Alex Navarro has seen nearly every nook and cranny of the state of California multiple times over, and yet he's never managed to find his way across the Mexican border to Tijuana. It probably has something to do with his natural allergy to cheap tequila and donkey shows.
Any band worth its salt will one day find itself touring the intimidating beast that is the state of California. Bear in mind, this is no small task. Apart from being one of the biggest states in the union, California's regions and counties are as unique as they are multitudinous. You can't just tour anywhere that sounds familiar in California. Taking that approach will lead to a lot of shows where nine people show up and eight of them work at the venue. This is a place where it pays to go off the beaten path, to venture away from the major metropolitan areas and engage the teeming masses of would-be show goers who are just waiting for a band to come their way. And I'm going to help you find them.
Let's start north and work our way down, shall we?
The Great Green North
There isn't a hell of a lot to see once you get north of Sacramento, but there are cities in that great dead zone that sits between the state capitol and the Oregonian border. Of course, god knows why anyone would go there—that is, unless you're a band, and you want to play a few shows on your way down from Portland (seriously, play shows in Portland, OR—it's the best city ever).
Probably the biggest city you'll find in the area is Redding, a rednecky burg that's really great if you like methamphetamines and sorrow. Seriously, I don't know anyone from Redding that wasn't stoked beyond belief when they finally left there. However, if you're taking the I-5, it's really the only place to hit. You're bound to find a bar or two that'll let you play if you research well enough. Just be ready to leave as soon as humanly possible.
Though it's a bit longer of a trek, you should probably take the 101 as far south as you can. You'll hit Arcata at some point, which is home to Humboldt State University, and more crusty hippies than you'll know what to do with. Without venturing too far out of the T for teen category I'll just say the area is known for its greenery, and I ain't talking about the Redwood trees. If you're a reggae band, jam band, or funk/fusion ensemble, you've got it made here. Anybody else will probably do OK too. Those dreadlocked college stoners will listen to anything if they're bored enough.
Just south of Arcata is Eureka. Don't go to Eureka, unless you're just looking for a place to sleep at night. Seriously, it's nowhere near as cool as that Sci-Fi Channel show makes it sound.
Tourist Spots: Highway 1 is a beautiful, if exceedingly lengthy drive down the coast of the state. But in terms of actual points of interest, there isn't much. On the far eastern side, you could check out Lassen State Forest. On the western side..well, there are a lot of pot fields in Humboldt County. But you're liable to get shot by some angry farmer if you go nosing around those, so probably best to steer clear.
The Capital..Capitol..? No, Capital, Definitely Capital..I think..
Sacramento ain't quite as ritzy as the capital of California oughta be, but it's a good-sized town filled to the brim with disaffected youth that will probably be down to go see your band. The city itself is home to lots of different clubs and bars playing host to many touring bands such as yourself, and if you can get on the bill with any local favorites you're pretty guaranteed a good turnout. The city supports its local scene, and a lot of great bands have come out of the area due to the rabid local fan base; such as the Deftones, Papa Roach, and Far to name a few.
Surrounding areas ought to bear some fruit as well. Chico is home to one of the bigger party schools in the state, so if you can't get a good turnout at a bar there, you're probably doing something wrong. Davis is also a pretty big college town, and a good hot spot.
Tourist Spots: Go by the state Capitol building and maybe if you're lucky, you'll catch sight of the Governator and his lovely missus. If you do see him, I highly recommend shouting Predator quotes at him as loudly as possible. “Dillon, you son of a bitch!” is a personal favorite of mine.
The Mountains of the East/Nevada
Drive east of Sacto and eventually you'll run into Lake Tahoe. Parts of Tahoe are technically in Nevada, but whatever, it all applies. Tahoe's a big time ski resort area, and if you go during the peak season, the place is crawling with drunken snowboarders, skiers, and cabin-goers that want nothing more than to watch your lousy band play at a local bar. And there are MANY bars to choose from. Even during the summer the place does OK, but it's probably not worth venturing that far out of the way unless it's the busy season. And if you do go in the winter, get tire chains for the van. Many a ska band were lost during the winter of '96. Blood-drenched trombones and suspenders all over the icy highway. Tragic..I think.
Tourist Spots: In the winter, the place basically is just one giant tourist spot. If you like snowy mountains, it's about as good as it gets. In the summer..well, there's a lake, isn't there?
Home of the Golden Gate Bridge, sourdough bread, and E-40, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the finest places any touring band can hit. Yeah, there's a lot of bands to compete with, but with so many great clubs and venues to play, you're bound to hit paydirt eventually. If you're reading this, you're probably not ready to play the likes of the Filmore or the Warfield yet, but that doesn't matter. You've still got Slim's, The Independent, the Bottom of the Hill, the Make-Out Room, Cafe Du Nord, The Rockit Room, and any number of other places to try. Get on a good bill at any of these joints, and you're in for a great show.
