Feb. 23 2011 10:25 AM

Jesse LaMonaca’s spiritual migration took him around the world

Jesse LaMonaca
Photo by Amanda Dow
Jesse LaMonaca and his band, The Dime Novels, are packed in a corner of the trendy Mexican restaurant-bar La Puerta in the Gaslamp Quarter. It’s Friday night, and they’re doing what so many bands are doing at this hour: singing for their supper.

But unlike the easily distracted patrons you might expect at Gaslamp watering holes, the respectable crowd here is attentive, offering up more than just polite applause as the band dishes out original tunes and inspired covers of Johnny Cash, Otis Redding and even Bon Iver.

In a journey of self-discovery that’s taken him from his home city of Philadelphia to New York to Europe to San Diego, LaMonaca has steadily worked at finding his own voice. Now, the 30-something crooner has found it. A strapping man with a roughed-up yet sweet southern drawl, he has the charismatic self-assurance and authentic spirit you’d find in his idols, Redding and Elvis Presley. The tasty riffs and solid grooves of The Dime Novels elevate the music beyond your average acoustic beach-strummer fare.

Until the Stars Came Out, a stellar, seven-track CD the band put out last year, is an amalgam of gritty blue-eyed soul and confessionary, heart-on-sleeve balladry with a slight Americana twang. The title track opens with an organ-driven, minor-key romp that quickly clears the smoke and slides into a strutting yet plaintive Memphisblues-flavored verse. The driving chorus of “Pretty Little Self” calls to mind the power-pop-meets-folk of Big Head Todd or Out of Time-era R.E.M. But “Rarest Form,” in which distant pedal-steel bends tug at the heartstrings and act as a desperate-sounding call-andanswer with the lead vocal, is the track that truly hits home—once you know a little bit about LaMonaca’s recent past, that is.

After a failed marriage in Sweden, he embarked on a few years of physical and spiritual migration, moving back home and then relocating to the West Coast. Late last year, he sought to book-end it all with a trip to the other side of the world: a solo tour of Australia.

“It all came about when I was working Bondi, this [now defunct] Australian bar Downtown,” he says. “I got to talking to the owners and people I knew there, and they were all trying to convince me to go play these shows and saying how it would go over really great.”

LaMonaca took their advice to heart. He initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise money online, solicited friends and local business owners for sponsorships and saved every penny he could. The threeweek tour went off without a hitch and exposed LaMonaca to new fans and friends. But more important (in his estimation, at least), the trip gave him a new perspective on where he had been and the gumption to come back home and figure out where he wanted to go next.

“It’s funny… the whole process from writing those songs at my mom’s place to moving here, to touring Australia,” he says. “It feels almost like too cheesy of a story sometimes, but it’s so great how it all worked out.

“There was a moment at the end of the tour in Sydney where we spent the night on this boat in the harbor and I remember just taking a deep breath and realizing that one chapter of my life had ended and that a new one was getting ready to start,” he continues. “I felt like I really had to go there to see what I was made of and to find myself again.”

Jesse LaMonaca and the Dime Novels open for Rocky Votolato and Laura Gibson at The Casbah on Thursday, Feb. 24. jesselamonaca.com