San Diego is the most soulless city I’ve ever been in.
OK, before you get all, like, “Oh, that Seth Combs—what an asshole,” or start flooding my editor’s inbox with love-it-or-leave-it letters, let me explain:
I moved here a little more than a decade ago from Atlanta, Ga. While it was never really my intention to stay, I came to love San Diego in so many different ways, all of which have nothing to do with the weather (I actually like thunderstorms) and almost all to do with the great music and art scene. But while the music scene here is chock full of fantastic indie-rock, electro and even hip-hop artists, the R&B and soul scene here is, well—where is it?
Granted, I’ve never been to places like Orlando or Omaha, which I assume have about as much of a soul scene as, say, I don’t know, the moon? But I have been to places like Kansas City, Memphis, Chicago and even L.A. and San Francisco, where there is a rich soul scene as well as an audience that supports it. There are a few local exceptions (The Styletones, Lady Dottie & The Diamonds), but—and I’m sorry to say this—those are party bands. They’re very talented, but more often than not, their shows resemble Otis Day & The Knights playing the toga party in Animal House. Where are the slow jams? The harmonies? The serenades? What happened to soul shows so good that you wanted to make a baby afterward?
Take Rodney Hubbard. Blessed with a voice that makes ladies’ panties and men’s jaws drop, I’ve watched this guy struggle for years in the local scene in bands like The Bankhead Press and his more recent project, Pan Am. There’s no reason this guy shouldn’t be a local star, but more often than not, he’s resigned to playing restaurant lounges and wine bars.
“I’m not surprised, though,” Hubbard tells me. “The city, the culture, is not built on that type of music. Maybe if you lived in D.C. or Detroit, where there’s more of an ethnocentric soul movement like the Motown sound. That type of culture isn’t here and if it is, it doesn’t stay here.”
Hubbard also cites a lack of interest from venues willing to support local R&B and soul music— and it’s a valid point. After all, when was the last time you saw an R&B band at The Casbah or a soul band Downtown that wasn’t playing cheesy covers? Still, I think there’s hope. I’ve been encour aged by the success of club nights like Sleepwalking at the Whistle Stop, where, even if they’re billing the music as “low-rider oldies,” the place gets packed on Wednesday nights. There are some great soul DJs in town, like Ikah Love and DJ Claire, and I’d love to see them come together to get another club night going. If successful, perhaps venues would be more inclined to give live soul bands a fair shake.
“It’s not like people in San Diego don’t like soul,” says Jeff Graves, the DJ / promoter who started Sleepwalking. “They just don’t get exposed to it a lot, because there are so few venues having these kinds of events.”
Hubbard isn’t giving up. He’s even starting a new project with drummer Jake Najor and will continue to play original songs at places like Wine Steals in Hillcrest and Vagabond in South Park. Hopefully, more venues will start giving him— and the soul genre—a chance.
This is a new monthly column by San Diego’s most cantankerous critic.