Why make a big deal out of a 19th anniversary? Because the Smell might not be around for its 20th.
On Saturday night, some of the highest-profile acts to come out of this tiny downtown club, including Best Coast and No Age, gathered at the Belasco Theater to pay tribute to the place that’s been incubating bands for not quite two decades. The Smell opened in January 1998 as an all-ages home for punk and experimental music, and soon it became a beloved linchpin of the underground art scene in Los Angeles.
Yet Saturday’s show wasn’t merely a celebration of good times gone by; it was also a benefit (thus the larger room) designed to help ensure more.
Last year the Smell received notice that the owners of its building, near the intersection of South Main and West 3rd streets, had received permission to demolish it. Now the club is busily raising money to relocate — and at a time when incidents like December’s deadly Oakland warehouse fire have increased public scrutiny of venues not run by corporate concert promoters.
“It’s super important to keep DIY venues open,” Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino said during her band’s performance, which prompted the crowd to start up a chant — “Save the Smell!” — that the club has utilized as a social-media rallying cry.
What’s important about it? For one thing, do-it-yourself spaces allow younger fans access to a live-music experience that’s not predicated on the sale of alcohol. They also foster the development of acts that don’t fit easily into the musical mainstream — or don’t fit yet, anyway.
Indeed, Best Coast put out its most recent album, 2015’s excellent “California Nights,” on a major label. To launch the record, the group played on top of the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood.
But long before that rock-star moment, Cosentino and her bandmates found their fuzzy dream-pop sound in the encouraging environment of the Smell. And Saturday they honored those early days with a stripped-down set long on oldies such as “Boyfriend,” “Crazy for You” and “Goodbye,” in which Cosentino sang, “I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk.”
Yet the Smell isn’t just a place to nurture dreams of pop success. While a gloomy electro-punk outfit as opaque as Best Coast was direct, L.A.’s Health demonstrated the venue’s commitment to artists uninterested in (or incapable of) connecting with a mass audience.
Its performance — with singer Jacob Duzsik murmuring eerily over harsh industrial grooves — was fringe-y on purpose, as was a set by Bleached, a proudly scrappy garage band with songs that never allowed themselves to become too catchy or propulsive.
For these groups, the Smell offers crucial validation — assurance not that they’re on their way but that they’ve already made it.
As one of the club’s breakouts, No Age has seen pastures many would consider greener, including the Hollywood Bowl and the Pacific Design Center, both of which the duo has played thanks in part to its ample onstage charisma.
On Saturday, though, even as they charmed the crowd with jokes, drummer Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall showed off the uncompromising creative spirit — not to mention the good manners — they cultivated at the Smell.
“We’re playing a bunch of new songs,” Spunt said a few minutes into their headlining set of thickly textured noise rock.
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