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The Black Angels @ The Mayan

  • By BC Gibson Author Avatar
  • 22 June 2013

The Black Angels @ The Mayan

            Aesthetically, The Mayan is my favorite venue in LA.  The location is notable as well, downtown on Hill Street.  Going there is a novelty for me, as it is for many others in this city.  A sprawling, car orientated city, Los Angeles put downtown in its rearview decades ago, moving out to the suburbs, and leaving the old quarter to the transients.  In the time since, those suburbs have grown congested, and convenient jaunts on the freeways have become a sort of slow death, as you count the hours that pass while sitting in traffic on the 405.

            Trying to rediscover a walking city, Los Angeles has slowly been remaking its downtown in recent years.  Sordid flop-houses have been remodeled as stylish lofts, and ramshackle bars have been relabeled as fashionable speakeasies.  The transients are still there, but their encampments have been pushed a few blocks east. 

            The Mayan, opened in 1927, has a history which mirrors that of its locale: glory days, a long decline, and then a gradual revival.  After a few decades of stage productions, the 1940’s saw The Mayan became a burlesque theater, where in ‘48, according to legend, Marilyn Monroe once stripped.  In the 50’s and 60’s it was a venue for Mexican films.  And it was still a movie theatre in the 70’s and 80’s, but the fare on offer was pornography, and some of the films shown then were actually shot in the theatre’s basement. 

            In 1990, the building was bought and turned into a nightclub, the new owners working with the city to restore the building to the splendor of the roaring twenties.  No doubt it was an expensive task, because the architectural features are intricate and extensive, both inside and out. Saying that the place is themed after its name would be an understatement; really, the place would do for a theme-park.  Walking into the lobby does remind me of walking into Mexico, as in the Mexico-themed bit at Disneyworld‘s Epcot Center.  The Mayan’s lobby is subtly named, “The Room of the Feathered Serpents”.  The walls there and throughout are made to look like stone blocks, each two foot square overhanging at the edges to give the effect of an Indio-American ruin.  Low ceilings and outcroppings are textured with decorative reliefs; and, if it weren’t for the throngs of people, purplish, indirect lighting, and carpeted floor, you could be Indiana Jones, hunting for the golden idol.  “Indy, give me the idol!  I give you the whip!”                   


          The surreal décor of the Mayan provides a perfect venue for The Black Angels, but very few shows are staged there.  It’s curious that there are not more.  Parking is certainly ample; in the years of decay, many derelict buildings were demolished in favor of low-maintenance parking lots, and the area abounds with them.  If I were to think of a reason as to why there are not more shows there, it would be that there are a lack of basic amenities at The Mayan, namely bars and bathrooms.  There were too few of each, with long lines for the bars, and long lines for, of all things, the men’s bathrooms.  It’s probably a good rule that if there is a line to the men’s bathroom, you simply don’t have enough bathrooms.  Needless to say, the line to the ladies’ room extended down the stairwell. 

            The main floor was not ideal either, as it was divided into different sections for under 21 and over 21 attendees, and every time went in-between, you needed to show ID.  The >21 section was nearest to the stage, where you wanted to be to watch the show, but to get a drink you had to go back to the over 21 section, which was underneath the low-hanging mezzanine, and echoing with annoying conversations.  Accordingly, I drank hastily, so that I could get out of there and back to where there was a concert going on.  The venue just doesn’t seem to be run very well, and like my grandpa used to say, “you can’t eat the scenery.”

            But obviously the main course was The Black Angels.  They opened with “Vikings”, one of their slower numbers.  For me that song is a minute too long, and definitely not what I’d go with as an opener.  At the very least, the first song establishes the audience‘s energy level.  An adrenaline rush goes through the crowd when a band begins to play, and an initial, unexpected slow song feels almost like a letdown, if only subconsciously.  The second, “I Hear Colors”, would have been a better opener.  Third, the band played another new one, the all-to-appropriately named “Don’t Play With Guns”.  I guess that’s a PC name for a song, though I’m not totally sure.  In any case the song itself is catchy, a concert standout, and an album standout as well.  

              That album, their newest, might be their best to date.  “Indigo Meadow” is more nuanced than previous LP’s, with more novelty from song to song.  There were stretches in their earlier work where several adjacent songs would converge into one, seeming--at best--like different movements based on the same theme.  There is a stretch on Passover in particular, consisting of tracks 3-5, “The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven”, “The Prodigal Son”, and “Black Grease”.  Heard alone each song is great, but back to back to back, their sound grows wearisome.  And for their concert, the Black Angels didn’t help distinguish their songs, given their adoration of the fuzz pedal.  And the band played a long set, not necessarily a bad thing, but it served to give weight to those periods of indistinction.   

            Some songs stood out, like “You on the Run”.  In-between that song and the next, “Twisted Light“, singer Alex Maas did a little homage, singing the Biggie Smalls line, “I’m going-going back-back to Cali-Cali.”  It goes without saying that Biggie Smalls is one of the bands greatest influences.       

            In the most general terms, I enjoy The Black Angels more on their recordings, than I do live.  I wouldn’t say that the band isn’t good live--they are--but I think they could do with cleaning up their on-stage sound.  I have similar opinions about another band I really like, A Place to Bury Strangers, whose performance sound could also be refined.  In the case of The Black Angels, their show is already psychedelic, to the point that one might begin to question their sobriety (did someone slip me something…), and from the visual effects alone; so there’s no need to add to that effect when performing.  Just take it easy on the fuzz pedals, I say.