Urban Grass counters the midweek doldrums with reggae-rock-bluegrass jams

By Bliss Bowen

Urban Grass also occasionally kicks up the sawdust at Hinano Café

Urban Grass also occasionally kicks up the sawdust at Hinano Café

It’s a Wednesday, and a lively hum rolls around the bar and against the log-paneled walls of BigFoot West as friends laugh, drink and text.

A small stage at the front of the room is occupied by a band that’s got a steady groove going; they jam with their backs to the window, as a behatted man of compact stature sings in a sandy voice whose tough rhythmic cadence stirs vague Jamaican dreams.

His name is Josh Mooers, and whenever he steps to the mic that voice commands attention — of anyone who’s listening, that is. In a setting like this, the band boosts the atmosphere, but often has
to wait ’til break time for compliments from patrons.

A woman near the stage, a late arrival, is first to applaud as one song ends.

“Thank you to the lady in black!” calls out guitarist and bandleader Steve Sherak, who shares frontman duties with Mooers.

Grinning utility player Tom Corbett pumps the rhythm on mandolin and flatpicked guitar, and occasionally answers Sherak’s lead lines with some fiddle licks; tonight a sub is playing bass, but the full lineup usually includes bassist Chris Hackman (and, at other venues, drummer Serge Milenkovic).

To the side of the stage, a tip jar sits before a laptop screen projecting the band’s name: Urban Grass.

They’ve been playing here for two years.

BigFoot is a neighborhood watering hole, so the band tends to jam on more covers than original songs. Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” might be followed by a reggae version of Pink Floyd’s “Time” and Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” as a bluegrass-y two-step, then a reggae take on Men at Work’s “A Land Down Under” and a traditional instrumental. The vibe is decidedly casual, but Urban Grass’ performance is not.

“If you’re giving up your life — I have a college degree in economics and accounting from Rutgers, and I wore a suit right out of school,” Sherak says. “If I’m not going to give my all when I’m onstage, then what am I doing? No matter what, we bring our A game. …

“We do the covers because we like them and change them to fit our vibe with the tune. The covers are there to help get people lubed up and get them to open up, because it’s hard to just go in and do three hours of sheer original material with some of these gigs we’re getting.”

BigFoot is their weekly gig. Once a month they also play five sets at Hinano Café, a “hometown gig” that Venice resident Sherak likens to the cantina band from “Star Wars”: “It’s this freak show with sawdust on floor — this wide spectrum of society, from kids to Venice freaks to old scallywag sailor types, and they dance and go crazy. It’s awesome.”

Those are the cornerstones of a gradually expanding circuit that also includes monthly stops at the Basement in Santa Monica, Three of Clubs in Hollywood and Villains Tavern in Downtown L.A., and bimonthly shows at the Escondite.

Such forward motion is no small achievement in Los Angeles, where musicians routinely jawbone about the decline in live music venues over the past couple of decades. Sherak credits the band’s versatility.

“We can play one all-original set, or do full nights. It’s hard to do all originals for a four-hour night, so we mix in covers, but we’ll take a Beatles tune and skank it reggae, or do a Tom Petty song bluegrass-style.”

Petty and the Beatles are not infrequent reference points in conversation with Sherak, who is keen to avoid genre-specific pigeonholes.

“What kind of music did the Beatles play?” he asks rhetorically. “They played all kinds of music. ‘Helter Skelter’ sounds nothing like ‘Come Together’ or any of George Harrison’s songs. Listen to a Beatles montage, and it’s all kinds of music, all kinds of vibes, all kinds of tempos, all kinds of tones. So that works for us. And we’re getting rebooked.”

Urban Grass’ roots stretch back toward the shores of New Jersey. Sherak, who grew up in Freehold (in the heart of Springsteen country), met and started playing with Maine native Mooers in 2002, when the latter moved to “Jerz.” With their band Quest Theory they toured throughout Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and also took their “rock ‘n’ reggaegrass” to clubs in St. John, St. Thomas and other Caribbean locales, a yearly practice they’ve continued with Urban Grass.

In 2012 they relocated to Los Angeles. Urban Grass was intended to be an acoustic side project, but “people really dug it,” Sherak says. “Finally we realized this is going to be the main band.”

They plan to release two tracks from a nearly finished EP every three months on download cards, and then release all eight tracks on vinyl. The first two songs, “Walkin’ Days” and “Poor Man’s Princess,” should be out in three weeks. After that, Sherak wants to approach jamband festivals, seemingly a natural audience for Urban Grass’ elastic grooves.

“It’s not an easy business, obviously, and there have been ups and downs, but it’s all about keeping it together and focusing on improving and staying positive and moving forward,” he says. “L.A. is a good place for us to do it. If there was ever a regret, it would be that we didn’t come out here sooner. But we can’t complain.”

Urban Grass returns to BigFoot West (10939 Venice Blvd., Culver City) at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 18; no cover. Call (310) 287-2200 or visit urbangrassband.com.