Front Porch

Checking in with Navajo Live

Navajo Live owner Chris Heaney (center), with Jeff Ousley and Emily Bartell. Photo by Liz Abbott.

Ted Stern and Michael Dwyer at Navajo Live’s open mic.

Tucked away in the recesses of a middle-class strip mall on the edge of San Diego’s suburbs, Navajo Live has become a go-to music venue during a time when other, longer established local hangouts have been closing down or heading in different directions than live music. If there is a formula to the locale’s success, it likely has to do with owner Chris Heaney and, more recently Emily Bartell, the energetic booking agent/promo whiz, who has played key part in helping the transformation of Navajo Live from a neighborhood watering hole to a six-nights-a-week live music showcase. Audiences can hear multiple genres—played by everyone from singer/songwriters with wooden instruments to inexperienced players looking to jam, along with established bands playing tribute, cover, and original music.

Heaney bought the club on Super Bowl Sunday, 2015. “I bought this place with two people I play ice hockey with, three and a half years ago. It just needed a little TLC to be a make it a good East County club. Right now, we’re running live music six out of seven nights. Something for everyone.”

Heaney had previous ownership experience with venues that included Brick by Brick, Kadan, the Rook, and Radio Room. His goal is to make Navajo Live something different than his previous clubs, and the flexibility it offers is a big part of that.

“I’d get big national acts on my weekends. If I did local acts, it was tough because with 25 people, it feels empty and shallow. Here, it feels good with 25 people, so bands are into it. Since they are into it, it’s a real musician-friendly place. I’ve got the musicians that play here, all local musicians, on the wall. No national acts. I’m trying to push the original music, get the original musicians in here.”

The club can handle various music genres, including rock with big back line amps, and has the ability to accommodate both small and large crowds of up to 200 listeners. Heaney points out, “One thing the bands are saying is that they are happy we’re going with six nights out of seven for live music performances. A lot of the clubs are going away from live music.”

Earlier this year Heaney decided to drop from two nights of karaoke to one weekly, and with Bartell put together a Strictly Acoustic Open Mic on Monday evenings, which began March 20 of this year.

“It’s singer/songwriter plus musicians from different bands performing with each other.” Heaney adds. “The open jam is good. This place is built for it. We find these hidden gems, people who come down and they are shy, and then they get up there and you can’t believe their voices or the songs that they sing. I’m a closet coffeeshop wannabe owner.

“I’m not just getting the musicians as the audience, I’m getting an actual audience that wants to see the talent level, because the talent level of a lot of these guys is good. This is for the musician who likes music and maybe wrote one or two songs, but never really fixed that song. You play acoustic and the next thing you know, you’re on the Thursday night jam with two other guys you met.”

Since its start, Strictly Acoustic Monday Open Mic has been a success; as Bartell explains, “It has become so popular, the place on a Monday is actually packed. It’s absolutely wonderful. When we heard that other clubs were closing, Chris wanted to provide a place for the musicians to have another outlet for acoustic music.

“Business has been really good,” says Bartell. “And the fact that Chris is always open to new ideas, that is number one about this place. The other thing that is amazing is that Navajo Live refuses to ever charge a cover charge.

“In this venue, [Chris] wants to keep this a live music place, no matter what. They love original music, certainly; they have cover bands as well, because you want to have your dance bands on the weekends. Original music is a passion for Chris Heaney, which I am grateful for, because it’s my passion as well as Jeff Ousley who is host for the Thursday Night Open Mic.”

Bartell is a New York native who transplanted here 29 years ago, bringing her training in theatre and non-profit management with her. Her involvement with the club started almost three years ago when friend/musician Ted Stern recommended it to her when she had a friend visiting from out of town—Stern recommended Ousley’s Thursday Night Open Mic.

“I went that first time and I just kept coming back. I’d just sit here and listen to the music and as time went on, I got to know the different musicians in town.” Bartell says. Before long, her love of music, 26 years of theatre and non-profit experience, and knowledge of promotion meshed.

The experience of local musicians nearly ruined by lack of medical coverage when victims of major illness gave her an opportunity to get involved with Heaney in raising money for a local drummer who was being treated for cancer. Her activity putting together a fundraiser in response led to a working relationship with Heaney.

“Chris and I started talking. He does a lot of work on the side, helping out children in the community, creating recreational activities. Out of that Chris and I started talking about it and I had this vision of creating MERA, I like to call it, Musicians Emergency Relief Alliance.” It is still a work in progress, but the idea remains. “It’s a vision I had to help our aging musicians in the community who don’t have medical, some of them who don’t even know how to fill out the medical forms and who don’t know what their options are and don’t know where to go. They just need a helping hand.”

