Westchester Arts & Music Block Party builds a cultural scene around community bonds

By Hannah Levy

Spelles brings haunting blues vocals to slow-burning indie rock tunes

Seven years ago, what’s now the Emerson Avenue Community Garden was “no more than a dirt lot” next to Orville Wright Middle School, recalls John Sharpe, one of several Westchester residents who banded together to trans-
form the derelict property into a neighborhood gathering and activity space.

To get the word out about the garden and expand on its mission, a volunteer committee looked north to Venice’s epic Abbot Kinney Festivals and south to El Segundo’s burgeoning art walks for the inspiration to launch the Westchester Arts & Music Block Party.

On Saturday, the third annual WAM Block Party returns bigger than ever — an established Westside cultural festival in its own right — with 15 music and dance acts, 16 arts-related vendors, nine food offerings, more than a dozen family-friendly activities (including a petting zoo), a silent disco via wireless headphones, a beer-and-wine garden, an art bus that festivalgoers can literally paint on and in, and not one but two local high school marching bands.

At 10 a.m., Roger Espinoza & Café Fuego kick off an eclectic musical lineup with Latin and rumba beats, followed
by surf music by Jet Pack, pop violinist Kiev Morales and country tunes by Ry Bradley. Other highlights include folk artist Jocelyn Wilkinson, West Coast rockers Higuera, blues-rock by The Deltas, innovative indie rockers Trap Door Social (at 5:30 p.m.), and clean-cut pop/funk five-piece Undecided Future taking the stage at 6:45 p.m. to close out the day.

Spelles, a buzzworthy L.A. singer-songwriter who brings haunting blues vocals to slow-burning indie rock tunes, performs with her band at 12:30 p.m. She recently released an EP titled “Skeleton Coast” and is already working on another batch of songs she’s excited about.

“I’m exploring new sounds and trying to add elements that I’ve never done before,” she says. “I love performing outside.
It feels more freeing to be out in the fresh air.”

The band roster alone makes for a busy schedule, but a new feature of the WAM Block Party promises to make it an easier day for young families: This year, there’s free childcare.

“Parents can actually sit in the beer garden for an hour and relax,” says Sharpe, a professional music rep and a driving force behind WAM.

Hours before we spoke, Sharpe received confirmation that both the Venice High School and Inglewood High School marching bands will perform live at the festival, an arrangement he’d been working on with Trapdoor Social. It’s going to be amazing, he says — but complicated.

“There are going to be four buses of kids with two trucks of equipment, and they’re all going to be dressed in uniform, and we’re going to try to find a way to get them to the stage with the band for the last song in their set,” Sharpe says.

Later that day, in the Venice High School music room, members of the marching band were taking five from rehearsing that song — an anthemic track called “Fine on My Own.” Trapdoor’s lead singer Skylar Funk was giving notes, while at the back of the room a drum major named Robert was getting nervous. He’d received the sheet music for Funk’s song less than five minutes ago — one with a particularly important tenor drum sequence — and was being asked to play it on the spot. What’s more, the student would be the only tenor drummer performing at WAM, as Inglewood High doesn’t have one.

Robert’s first try at the piece wasn’t perfect and his bandmates let him know it. “Hey, don’t be hard on Robert,” Funk shouted over them, half joking. “He just learned the part, and he’s got a lot of pressure on him.”

Like Sharpe, this isn’t Funk’s first rodeo. A few years ago while on tour in Colorado Springs, Trapdoor Social took a day off to appear on a local radio show. The host, it turned out, had a kid in band camp at the local high school. He asked the four-piece group to swing by.

“I was a total band kid in high school,” Funk said. “Being back there inspired me. I wrote ‘Fine on My Own’ that spring, recorded it in the summer, and the following fall we went back out to Colorado Springs to have a recording session at the school.” The song was released on the radio a few weeks later and has twice been performed live. With two marching bands accompanying them this time around, the upcoming WAM performance will be the indie rock group’s largest yet.

“We’re really excited to be a part of something as positive and hyperlocal as WAM,” says Funk, who is planning a similar set for the Oct. 20 solar-powered Sun Stock festival in Hollywood. Like much of the money from Trapdoor’s tours and album releases, the proceeds from the event support community solar projects.

On my way out of the band room, I pull aside a bass drummer named Christopher and ask him what he thinks. He’s fully confident the band will know the piece in and out by Saturday — especially Robert.

“If anyone could get that part it’s him,” says Christopher. “Nobody else here could do it, but Robert can.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

The WAM Block Party happens from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 15) on Emerson Avenue in Westchester, between West 80th Street and West 80th Place. It’s free to attend. Visit wamblockparty.org for a detailed entertainment schedule and vendor roster.