By Robert Spuhler
There is very little actual “backstage” in the concert space at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, just a short distance from the Fairmont Miramar. What is noticeable, though, is the staircase at the rear of the stage, which leads up to a dressing room for the talent. It’s steep enough to require performers to navigate it slowly at the start of a concert, but for the audience, it’s akin to watching them descend from the clouds.
That’s unsuitably dramatic for a small-capacity, laid-back venue in the back of a guitar store. But there’s a nugget of truth to it; for the guitar aficionado, the stage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop is a sanctified space. Throughout 50 years and thousands of performances, some of the biggest names in the guitar world have taken the stage, many with just a six-string and a stool.
“It’s one of those venues that has historically been a beacon for all sorts of music and musicians to come through and play,” says songwriter Mindy Smith, who recently performed at the venue. “It’s so important to be able to play listening rooms.”
Of course, as the name suggests, the venue also encompasses a store. Taking up the front portion of the building, it seems to carry all things stringed, from autoharps to ukuleles. But it’s the titular instrument that dominates the space, with both historical and modern versions on walls, in cases, and under glass. Books of guitar tablature fill shelves, and the repair lab faces into the space, so customers can watch the technical work that goes into fixing the instruments. It’s both a shop and a monument to a time before Guitar Center and other corporate conglomerates began treating the six-string the same as any other piece of inventory.
But what truly separates McCabe’s is, nonetheless, its performance space, and the history it has seen. In 50 years (47 years here, and three at a previous location), McCabe’s Guitar Center has hosted performances by Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, T Bone Burnett, and John Hiatt, among many others, from mainstream legends to the best-kept secrets among guitar aficionados.
“I’m a fangirl, so I get really stoked when I hear, ‘so-and-so did this show here,’” Smith says. “It makes me feel like I’m part of something big, something special. It’s exciting.”
McCabe’s didn’t set out to be an iconic venue for musicians, though. Owner Bob Riskin told Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2016 that the creation of a space for live performance at the store was more fortune than bold planning. When Elizabeth Cotten needed a place to play after a cancellation, McCabe’s hosted her in its store (at its smaller, earlier location; McCabe’s moved to 3101 Pico Blvd. in 1972). “We improvised a space for her to play in,” Riskin said. “We threw up curtains—or maybe plastic bags—on the front window and brought out the chairs we used for teaching for the audience to sit on.”
In the years that have passed, the McCabe’s stage has become one of the most influential institutions in modern folk and acoustic rock. In fact, the store donated more than 2,000 recordings of concerts there to the University of North Carolina; as educational relics, they can now be found in the college’s Southern Folklife Collection at The Wilson Library.
Today, even facing off against live music powerhouses like LiveNation/Ticketmaster and AEG, McCabe’s continues to book interesting artists, including some bigger names; a favored son of Canada, Bruce Cockburn, plays the venue in November, and folk star Dar Williams will be in her 30th year of performing when she plays the venue next year.
Smith has had a taste of fame as well; her albums have generally charted on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” chart, which keeps track of artists who have yet to record a song that has reached the Billboard Top 50.
“I wrote this song when I was Dolly Parton,” Smith said at a recent show, to laughter, before launching into her version of “Jolene,” a song that she first recorded in 2003 for a Parton tribute album. It’s the close of her performance, and minutes later she’s in the lobby, shaking hands, posing for pictures, and signing autographs.
It’s an intimate end to an evening that sums up McCabe’s: Superstar-level talent performing in a guitar mecca, to fans who appreciate the instrument to a sometimes-fanatical level.
“One of the important things about performing is being able to see and visit with the people that you’re sharing your music with,” Smith says.