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Kris Gruen at the Sanctuary in Santa Monica

The Sanctuary, just off Main Street in Santa Monica, is one of LA’s little oddities. During the week it is a small, traditional Christian church. But one weekend a month the staff clears out the nave, moves the alter and puts out a table in the back with wine, soft drinks, potato chips and a bottle for donations for musicians. It becomes a local music venue.

ken gruen

The artists singing a playing there range from neighborhood garage bands whose day jobs really, really need to be secure, to rising stars staying on the Westside while they pitch other venues around the city and have a Saturday night free to introduce themselves to a Westside audience. And Westside audiences can be equally diverse: street people who come in for free snacks and entertainment to music junkies looking for the next rising star, to friends of the booked artists.

This past Saturday night, The Sanctuary saw the usual audience mix of locals, music fans and artists’ friends settle into the folding chairs to see the usual mix of neighborhood wanna-be’s, sketchy singers and interesting acts. And Kris Gruen.

Kris came to the stage, lit by a lone spot, carrying his well-worn and beloved acoustic guitar and hushed the room. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and poetic lyricist, Kris Gruen has soaked in the sounds of celebrated artists throughout his young years and uses that history to bring to life scenes and memories and stories we all feel as our own. Gruen’s music is a pointillist landscape of emotions and memories we recognize as our own, even when they are fantasy woven out of pure guitar and a balladeer’s voice.

Gruen played eight songs from his most recent album, New Comics From The Wooded World and his first release, Part Of It All. Plaited among the songs were his talking stories, some setting the scene, some opening himself up so we understood where this wonderful music was coming from. There were lullabies, fanciful stories, misty memories and musical imaginations. And it was all good.

ken gruen

After he took the stage, Gruen waited for the conversations and the applause to settle down and began with a story, drawing us in like a traveling troubadour carrying news from village to village, or a balladeer in the vein of early Dylan. The story blended into “Whose Gonna Watch The Baby” drawing a soft portrait of a father, maybe himself.

“Dunroven’s Farm” followed, celebrating rural family in lyrics and form, his friendly, unpretentious voice telling us:

out behind Dunroven's Farm/there's a place where worry falls apart/we won't stop before we start/we want to know… how do these old stories go, go and go

here is my daughter's hand/marry her, she's in love to beat the band/here is my fellow man/and his wife-- believe you me-- they were born out on the land

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As he took us through a long ago, simpler landscape, you could feel the sun on your face as you stood in the field and talked with your neighbors, watching your children play nearby. Gruen’s combination of visual lyrics and perfectly matched music is a refreshing rest, a relaxing trip into the past.

More nostalgia – both real and metaphorical – flowed from his guitar and his songs as he moved through the set list, never rushing, always pulling his audience into the magic he was creating. In “Driving Snow” he set a one-room school scene from 1936; in “Red Door” he pleads with a lover not to leave,. In “Little Again” he paints us a bitter sweet fantasy memory of being a baby again in his father’s arms, sung with a deeper timber and shaper edge.

Gruen changed the attitude of the room when he shifted gears in “Company Man”, moving into deep down folk rock with a very current message: the company will never love you, no matter what you help them do. A radical shift from his watercolor imagery to a hard edged, hard driving refrain: sign your name on the bottom line, sign your name on the bottom line, with a unforgiving beat and no relief in sight. Gruen can rock and do it well.

Gruen wrapped up appropriately with “Cemetery”, elevating his voice to a higher, more emotional pitch and taking us down a country road through the tall grass to a grave, face to face with loss.

I reach for you in whitening stone
Colder than stars of winter snow
Everywhere I look-- there you are
Light years away, no longer far

The words hit home; we have all been there, whether in the tall grass of the country or the tall buildings of a city. We know what he means when he sings,I have come to visit, but you're gone…Love's a river I've been told. You can never come back to the same place, the same person.

I left the Sanctuary knowing why Kris Gruen has emerged as a growing talent. He writes songs about grown up life, infused with mystic wonder, that soften the world’s sharp edges, but don’t ignore them. If his performance Friday night was any indication, his new album New Comics from the Wooded World will be one not to miss.


Patrick O’Heffernan
Host, Music FridayLive!