El Cajon, METEOR LP Review
By Elaine Blakely, 4.2020
As we isolate ourselves from loved ones, coworkers, parks, music venues, and the world, my need to feel part of something is greater than ever before. Normally, I spend my days and nights listening to music filled with overdrive and buzz guitar feeds ridden with dark, satirical lyrics. But right now, I need to hear songs that create some kind of sensation that I am being lifted up and somehow healed. All this pent up longing to be with others brings me to listening to El Cajon’s debut red vinyl LP, Meteor, featuring nine songs about love, social justice, belonging, reminiscing of the past, and questioning our destiny and future existence.
El Cajon, formed in Marin County, California is comprised of five accomplished musicians who come from different parts of the world to create their unique, yet deeply familiar, homecoming sound. Part of El Cajon’s magic is how they all came together, as it’s not the normal Craigslisting kind of cosmos. The original members are a married duo, June Holmberg (keyboards, accordion, voice) and RJ Holmberg (guitar, voice) who originate from Southern California - hence the name El Cajon. It was June who invited bassist, Martin Ledyard, to join the band. Ledyard explains that he had frequently taken the ferry to San Francisco with RJ Holmberg when June approached him to audition. Once Ledyard heard them play, he was immediately taken back to his Texan roots when he witnessed the skills of their violinist, Michael Rennie, who has his unique story, as well. All the way from Cape Town, South Africa are violinist, Michael Rennie, and drummer, Kyle Hermans. Twenty years ago, Rennie and Hermans were in separate bands, notably the top-10 bands in Cape Town in the late 1990’s. They had toured with each other, playing at the same festivals. It was by wild coincidence that they ran into each other halfway across the world in Marin County, where upon Rennie, who was already playing for El Cajon, invited Hermans to audition, as the band was seeking a permanent drummer. Since then, the five members have been playing weekly, often prescribing to their fans that anyone can start their own band and do what you love, in the likes of “it’s never too late to start living” as proclaimed in their song, Never Too Late.
Every El Cajon performance I have seen, and that is more than I can count, there is always a packed room, always a sing-a-long, always dancing, and lots of jokes on and off stage. Most importantly, there is a pure connection with the audience. Hermans explains the bands’ mission is “to create a sense of community and make people happy, but have it be authentic.” As their fan base grows, El Cajon is seeking to spread the word further and to larger audiences. With an accordion, keyboards, violin, rhythm guitar, electric bass and drums, their sound is rock n’roll with a twist of roots and a blending of genres from folk, country, surf, and South African.
El Cajon is among the best of the North Bay’s bands in a momentous local music scene that stretches out over Fairfax, Petaluma, and West Marin, drawing audiences throughout the Bay Area to historic venues like Peri’s Bar (Fairfax) and Sweetwater (Mill Valley). With monthly gigs sprinkled all over Marin County, their fans follow them from Fairfax to the Papermill Creek Saloon in Forest Knolls, and then even further to downtown Truckee for Truckee Thursday’s and then way down south to Los Angeles and San Diego. At any of their performances, there is a magical connection that EL Cajon creates with their authentic selves and music that lifts up the audience and leaves everyone feeling better than before.
If you have not had the pleasure of seeing El Cajon live, their sound and vibe could best be described as a warm Saturday evening with a good local beer, hanging out, feeling so comfortable that you end up dancing when you never dance, and while you’re dancing you end up singing too, and then before you know it, you’re cheering your drinks to people you’ve never met, but feel like you’ve known forever. In the songs, Smokestacks and The Witch there are rolling choruses of Ra Ba Ba Da and other nonsensical lyrics to demonstrate the band’s love of building up the crowd to create a sense of belonging as everyone sings along.
Taking it to the studio, the majority of Meteor was recorded at the infamous Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco; famous for recording The Grateful Dead, Santana, Van Morrison, and James Brown. The album features a cast of Marin’s local music scene heroes, such as Liz Larson on trombone (SoulSka) and Patrick Byers, baritone sax (SoulSka), and guidance from Johnny Colla, founding member of Huey Lewis and the News. The songs recorded at this studio were engineered by Scott McDowell who has worked with The California Honeydrops and Ty Segall.
The album has an early 1980’s sound with rhythmic keyboards, a violin, and varying brass and rhythms. El Cajon’s sound could be compared to The Lumineers, Talking Heads, Dixie Midnight Runners and Simple Minds. Although none of these bands is mentioned in their song, The Band, some of their favorites are, and how a band “lets you remember time; makes you feel alive.” There is a fun voice over reminiscent of Thomas Dolby along with upbeat ska rhythms.
One of my favorite songs on the album is Darling. There is a combination of vulnerability and beauty in RJ Holmberg’s voice that carries the bands message along with Rennie’s violin. It is a love song, but not in the kind of love seeking possession or pain. It completely epitomizes El Cajon; “I pray to love; yes, I pray that something keeps you, something keeps you safe, every day.” Everything about the band’s message centers around giving back, lifting up, and healing with their music.
The most recently composed song on the album, Immigrant, takes a spin on a timeless question of who is really American? Starting off with traditional chanting and then quickly speeding up the tempo with a plead to stop those who threaten immigrants. El Cajon has a unique style by addressing an angry subject and twisting it into calling onto a positive, powerful community. “If we all get together and we sing this song; tell everybody to come along” and unite in ending political injustices and racism.
Title track, Meteor, is El Cajon at their finest: trumpet, violin, accordion and every member singing a verse or two. It embodies the core of friendship in these members, “take a good look at your friends and you will find that some burn stronger”, just like these five members together.
El Cajon will be releasing a new single this Summer 2020. As no one is certain when we can see our favorite bands perform on stage again, I am certain to keep listening and contributing to my favorite local and worldwide artists. One of the upsides to spending all this time home is the luxury of listening to an LP in its entirety. I highly recommend enjoying the red vinyl full length LP, Meteor, in this way, on a Saturday evening, fresh beer in hand, maybe dancing a little, maybe singing a lot, but feeling the uplift and healing that comes along with these songs.