By Robert Spuhler
The rafters of Harvelle’s Club are lined with portraits of musicians that have come before — some recognizable to blues music fans, others less so. But despite these nods to its storied past, to see Harvelle’s solely as an artifact of a long-gone era of blues clubs is to miss its current charm.
Today, the oldest music venue on the west side of Los Angeles boasts an eclectic lineup, ongoing upgrades, and its proud place in the community. “We’re traditionally an old blues club, but one of the things we discussed as partners is [that] an old blues club is where old men go to die,” says manager and part-owner Damian Anastasio. “We couldn’t keep the doors open if we stayed that [way].”
And so it goes on 4th Street in downtown Santa Monica, just steps from the Fairmont Miramar, as Harvelle’s evolves itself while trying to hold onto the spirit that comes from almost 90 years of history.
Harvelle’s began its life as a speakeasy — not today’s version, with vested bartenders and fancy cocktails, but an actual Prohibition-era juke joint. The club got right with the law after the 21st amendment passed, acquiring a liquor license in 1933. The space was split in the 1940s (bar and restaurant West 4th & Jane now occupies Harvelle’s “other half”), and in the decades that have passed, much of the club’s history has been lost to the years.
What is known, however, is that the club has hosted some of music’s greatest performers. Bob Dylan and Tom Petty have taken the small stage here, as well as Bonnie Raitt and Bo Diddley. Befitting its profile, “every blues guy” has performed at Harvelle’s, says Anastasio.
And that list isn’t all ancient history, either. Harvelle’s played an important role in the discovery of modern rock and blues savants Vintage Trouble, according to Anastasio. “One of the things we try to do is nurture young acts so that they can grow, get bigger, and play other clubs,” he adds. “We don’t like to be proprietary. We want to help the artist.”
Those artists come from more diverse backgrounds now than perhaps at any other time in the club’s history. Wednesday night, the House of Vibe All-Stars take the stage, with their signature funk and soul mix. Thursday night is handed over to a rotating crew of burlesque troupes (one of which recently signed a deal for a residency in Las Vegas). And Sunday nights? It’s the Toledo Show, starring Toledo Diamond, who has played the club every Sunday night for 18 consecutive years with his mix of aerialists, pole dancers, and other forms of fun. Almost 20 years in, it still packs the room.
But while the crowd size is mostly based on the act playing, Anastasio maintains that it’s the community, especially on nights when the stage is dark but the bar is open, that has helped support the establishment. “We get a lot of restaurant people in before they go to work, and after they get off of work,” he says. “We cater to them and give local discounts. They are important to us.”
In the end, maybe that’s the secret: Take 80-plus years of history and add a personal, local touch. “The standout feature here isn’t anything we can work on — it’s that 1931 vibe that still exists here,” Anastasio says. “Even in cleaning it up, we’re trying to preserve it. We want people to come in and feel at home, just like we do with the bands.”
About the Contributor
Robert Spuhler is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers nightlife and lifestyle, music, movies, pop culture, technology, and government for LA Magazine, MSN, Complex, amNew York and San Francisco Chronicle.