'Westering Again'

'Westering Again'

Old Californio gets its classic-rock groove going at the Buccaneer

By Bliss Bowen 03/26/2009

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Retracing local band histories with songwriter/vocalist Rich Dembowski, keyboardist Levi Nuñez and drummer Justin Smith from Pasadena’s Old Californio is a convoluted exercise. Between them, the longtime friends – who grew up in Temple City and Sierra Madre and now live in Pasadena – have performed with myriad acts, including the Hubcaps, the Misunderstood, Northern Lights, Raul, Wobbleshop, Lynda Kay, Romeo Void, Ben Vaughn and Victoria Williams, and they’ve moved in Further-Beachwood Sparks circles. With a sepia-toned Dylan staring benignly from the wall and Fred Neil spinning on the turntable, the stage seems set for discourse on musical influences.

Instead, conversation around Smith’s dining table turns literary as Dembowski celebrates novelist John Steinbeck, as key an inspiration as the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape or Neil Young — other influences readily discernible between Old Californio’s dusty grooves. A Steinbeck quote provided the title for their new album, “Westering Again,” whose lyrics liberally reference California geography and history.

“Steinbeck represents that idea of what I’m doing with Old Californio, [which has] a rustic, very Californian vibe to it,” Dembowski explains. “He’s a huge influence,” he says. “I love literature, and it inspires me to write and take notes. I love writing so much but I’m so bad at it; I read enough to know I’m a bad writer. But I can work it into what I do in songs and still feel I’m partaking in it somehow, and that becomes sort of a catharsis.”

Left alone, Dembowski would spend his time just “making up” songs. Smith and Nuñez shouldered marketing and artwork duties for “Westering Again,” which also features bassist Jason Chesney, country guitarist buddy Dave Gleason and Bobby Womack guitarist Woody Aplanalp, and was recorded in “the chicken-shack.”

“That’s my house, next door,” Dembowski says, laughing. “That’s where all the magic goes down. I’d take you there but the cat just caught a rat, and it’s a little bit smelly. It’s still an ass-hair away from being an old chicken-shack. It’s an old lean-to that we kind of converted. If you’ve come by on the Third of July, you know a lot of this vibe, what we do here, is having neighbors — and everybody in the neighborhood knows each other. [In] the chicken-shack, where we record, we can do what we want.”

Dembowski and Smith’s Third of July block parties are legendary here, an uncommonly close-knit enclave – its own Mayberry within East Pasadena. Hundreds of people throng to those July gatherings, which hosted Old Californio’s first public performances.
They’re currently sending “Westering” to digital outlets (“There’s an audience for it somewhere,” Smith muses philosophically, “and if people like it, they should be able to hear it”), and preparing for an April 5 show at the Echo with I See Hawks in LA. But first, Old Californio warms up at Buccaneer Lounge, 70 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, 9 p.m. Saturday. Call (626) 355-9045. www.myspace.com/oldcalifornio.

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