Night Crawler

A snow-white marquee beckons from several blocks away. "Gospel Night," it reads -- a strangely pleasant contrast to the topless bars on the fringes of the Tenderloin. Underneath the glowing sign, a young, stylish couple stand wrapped in a loose embrace to fend off the night chill. They study the wooden placards placed on the sidewalk, consulting each other in muffled tones.

"No, it's really wonderful down there," assures a smiling woman exiting the building. "You should go in for at least a minute." The couple acknowledge her enthusiasm with a friendly laugh and take a final glance at the lineup before entering the deserted but brightly lit lobby.

Stepping into Biscuits & Blues on a brisk San Francisco night is a bit like returning home -- if your home was warm and comfortably lit and filled with wonderful sounds and smells when you left. The lobby is large enough only for a cash register and an iron staircase, which leads down into the subterranean club. There, multicolored lights accent small red tables and display cases holding vintage shoes and snapshots. Votive candles flicker from every surface and altarlike alcoves in the walls. The ceilings are low; along the main beam is a slogan in curving script: "Dedicated to the preservation of the blues."

At the wall-length wooden bar, a number of Europeans sit smoking, lazily stirring their Tom Collinses. On the floor, waiters meander between tables carrying steaming plates of comfort food: fried chicken or catfish, creamy mash, sweet potatoes, slaw, homemade biscuits, the works. The crowd, ranging in age from 24 to 64, sits with their mouths full staring at the stage.

"Are you feeling all right?" shouts Tim Bell, lead vocalist for the Gospel Hummingbirds. The audience nods and murmurs assent. "If you feel all right, say 'Yeah!' " Bell jumps down off the stage and moves among the tables with his microphone. "Yeah!" the crowd responds. "I said, say 'Yeah!' " His eyes flash. "Yeah!" shouts the crowd. "OK, come on now, and clap your hands," he continues. Onstage, baritone/second tenor Mark Smith, baritone/manager James Gibson, and lead vocalist Clarence Nichols show how it's done. The audience begins to clap to the beat with self-conscious Caucasian enthusiasm. The Hummingbirds burst into "Steppin' Out," an energetic spiritual entreaty complete with choreography and searing harmonies. Within moments the crowd is riveted, leaving their fish to cool in its black peppercorn sauce.

"Our guitar player, Joseph Thomas, is home sick tonight," explains Nichols, a slender, ageless man with graying hair, a dark turtleneck, and an abundance of gold jewelry. "We're going to carry on anyway. We have to carry on," he says, waving a spangled hand. "We have something to sing, and if we can touch somebody tonight everything will be all right." The other Hummingbirds nod in agreement and set their voices soaring. They sing straight, pure gospel, but within moments everyone in the house is reminded that this is the roots of all soul music. The Hummingbirds sing and sway, working up a sweat under the gentle stage lights. Nichols' eyes close in his emotional plea for change. At a stageside table, a beautiful woman in Sunday finery -- frilly shirt, large black hat, impressively high heels -- raises her hands in testament while a tourist family looks on, mouths agape.

"These are very sedate Europeans we have here tonight," admits club manager Frank Klein. "It can get incredibly hot in here with the whole crowd up on its feet, clapping and stomping; people standing on the stairs craning to see what's going on. People have been moved to tears. Especially towards the end when they are standing with 150 strangers holding hands. We had two Australian girls in here last week who said they thought stuff like this only went on in the movies."

Smith, a mighty tall drink of water in a pale suit, steps off the stage and joins Bell on the dance floor in the midst of a wave of joyful harmonies. "If you feel as good as I do, this is what you should do," he says turning to face the other singer. The pair launch into a jubilant combination of dance steps while Gibson and Nichols sing on. Several "Oh, yeah"s ring out from the crowd. Even the most staid hands begin to twitch and tap on the tabletops.

"I keep expecting the Blues Brothers to jump onstage," says a shorn hipster over his margarita.

Seated on the edge of the stage, Bell fills his lungs.
"I'm not a perfect man/ But I'm doing the best I can/ I don't know about you/ But I've been changed today." His words are simple and direct, his belief undeniable. His voice begins somewhere in the ground, creeps up through his body, and fills the room with affection and understanding. As each Hummingbird adds another voice, the song becomes inescapable. The hairs on the back of the neck prickle; tears become imminent. It is only after Bell has walked through the crowd grasping each outstretched hand that people begin to realize that the group has gone off mike, assisted only by what God gave them. Then it's over. Hands clasped, the Hummingbirds make their way through the crowd and backstage while the audience is left silently wondering if church could really make you feel this good.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

 
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