As Bartell’s involvement in the local music scene grew, she met more local figures. She helped with Navajo Live setting up a Live Band Showcase on Wednesday nights. Another of her ideas that has come to fruition is a monthly Singer/Songwriter Showcase, on a Sunday evening. She hosts groups of nine artists split into groups of three, sharing their original compositions in a round robin format. And, after friends recommended it, Bartell got into the business herself, booking bands at Navajo Live, Humphrey’s Backstage, Java Joe’s, and other local venues. Her business has since expanded to over 70 artists and bands.

“Navajo Live is my home base, and I’m very grateful and thankful to Chris Heaney and Jeff Ousley for allowing me to create new music platforms at the club, while at the same time starting my own business as a Booking Agent and Promoter around San Diego.” She considers Heaney and Ousley mentors—Heaney for teaching her the business side and Ousley for helping her learn about musicians and audience relations. Another key mentor for Bartell has been Bart Mendoza, who helped introduce her to the local music scene and has advised her about creating and sustaining her business.

“I used to travel all around, listening to bands, but it got expensive driving around all over the place. So now, most of the musicians know if they want me to hear them, they should come to either a Monday Acoustic Open Mic or Thursday Open Mic with Jeff Ousley to do a set of three songs, any style. Thursday is a very eclectic evening; all the great musicians come with or without their bands. Some will be acoustic, even though we prefer that the acoustics come on Monday-they can come on Thursday too. Jeff is very open and welcoming to any musician artist that comes in.”

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It’s Thursday Open Mic night at Navajo Live and the early arrivals outside are buzzing over a beautiful customized, cherry red 1955 T Bird parked outside the door; no one knows who owns it, but most or all wish they did—and they are concerned it will get banged up parked where it is. Jeff Ousley rolls up at 6:45 and introduces himself as he has been told I am coming tonight. A bass in a soft case is in one hand and the amps for the night are in his car. It Turns out sign-ins are done online, and there are “about 10” bands or individuals slated for the jam. It is a “really heavy night.” I am included, having lugged in my lap steel and an electric guitar, and the harp player from the band I usually play with, Jimi Ames, is also here.

By the time Jeff sets up amps and rigs onstage, the 60 or so seats in the club have butts in them, and by 7:15 things are ready for his warmup, as he plays an acoustic solo original, “Summer’s Gone,” and establishes in the process that he is a singer and writer with formidable talent. After that, he does a marvelous job of managing chaos, working combos of musicians together, recruiting many on the spot to play, and hustling them on and off stage with barely any delays; Jimi is onstage blowing blues on harp by the third tune. Jeff advises that I won’t need my electric rigs tonight due to an amp shortage, but soon announces that I will be playing his acoustic guitar with the next set. The international three-song debut of Ali, Frank, and two good rhythm section guys is fun, especially a garage band-feel “Back in the USSR.” Most memorable is the audience energy and the number of folks complimenting us after we are done.

Other music follows by more experienced Live jammers in three song sets, including a rockabilly trio doing a nice turn on “Stray Cat Strut,” and Jeff returning with a full band including fiddle and keys. They play a New Wave sampler that includes strong versions of “Mad World” and the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” and show what difference a bit of experience and rehearsing can make. The coveted 9 o’clock slot is ready for the Becca Jay band, one of Emily’s strongest new acts, and the music is sure to keep the joint rocking until the projected midnight close. The vibe is consistently upbeat, and these folks know how to have fun.

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Bartell has been active in setting up other parts the Navajo Live calendar; booking bands to play on Wednesdays who are emerging, but don’t yet have a large audience. The Live Band Showcase offers a mixed platter, and almost always features two bands.

“I take two bands from different areas of town, who might have a small following. One even might have no followers, so new that they just want to see what they can do, and I bring them together. Kind of as a cross-pollination of their audiences, so that both audiences are hopefully finding something new in what they are listening to. Each week I choose a different genre: country, rock, blues, punk, rockabilly. I’ve even had a ska night.”

The Open Mic jamming has been the starting point for some bands, including the Becca Jay Band, which was put together by Bartell from musicians that included Thursday night players and now is one of her top focus groups, having had a CD release party in September at the club. She is also busy promoting the local January-Berry band and expresses enthusiasm for Eric Clapton tribute band Clapton Hook.

“One main thing that I like seeing, that got me going was, I like to help people. That’s all I know how to do. If I am helping musicians, that’s great.”

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