands:  From the Wall of Sound to the Wrecking Crew and Other Incredible Stories (Hal Leonard Books, 2015).  The stories he offered up between songs were interesting and added to the historical vibe of the club.

On a more pedestrian level, the drinks were small and expensive, but strong, and the food was terrific:  all kinds of stuffed baked potatoes the size of footballs.  I had the excellent chicken salad (yes, they do also offer salads) and my wife and I split a chicken parmesan potato—more than enough for two.

I enjoyed my sojourn in the past and I’d definitely go back.  The Baked Potato is part of L.A. music history.  Unlike my high school days, I’d go in for one of the other fine groups on the schedule.  Don Randi and Quest are a treasured memory for me now, but like a favorite childhood toy one has outgrown, it is time to move on to other experiences.


William Shaules said...

Back in the day, one Saturday night as we sat listening to the Jazz and eating our baked potatoes, I remember you saying, "This is my definition of heaven."

Paul L. Martin said...

I remember those days very well, Bill. Some of the best memories of high school and college. Could still be in the running for heaven...