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Gonzo Report: Secret show in the Cajon Zone

If you don’t know, you’re not invited

Unplanned jammer: violinist Jamie Shadowlight.
Unplanned jammer: violinist Jamie Shadowlight.

If you don’t know, you’re not invited

I’m easily distracted on the best of days. Just now, with my Rangers in the playoffs, the timing of this “secret show” could not have been worse. The first weekend of June, game three of the conference finals, and my plan was to surround myself with snacks and scream at professional hockey players — or, more often, to question the referee’s integrity and their mother’s virtue whenever a call went against my team. That they couldn’t hear me wouldn’t mean a thing.

Instead, I’m at an art gallery in El Cajon, which occupies the space at or at least near where an adult bookstore operated prior to the Cajon Zone’s attempt to refashion itself “The Gaslamp of East County.” Though I’m happy to look at the art, I’m there to see live bands. But I have no idea who’ll be performing. That’s the selling point of Sofar Sounds, the company putting on the show: secret, intimate shows for music lovers, ranging from local acts to stars such as Billie Eilish. San Diego Sofar rep Neha Gandhi is checking the list and greets me at the door. Later, she tells me that she attended a Sofar show in New York City on a rooftop and decided, then and there, that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She hints that a shooting star may have provided the final persuasion.

It’s a secret show, and I’m secretly reporting on it. I try to get some information from Cherise Goode, an artist working for the gallery, and she almost immediately asks if this is an interview. Noting that my undercover reporting skills need some work, I manage to discover that The East County Art Association Gallery opened during the pandemic and has, so far, survived, thanks in part to its cross-promotion of visual arts and musical acts.

Sppike Mike Muellenberg, aka bassist Hairy Scary Spice of local mashup tribute The Spice Pistols, is my plus-one, and he immediately notes that there are rugs for the attendees to sit on. He wrangles a couple chairs so we don’t break our middle-aged hips getting up. It’s not long before Muellenberg’s sparkly red and yellow shoes attract the attention of Rachel, who comes bounding over, bursting with energy and punctuating her compliments on his footwear with one of the most infectious laughs I’ve ever heard. She’s wearing a light blue T-shirt bearing the logo for Slenderbodies; it’s the only band shirt I spot. I’m not wearing a music shirt, but rather a tank top with Frank Booth huffing out of a mask — a scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. No one starts a conversation over it. The shirt says “Don’t you fucking look at me.”

Place

East County Art Association

124 East Main Street, El Cajon

Rachel catches Neha moving toward the front of the venue, where a drum set and a guitar are set up, and moves back to her position. Neha welcomes everyone and sets the basic rules: pay attention to the artist, text later, and save the doomscrolling for when you are trying to avoid sleep at night. A few laughs follow, and then, after some applause, I get something I rarely experience at shows: silence.

Most of the 30 audience members sit on the floor comfortably, because their average ages appear to be less than their numbers. There are three acts. Surf rock duo Puerto is up first, and they play some folksy tunes before violinist Jamie Shadowlight joins them from her seat on the floor in an unplanned jam, adding some haunting textures to the performance. After a ten-minute break, Shadowlight does her own set. The elusive silence returns, save for applause.

I look around and marvel at what I don’t see. Not one cell phone or side conversation, none of the sort of distraction that plagues most live shows, where the music seems relegated to being a reason to upload poor quality videos, just to prove you were there. Even the last act, rapper-singer James Mitchell, has everyone’s full attention, and even participation.

When was the last time you convened with fellow music lovers in silent agreement, to live in the moment, for just a couple of hours? To experience artists with a sense of community, with like-minded carbon based life forms? On my way out, I realize that, despite any outward differences, I am with my people. My last Gallery conversation forms a new round in the eternal debate on whether David Gilmour’s first or second solo in “Comfortably Numb” is the greatest in the history of recorded music. An afternoon of music and talk, free of distractions. It doesn’t even bother me that my Rangers lost.

