Sixth annual WAM pulls out the stops with music, art and food
By Bridgette M. Redman
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a wider variety of local performers than on Sept. 18 at the sixth annual WAM — the Westchester Arts & Music Block Party on Emerson Avenue between 80th Street and West 80th Place.
It’s not your typical block party. There are 10 mainstage music performers and four more performance groups ranging from dance and magic to drums that will perform throughout the day from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s a different sound every hour, starting with indie/alternative and traveling through blues, surf, gospel, pop/punk, funk/R&B-inspired jam, pop, R&B soul, Americana, and ending with Latin/rock/flamenco.
But there isn’t just music and dance. There is also art, community booths, kids’ activities, garden tours, food trucks, and a beer and wine garden. The day-long free event benefits the Emerson Avenue Community Garden.
“The music has been a big part of what people are really surprised by in terms of the quality and diversity of the mix of folks we bring in to perform,” said WAM organizer John Sharpe. “It’s not your typical people playing local bars. There are a lot of decent bar bands around — I’m in one, but these are people at decent stages in their career.”
While Sharpe said there are crowds all day listening to the bands, there are three “headliners” this year: Omar Torrez, Rose’s Pawn Shop and Rainne.
The full performer line-up is available at wamblockparty.org/performers-1 with links to each of their music.
Omar Torrez returns from Republic of Georgia to close out block party In his first appearance at WAM, Omar Torrez brings his Flamenco rock-pop style guitar playing as the final act of the day-long shows. He’d spent most of the pandemic in the Republic of Georgia where Sharpe said Torrez has a huge following. When Sharpe was hosting live Instagram shows during COVID, Torrez brought in 50 people from Europe who woke up at 3 a.m. just to be a part of it and hear him perform.
“I was really impressed with that,” Sharpe said.
For his part, Torrez is eager to get back on stage as he said he’s felt like half his life has been missing.
“COVID was a complete disaster for music and people playing music,” Torrez said. “I was practicing, and practicing is not the same as playing. You feel kind of empty. Then John was doing these Instagram live shows. He reached out to me — I did a few for him and that went really well and I was grateful.”
When Sharpe told him he was doing a live show, Torrez jumped at the opportunity, even though he was still living in Georgia. The block party performance will mark 20 months since Torrez has performed a live concert in the United States — the longest he’s gone since he was 6 years old and performing piano recitals.
“A huge part of my life was taken away from me with this pandemic,” Torrez said. “This will mark a symbolic and actual restoration of what I do — I play for the people. It is about connection and communication. It is an exchange of energy that goes deeper than words. It is sounds, words, emotions, ideas, all of these things together.
“My father taught me when I was young that a musician’s job is like a doctor, but it is a doctor for the soul — to heal people and give them the strength so they can do what they do best.”
Torrez, who was always influenced by Flamenco music, described a journey where he started out performing bluesy rock and went through several sounds to get to where he is now. During his journey, he was hired to play with Tom Waits, which helped mature his music.
“Tom is a very transformative person to work for because he has completely his own sound, but he borrows pieces from all kinds of different genres and styles of music,” Torrez said. “He puts them in a big bucket of paint and whiskey and it comes out transformed.”
Torrez too became transformed by working with him and he came out of it with a sound that he says is a post-Latin blues, something belonging to the 21st century that is Bohemian, an energetic rock but also old style. He hesitates to pinpoint exactly what his sound is.
“It’s a famous cliché that no musical artist likes to describe their sound, but I understand that I must,” Torrez said. “If we accept that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, I would say the following: If you can imagine a mixture of Jimi Hendrix with some Latin, Afro-Cuban music mixed with a bit of Tom Waits. It’s high energy and danceable with a little psychedelic and burning guitar and rhythms.”
Rose’s Pawn Shop infuses event with flairs of Americana
Rose’s Pawn Shop is making a return appearance at the WAM block party.
“It’s a pretty special community event,” said Paul Givant, the band’s lead vocalist, guitar and banjo player. “They were doing it to bring the community together. There was a gardening project and charities working with it. We had a lot of fun playing there. It had a great crowd. When he asked if we would do it again, we were excited to return to the event.”
Rose’s Pawn Shop, which got its name after Givant’s ex-girlfriend stole all their equipment and pawned it, consists of five guys who play music centered on Appalachian and Americana music. The music is authentic and heartfelt, rooted in American folk and bluegrass.
“It’s called Americana because it draws from several different musical styles that are American, but are different,” Givant said. “There are elements of folk, elements of bluegrass, elements of rock and elements of country. You have the fiddle and the banjo doing the country and the bluegrass sound, then we have electric guitar and full drums which make it more rock. Then we have tight harmonies between two to four singers and a stand-up bass that gives you folk and rockabilly songs with the way the player will slap the upright bass. All of these different American music styles get put in a blender.”