But it's not just the city itself that's worth investigating. Head to the East Bay and you'll eventually run right smack dab into Berkeley, a huge college town that spawned more amazing punk bands than you'll probably ever know. Find your way into 924 Gilman Street, and you'll be at a venue that helped launch the careers of such heavy hitters as Green Day, Jawbreaker, AFI and Operation Ivy.
Head north, and you'll find plenty of venues in places like Santa Rosa and Petaluma. Of particular note is the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma. Run by the local misbegotten youth (myself once included amongst their ranks) and one of the most saintly individuals in the history of ever in manager Tom Gaffey, the Phoenix is an awesome spot to play whether there's 9 or 900 people in attendance. And if you see Ian the sound guy wandering around, let him know he still owes me $20.
Go an hour or two south, and stop when you get to Santa Cruz. Another excellent college town filled with music-hungry 20-somethings. It's sort of like the Humboldt area with more ocean and skateboards, and less hippy farmers. The patchouli stink is still palpable, though.
Tourist Spots: You already know all the big ones. And most of them are pretty decent if you've got a free day. Just be aware that the Haight Ashbury is basically a haven for American Apparel and overpriced coffee shops now. Still, be sure to wander around Golden Gate park, take in the sights and the sounds, and stay away from Coit Tower. It's just a big, dumb tower. Not that cool.
The Central Valley – The Asscrack of California
Look, I'm not going to mince words here: the central valley of California is an awful place filled with a miserable amount of brown-tinted nothingness. It's hot, greasy, and frequently smells. If you've got shows in Southern California and don't mind just doing one long day of driving to get there, skip this wretched place altogether. But if you do need to stop off along the way, playing a show or two in and around the central valley might not be a total waste of time.
My old band used to play a lot of shows in cities like Modesto and Merced and Stockton because local teen centers and coffee shops and pizza parlors (I wish I was kidding) were always having shows and a billion kids would always come out because THERE IS NOTHING TO DO IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY. These kids are bored and will see ANYONE who accidentally wanders into the pit of doom in which they reside. I don't know if it's quite the same as it used to be, but if you're already rolling down the 99 southward, you might as well give it a shot.
But don't go to Fresno. Seriously, it might sound enticing because it's a largish city, but dear god don't go to Fresno. As Johnny from the Airplane movies once said, “Fresno? Nobody goes to Fresno anymore!” Indeed Johnny, indeed.
Tourist Spots: No. Just no.
Southern California, North of L.A.
Off the 101 a couple of hours north of the greater Los Angeles area are a few different college-heavy places to check out. San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, specifically. Not much to say about these places beyond the fact that they're worth hitting up just because, well, they're there, and not much else is.
Tourist Spots: Santa Barbara's got all sorts of beaches, if you're into that sort of thing. Also, a ways north west of San Luis is the tiny area of San Simeon, only noteworthy because it's home to Hearst Castle, the now very touristy former home of William Randolph Hearst. It's so out of the way of anything that it's barely worth mentioning, but I do so just because I adore it as a wonderful symbol of ridiculous opulence gone amok. It's a cool spot, if you've got the time.
City of Angels
At last count, there are roughly one billion songs written about Los Angeles. Do you know why that is? BECAUSE EVERY BAND EVER IS FROM LOS ANGELES OR HAS PLAYED IN LOS ANGELES.
With that said, I'm going to make a somewhat controversial statement here. Don't go to Los Angeles.
What I mean by that is this: It is near-on impossible to play a good show in L.A. as an up-and-coming band. Unless you've already got a decent fan base and can parlay that into some kind of notoriety going into shows in L.A., nobody's going to care. L.A. has tons of bands already embedded within its borders vying for a small piece of the pie, thus making the environment for touring acts.. hostile, to say the least.
OK, so maybe not playing at all in L.A. isn't a reasonable thing, but you should definitely manage your expectations when going in there. Try to find shows in surrounding areas, like the Valley, Silver Lake, Riverside, Corona, Orange County, whatever isn't in L.A. or Hollywood proper. Get your feet wet on the outskirts before attacking the beast.
Tourist Spots: You probably know all of them already. I suggest getting one of those star maps and finding Kurt Russell's house. Kurt Russell's house is bound to be cooler than all the touristy nonsense in the greater Los Angeles area combined. I know HMXHenry would agree.
All the Way South
South of L.A., all that's really worth wandering toward is San Diego, and you know, it's entirely worth it. San Diego is a huge place chock full of great clubs and bars. In fact, I say skip L.A. altogether, and just go straight to San Diego. You're practically guaranteed to have a better tour experience there than you will anywhere in L.A. Seriously, to hell with L.A.
Tourist Spots: This is less a tourist spot than, well, a country, but once you get to San Diego, you're a mere stone's throw from the Mexican border. As you might expect, all manner of chicanery can be gotten up to once you get across that border, so if you've already run the gauntlet and found your way running the whole way down California, you might as well make the jump and get some margaritas. Just try to stay out of jail.
And with that, I have given you what I hope is a fairly useful roadmap for touring California. It's a fantastic place for a band to play some shows and have a great time, so long as you know where you're going and don't just star booking all willy nilly.
And I'm totally serious about L.A.