Music, food and fun reign supreme at Abbot Kinney and WAM festivals

By Bliss Bowen and Christina Campodonico

Global Dance Arts parades through last year’s Abbot Kinney Festival
Photo by Edizen Stowell /

It’s right there in the shadow of LAX, yet it’s easy for outsiders not to see Westchester, which retains some of its small-town milieu despite big city surroundings. In the tradition of small towns — especially those with creative aspirations — the Emerson Avenue Community Garden Club is hosting this Saturday’s second annual Westchester Arts & Music (WAM) Block Party: a free, all-ages community street festival featuring tours of the garden, a beer-and-wine garden, food trucks, artisan vendors, and live music from a diverse lineup of performers.

If that sounds more like a slice of Venice life, there’s good reason. The Abbot Kinney Festival — happening for a 33rd time this Sunday — has perfected the art the Westside community block party, expanding it to four live entertainment stage, three beer gardens and more than 200 vendors stretching from Venice Boulevard to Main Street.

What also links the upstart WAM Block Party to the venerable Abbot Kinney Fest is celebrating local character, especially when it comes to music.

For the past four years, Venice singer-songwriter Matt Ellis has been holding down curatorial duties for the Abbot Kinney Festival’s Andalusia Avenue stage … or “local’s stage,” as he calls it. Venice folk band Lucky Penny opens at 10:15 a.m. with beach-approved arrangements of accordion, horns and drums. Aretha-meets-Dolly singer-songwriter Lacey Kay Cowden (who performs monthly at The Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy) is on at 11, folk-blues slide guitarist and singer Cristina Vane performs at 1 p.m., and prolific rock singer-songwriter Blue-Eyed Son (aka Andrew Heilprin) takes over at noon.

Ellis performs songs from his forthcoming album and a duet with fellow Venice musician Paul Chesne at 4 p.m. Reggae band Brightside, founded in a small studio on Electric Avenue and specializing in a sound they call “Venice Beach Roots,” closes things out after 5 p.m.

“We’re going from blues and bluegrass to hard rock and reggae-esque at the end of it all,” says Ellis. “It should have a pretty good flow.”

For those looking for bigger beats and something with a little more funk, hip-hop luminaries Crown and the MOB join Venice supergroup HOV (House of Vibe All-Stars) on the Westminster Avenue stage.

Saturday’s WAM Block Party has co-headliners Apollo Bebop and Nocona establishing its broad parameter of musical offerings with the former’s assured “hip-hop jazz for the soul” and the latter’s psychedelic, country-infused rock. The eclectic bill is rounded out by Jet Age instrumental ensemble Jetpack, Americana songstress LeeAnn Skoda, country rocker Rob Leines, breezy pop quintet Undecided Future, local Celtic favorites the Praties, emotive pop duo Rainne, and songwriter/ADAAWE co-founder Joselyn Wilkinson.

Nocona, who played last year’s WAM fest, know a thing or three about block parties; frontman/lead guitarist Chris Isom and bassist wife Adrienne Cohen Isom have hosted several in their Venice neighborhood, where they and their two children have forged close relationships with neighboring families. The Isoms say they were impressed by WAM’s first iteration, and also by the community.

“After we played WAM last year, we played a couple school fundraisers there too,” Adrienne says. “The vibe we got, being there, was this is a strong community and they really want to have fun.”

Kids play at Emerson Avenue Community Garden during last
year’s WAM Block Party

“WAM is great to show acts that are actually right here in our backyard,” offers Jetpack bandleader Dan Standiford. “My own Culver City throws its Ballona Creek festival yearly. The creek is literally the view out my front door — no houses, the concrete trough to the marina — and each year I see band after band brought in from area codes that are not familiar, so what are they celebrating that’s local? Culver could learn a thing from Westchester.”

Standiford says he recently came across a 15-year-old show flyer for a Westchester Sports Grill surf lineup that featured Jetpack, Insect Surfers, the Reventlos, and the Hillbilly Soul Surfers. Jetpack’s music now prominently features Jennifer Anderson’s saxophones but it’s still heavy on reverb, midcentury aesthetics, and the kind of surf-infused instrumentals that defined L.A. beach life for the world in the 1960s.

“That sound was in music of that era, not just surf,” Standiford says. “Reverb for days on the vocals of those Columbia recordings, muted guitar plucking in country like Johnny Cash, whirly tremolo effects not just on guitars but organs and vibes in jazz of the era: I love all these things and they happen to come together in the pop instrumentals of the era. So what keeps it interesting for us is to be the surf band that plays more ‘other’ songs than we do surf songs.”

That era was also the gestation period for the decade’s psychedelic and country rock explosions, both of which inform Nocona’s spirited music. The Isoms, harmonica player Elan Glasser, drummer Justin Smith and pedal steel player Dan Wistrom will be previewing new material they just recorded live in the Isoms’ garage.

“It ties back into the community thing for us,” Adrienne says. “Working with our friends and our kids being there. So we will be playing a bunch of new stuff at WAM fest and also make it dancey and fun, with fun covers that everyone knows.

“We’re tough, but we’re like the family band,” she says with a laugh. “The block party family band.”


The second annual WAM Block Party happens from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, along Emerson Avenue between 80th Street and 80th Place.


The 33rd annual Abbot Kinney Festival happens from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, along Abbot Kinney Boulevard between Main Street and Venice Boulevard.