A native of California, Givant said that Southern California has had a major influence on his writing style and the music he produces.
“The landscapes, the mountains, going down to the sea — that’s an inspiration,” Givant said. “It’s a melting pot of music. People come to Los Angeles from all over. California was a big part of the country music scene in the beginning. It’s just a special place where you get these influences from all over the world meeting in one place.”
It’s a music that reaches out and connects with people. Givant recalled a prior WAM concert where the beer garden was very close to where they were performing and everyone was having a good time. There was a moment where he got everyone to raise their glass in a cheer to good times.
While country music has a reputation for being depressing, Givant said their live performances tend to be very upbeat.
“It brings people together,” Givant said. “There is a lot of energy that gets people dancing and jumping up and down and having a good time together. The lyrics are a little more morose and deal with issues like relationships not working out or existential dread.”
It allows for audiences, Givant explained, to choose their own adventure as to how they want to experience the music — either having a good time and forgetting about their own troubles or having a more introspective experience where they listen to the lyrics.
Saxophone-vocalist duo brings their moody pop music to the stage
Lyrically and musically, pop duo Rainne has a Goth-inspired personality, but vocalist/songwriter Annie Dingwell and saxophone player Justin Klunk say they are actually a couple of goofballs which comes out during their shows.
Regulars at the WAM block party, Rainne had experienced exciting success right before the pandemic hit. Out of 14,000 participants, they won a contest to open the “We Can Survive” benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl. They opened for the event, which featured sets by Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and others.
They met John Sharpe by accident. The venue they were supposed to be performing at double booked performers and Rainne was suddenly left without a place to play and a group of fans who wanted to hear them. Sharpe’s wife, Irene, was there and invited them to bring their guests and perform in their backyard.
“John has been a huge supporter of ours,” Dingwell said. “So, any time he needs us, we try to go through hoops to make it happen for him. He’s a great guy and a huge supporter of the arts.”
“We will always play any event where the people are awesome,” Klunk said. “This is going to be our third or fourth time now at WAM. We keep coming back.”
Dingwell recalled a moment after one of the WAM shows where she was talking to a man from the audience. She had just written a song about a really bad breakup she’d experienced. She noticed while singing it that there was a man in the audience recording her as she sang. Afterward, he told her that he had a daughter that was Dingwell’s age who was also going through a horrible breakup.
“He said he wanted to thank me for sharing this,” Dingwell said. “He thought the song would really connect with her. It made him want to cry because he’s been watching her go through it. I was like, oh, that’s so heartfelt. That’s the heart of indie core. You want to connect with people. That is a standout moment for me that I’ll always treasure.”
And they both agreed the food trucks are great. They appreciate that the event is for a good cause, one that encourages people to plant and grow things.
“Everyone is there for such a great reason and has such a positive attitude,” Dingwell said. “Everyone is in a good mood and it really is an excellent showcase of the community coming together in every regard to support each other for the greater good.”
“This one is specifically geared toward the arts,” Klunk added. “It’s different than doing a show in Hollywood where music can feel oversaturated. Not every listener is there to listen. But every year with WAM, no matter what time of day we are playing, we always have people very attentively listening.
Rainne has traveled a winding road to find their sound as an indie pop group. They met at a Grammy camp and then went to college together at the University of Southern California. Dingwell was writing music for other people in a wide variety of genres and moods. The friendship from their high school and college days remained strong and they enjoyed playing with each other. They started combining their talents and Dingwell would throw Klunk strange songs, then he would figure out how to make the saxophone work for them.
“Sometimes the saxophone acts like a bass, sometimes it acts like a saxophone,” Dingwell said. “Sometimes it harmonizes the vocals and sometimes he puts in a ton of effects and gives it this atmosphere feel. That was a huge part of us figuring out the sound. Then I got better at honing my genres in.”
In the past several years, they’ve released such singles as “Psycho Killer,” “Sin” and “Dirty Little Dream.”
At WAM, they will be playing with a backing band, which Klunk said adds an extra level of energy to their shows. Dingwell said audiences can expect a lot of solos and intricate arrangements during their set.
“We don’t want to play the songs the exact same way they appear on paper or on the records,” Dingwell said. “We love to have different iterations for them. The show will have lots of energy.”
“High sass and lots of brass,” Klunk added.
“You might get a few bad jokes from Justin,” Dingwell warned.
“A few?” Klunk laughed. “A lot.”