Around this time last fall, East Third Street in Downtown Santa Ana was definitely in need of a saint. What was once a vibrant melting pot of nightlife culture had gone through some significant, debilitating change with the closing of key live-music venues that propped it up. Underground DTSA was the first to fall in the wake of the tragic, community-rocking, stabbing death of Nathan Alfaro; it never recovered even after its short-lived nightclub reincarnation as Bar Ellipsis. In the interim, neighbors Diego’s Rock-n-Roll Bar & Eats and the Yost Theater both shut their doors, the latter reopening as a part-time venue that no longer consistently caters to the same young, local audience. The former is now Cevichera Nais, a legally embattled ceviche spot.
But in the spring, in the basement lounge that once housed the ill-fated Underground DTSA, sounds of life started to clamor again as La Santa Modern Cantina began to take shape as the city’s newest all-purpose sports, live music and entertainment hideaway. By the time the World Cup rolled around in June, its first priority was a soft opening to patrons looking to check out the tournament in the entirely remodeled space, which was outfitted with 28 flat-screen TVs, jumbo film projectors and surround sound. Despite Mexico’s bitter final loss to Brazil, packed local crowds who drank, ate and yelled for weeks during the games felt as if they’d scored big.
Fortunately, it didn’t stop there. Since its official opening in August, La Santa has started rolling out its plan to host different crowds of music fans every night of the week—up-and-coming acts, rockabilly and blues rockers, live norteño bands, and DJs—all drawing and supporting a different segment of nightlife culture. “The owners wanted to make a multifaceted venue to do what the neighborhood needs,” says general manager Jaime Muñoz. You can find him at the bar before the rush, dialing in the venue’s brand-new sound system and training new staff just about every night of the week. He also greets newcomers, some of whom have lived in the city for years but have never been to the hotspot. “We’re not just a sports bar; we’re not just a live entertainment venue; we’re not just a nightclub,” he says. “We are whatever we can program on those given nights.”
A veteran of the live-music-and-club-promoting scene since the early ’90s, Muñoz joined forces with La Santa’s owners, Chris and Saul Garcia and Josh Aceves, after they secured a management deal on the property with Festival Hall next door. Prior to opening, Julio Perez, the former director of the OC Labor Federation who was fired in January for sexual harassment was part of the ownership of the bar but is no longer associated with La Santa, the current owners say. The foursome immediately went to work on building a bridge between La Santa and the local community. “There’s such a good little scene here that doesn’t have an outlet. . . . This is like a venue where you can showcase local stuff and national stuff—that’s what I want to do because it’s what I love to do,” Muñoz says.
One of the first pools he drew talent from was the rockabilly and Americana artists with whom he worked when he managed the legendary Rhino Room in Huntington Beach and when he was creating events such as the first Hootenanny at Irvine Lake back in ’95. For a veteran act such as Big Sandy, having a place to play solo sets and work on new material in between tours, as well as grow his local fan base, is a huge asset. “There’s a lot of people who play [rockabilly], or they’re fans who need a place to see a show, and there’s a bit of a resurgence of this style of music right now,” Sandy says. “There was a time when some people from the punk world were discovering older musicians and bringing the punk into that, so it would be cool to see something like that happening again.”
Newer bands also see the potential in a bar that provides a legit place where locals can cut their teeth other than warehouse shows and short-lived DIY spots. Most important, it’s the vibe, new sound system and improved layout of the stage that excites musicians such as Roach Sanchez of popular Santa Ana band Los Hurricanes. “When I went and checked it out, it was cool. It seemed like a ’60s retro lounge, and the position of the stage is wider. They have a great sound system, from what it looks like. There’s a lot of potential for this place,” Sanchez says. “It’s cool because I don’t think there are any places in downtown Santa Ana that have this vibe.”
Co-owner Saul is both a grassroots enthusiast and someone with years of industry experience and skills. The Santa Ana local grew up in the scene, promoting shows and eventually working with huge Latin acts such as Alejandra Guzman and top-flight companies AEG and Live Nation. He knows he can move the needle when it comes to live music and nightlife and took the challenges of the underground room and turned them into advantages.
“I approached this project from a couple of angles. First, location: downtown Santa Ana. I knew there was an opportunity there; if you build it, they will come. And in the physical space, there’s no light coming in, being in a basement, but visually . . . taking advantage of the dim light, video will pop out,” Garcia says.
During Hide Lounge, one of La Santa’s weekend club nights, the screens coordinate for immersive experiences, looping everything from Star Wars to Soul Train clips while a current of hip-hop, soul and funk beats swell through the space.
Second, there’s a diverse crowd, one that’s open to all types of music yet also celebrates the city’s Latino roots. “You have a place where local acts can not only practice but also perform and polish their live performances. It’s a plus for the venue and the talent,” Garcia says. “If we can incubate that, some of that experience that Jaime and I bring to the table . . . we know who they can engage and how to get them to the right people.”
As of now, the weekly schedule between football games includes banda on Wednesdays, roots rock nights at the Cavern on Thursdays (which Muñoz co-produces with fellow veteran promoter Ed Boswell), and Hide Lounge on Fridays and Saturdays. Upcoming acts include Petunia and the Vipers from Canada (Thursday, Oct. 11), the Women Rock benefit show for pancreatic cancer (Oct. 18), C.W. Stoneking and Big Sandy (Oct. 25), and a comedy and burlesque night (Nov. 1). That leaves a lot of open slots for new talent of all pedigrees looking for a gig to throw in Santa Ana. La Santa just might be their saving grace.
“I feel like we’re at that point now where we are exactly where we want it to be,” Garcia says. “Just reach out to the [general manager], set up an appointment, and we’re all ears.”
La Santa Modern Cantina, 220 E. Third St., Ste. B, Santa Ana, (657) 231-6005; www.facebook.com/LaSantaMC.