01/11/2008 01:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn: Troubadours in the City

Grey velour shabby chic sofas. Pop art area rugs. A piano and a whole mess of guitars stacked up against it. Skinny blue jeans. Hurry. Tell me where you think we are.

Well, not exactly. We are at Disney Hall channeling the troubadours.

Once or twice a year, the LA Philharmonic opens the upscale hall to alternative pop programming under its aegis. Earlier this week, as part of the continuing Concrete Frequency festival which was designed to celebrate the urban experience in musical terms, fourteen singers -- almost none of whom had been in Disney Hall before--shared their city-and-country stories with the young, hip, urban crowd -- almost none of whom had ever been in Disney Hall before either.

I loved seeing it. What a contrast to the usual crowd! The musicians stayed on stage the whole time lounging on the sofas with soft lamps lighting their way to the microphone. Most of them hadn't been on my radar--though very much on everyone else's-- with the exception of two of the female singers and Biirdie, the neo Mamas and Papas group that wraps itself around longing.
Biirdie, courtesy of Melanie Pullen

The rest, and the ones most in pain, were almost all guys (Marc Bianchi, John Doe, Stevie Jackson, Kyp Malone, Zach Rogue, Daniel Rossen)! The angst, the acerbic patter, the stories of woeful travels and loves; tired of the west, vertical and horizontal insanity, and the twisted dance of life...I'm quoting, because these singers are minstrels, slamming their if-only poetic lyrics against phantom lovers and road tours, former homes in Ohio, Michigan, Bergen, Norway, and the Inland Empire and being confined to apartment living. Though some claimed to not like to talk about their work (Artists, capital A,) others were more forthcoming even if they mumbled whilst doing so.

It was the girls who seemed to have it all together: Annie Stela at the piano, very much in charge, Inara George, all glammed up in a Rainbow Room gown accompanied by Van Dyke Parks with cuts from her forthcoming album, and the divine Zooey Deschanel who impressed me with her deeply soulful rendition of I Put a Spell On You in her white satin tent dress with black stockings (that I covet).

2008-01-10-StelaAnnie.jpg Annie Stela
Inara George, courtesy of Autumn de Wilde

Daniel Rossen and Zooey Deschanel, courtesy of Mathew Imaging

Zooey Deschanel, courtesy of Mathew Imaging

So it didn't feel like the middle ages (even though they weren't all younger guys....some, like Bob Mould and Money Mark and Franklin Bruno are distinctly middle aged). Troubadours traditionally sang about chivalry and courtly love since women were chattel, promised in marriage almost before they were born and abandoned to their castlekeep with only spiritual ways of dallying with knights who came 'round infrequently when they were not chasing invaders or heathens.

Rather, it felt odd and modern and I thought, it's true, the younger guys are in touch with their feelings! But is there also a down side to that? I tried to imagine--both people in a relationship second guessing and wondering and made me feel exhausted for all the lovely young women I saw around me (especially as I have four sons).

The spell wasn't entirely pervasive. The youngish man next to me was obsessively checking his cell phone all night long (this need for constant connectivity, too, exhausting) in addition to getting up and down a couple of times and the whistles and catcalls reminded that this crowd wasn't necessarily into the generally hushed reverence for the hall.

But I think they should do more of this counterprogramming at Disney Hall. The fans looked properly slouchy in the seats even though the intimacy normally demanded by this kind of music was at a premium. I still think they should figure out how to mix it up a bit: to be honest, by the second hour of plaintive crooning I was fidgety, and wanted more of the soulful, sexy, stuff(each artist was only allowed two songs). (Wait 'til Gustavo gets here. Can you imagine the spicy counterprogramming he could share with us?! )

But that's ok. On the way home on the 10 Freeway I just plugged in Joni Mitchell's Hits and Linda Rondstadt and Ann Savoy's Adieu False Heart and all was right with the world.