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Unplanned jammer: violinist Jamie Shadowlight.
Unplanned jammer: violinist Jamie Shadowlight.

If you don’t know, you’re not invited

I’m easily distracted on the best of days. Just now, with my Rangers in the playoffs, the timing of this “secret show” could not have been worse. The first weekend of June, game three of the conference finals, and my plan was to surround myself with snacks and scream at professional hockey players — or, more often, to question the referee’s integrity and their mother’s virtue whenever a call went against my team. That they couldn’t hear me wouldn’t mean a thing.

Instead, I’m at an art gallery in El Cajon, which occupies the space at or at least near where an adult bookstore operated prior to the Cajon Zone’s attempt to refashion itself “The Gaslamp of East County.” Though I’m happy to look at the art, I’m there to see live bands. But I have no idea who’ll be performing. That’s the selling point of Sofar Sounds, the company putting on the show: secret, intimate shows for music lovers, ranging from local acts to stars such as Billie Eilish. San Diego Sofar rep Neha Gandhi is checking the list and greets me at the door. Later, she tells me that she attended a Sofar show in New York City on a rooftop and decided, then and there, that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She hints that a shooting star may have provided the final persuasion.

It’s a secret show, and I’m secretly reporting on it. I try to get some information from Cherise Goode, an artist working for the gallery, and she almost immediately asks if this is an interview. Noting that my undercover reporting skills need some work, I manage to discover that The East County Art Association Gallery opened during the pandemic and has, so far, survived, thanks in part to its cross-promotion of visual arts and musical acts.

Sppike Mike Muellenberg, aka bassist Hairy Scary Spice of local mashup tribute The Spice Pistols, is my plus-one, and he immediately notes that there are rugs for the attendees to sit on. He wrangles a couple chairs so we don’t break our middle-aged hips getting up. It’s not long before Muellenberg’s sparkly red and yellow shoes attract the attention of Rachel, who comes bounding over, bursting with energy and punctuating her compliments on his footwear with one of the most infectious laughs I’ve ever heard. She’s wearing a light blue T-shirt bearing the logo for Slenderbodies; it’s the only band shirt I spot. I’m not wearing a music shirt, but rather a tank top with Frank Booth huffing out of a mask — a scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. No one starts a conversation over it. The shirt says “Don’t you fucking look at me.”

Place

East County Art Association

124 East Main Street, El Cajon

Rachel catches Neha moving toward the front of the venue, where a drum set and a guitar are set up, and moves back to her position. Neha welcomes everyone and sets the basic rules: pay attention to the artist, text later, and save the doomscrolling for when you are trying to avoid sleep at night. A few laughs follow, and then, after some applause, I get something I rarely experience at shows: silence.

Most of the 30 audience members sit on the floor comfortably, because their average ages appear to be less than their numbers. There are three acts. Surf rock duo Puerto is up first, and they play some folksy tunes before violinist Jamie Shadowlight joins them from her seat on the floor in an unplanned jam, adding some haunting textures to the performance. After a ten-minute break, Shadowlight does her own set. The elusive silence returns, save for applause.

I look around and marvel at what I don’t see. Not one cell phone or side conversation, none of the sort of distraction that plagues most live shows, where the music seems relegated to being a reason to upload poor quality videos, just to prove you were there. Even the last act, rapper-singer James Mitchell, has everyone’s full attention, and even participation.

When was the last time you convened with fellow music lovers in silent agreement, to live in the moment, for just a couple of hours? To experience artists with a sense of community, with like-minded carbon based life forms? On my way out, I realize that, despite any outward differences, I am with my people. My last Gallery conversation forms a new round in the eternal debate on whether David Gilmour’s first or second solo in “Comfortably Numb” is the greatest in the history of recorded music. An afternoon of music and talk, free of distractions. It doesn’t even bother me that my Rangers lost.

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