By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Rachel Swan
By Ian S. Port
By Rae Alexandra
By Rae Alexandra
Wilson Gil& the Willful Sinners
Wilson Gil brushes off old memories like any good yarn-spinning country singer. But the urban Gil finds his grit in the city he loves, not along a dusty trail. Ten years of highs and lows in San Francisco's vibrant music scene have given the singer/songwriter's deep baritone a whiskey-soaked twang. On his latest, self-titled, release, Gil uses that voice to chronicle sepia-toned images of S.F.'s recent past in a photo album of near perfection. The first song, "Hey Greg," is a jangly dedication to Greg Foot of the long-gone Short Dogs Grow, Buck Naked, and the way-dead rock scene built around the Chatterbox, more recently the Chameleon. Although set in a particular place and period, Gil's reflections convey timeless angst, nostalgia, and lessons learned growing up fast in the city. On the final track, "Hell Yes I Lied (So What If I Did)," all the fury, frustration, and beauty of Gil's songwriting explodes in a country-western masterpiece. The song builds for eight minutes, winding its way from one scene to another fad, from nipple rings to tribal tattoos. The country-rock sound sways and builds into a finale, with the full force of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir backing Gil as he wails the title of the song to exhaustion. Once the notes settle, you can't help feeling sadly blessed by the memories, even if they're not your own.
The Eric McFadden Experience
Eric McFadden first attracted attention as part of the eclectic and highly lauded rock group Liar, whose combination of musical styles, genders, and ethnicities helped them quickly find a home near the top of the S.F. musical heap. McFadden's guitar playing would stand out in any environment: It negotiates the terrain between flamenco, spaghetti western, and acid rock with ease. Add to that trait his distinctively rasped voice and macabre lyrical sensibility and you have a blend that has made Liar, and now the Eric McFadden Experience, a local favorite. McFadden isn't afraid of his own musical ability. He crafts tunes that highlight his guitar playing, even if he's running contrary to the current trend of anti-virtuosos. With the Experience, McFadden is quieter, rootsier, less jammy, and more song-focused than he is with Liar, but he still makes time to reach out to guitar fans with frequent instrumental digressions. McFadden sings his arch and impassioned lyrics in a voice that heightens the otherworldliness of his songs. Contrasting eerily with the subtle, nuanced guitar, his voice can sound desperate, sincere, and just a touch insane.
The back-alley compost blues of Rube Waddell can stick in your bean like steamy shit on the soles of your Docs. Or perhaps it's more like a superfungus that weasels its way into the cracks between your toes. No matter how you try to rid your boots of the foul goop or Desenex yourself free of the parasitic invasion, the rank fumes hold fast. Of course, Rube multi-instrumentalists Mahatma Boom Boom, Reverend Wupass, and Captain Feedback are well aware of the contagion they wield. On the tin-can cover of Stink Bait, the properly fetid follow-up to their junkyard debut Hobo Train, they forewarn listeners: "Rube's Formula Guaranteed To Satisfy Long Lasting Firm And Smelly!" So exactly how does this bastard music of the Appalachian foothills, Alabama cotton fields, and San Francisco streets cop such an infectious groove? It's a simple recipe, really -- a holy trinity of common tunes, old-fashioned neighborliness, and back-porch fun that down-home urbanites can't help but take to heart. Set lists mix toe-tapping originals ("Go to Satan," "Mohandas," "Whistling Dead") with a range of American classics, from a hellfire rendition of the great Negro spiritual "John the Revelator" to a cannibalized take on the Sinatra chestnut "Mack the Knife." Strummin', pickin', and beatin' the hell outta all sorts o' homemade instruments, the trio stirs up audience sing-alongs and sometimes rewards hard-core fans with monkey-face eel skulls or other oddball band memorabilia. And much like the fish heads, the Rube stench lingers long after the sounds stop.
The guys in Kingdom First demonstrate an inspirational faith in rock. You can see it on their faces as they rip tunes out of the ether with ferocious glee. You can hear it in their joyous reinvestigation of simple rock 'n' roll truths. Unpretentious and direct, Kingdom First even manages to be a little sexy, like the person down the bar who is both completely at ease with herself and totally ignorant of your presence. It's the band's confident yielding to the music that gives it such allure. Now that the kind of belly-punch dirty rock they deliver has slid out of fashion, only those who truly believe in its power have access to its magic. Guitarists Richard Marshall and Chris Carroll wield different sides of the same sword, slashing and blasting through the set like tandem preachers, each handing off to the other to keep the spirit flying. The rhythm section of Christian Stark (drums) and Dave Baldini (bass) churns steadily and mightily, building a foundation on which the guitarists and vocalist Matt Jervis can energetically elaborate. The songs, though never straying far from familiar recipes (a little MC5 here, a dash of the Sonics, add Clash to taste), have an inventiveness and freshness that testify to rock's strangely enduring power. Kingdom First is teaming up with producer Alex Newport (Melvins, Godheadsilo, Fudge Tunnel) for their upcoming studio effort.
It's not often that Satan giggles like a schoolgirl. And you don't find many bands that claim humans are the other red meat or document drug dealers running from drug users. But San Francisco's metal threesome Old Grandad makes all of the above into weekly events that can be savored by fans and feared by Christians. Over the last five years, heartfelt ditties like "Urine Angel," "Blatant Drug Song," and "Don't Call Me a Deadhead" have breathed life into the local scene. Old Grandad's guitar riffs sear, their guttural vocals moan, and their great sense of humor keeps the band's heavy sound from collapsing on itself. The group's double-EP release, OGD EP and San Fran666co Bootleg, plays like a cross between The Satanic Bible and Marijuana Grower's Guide. The record starts with "I'm Frying on Acid," a heartwarming tale about a boy's search for marbles, and then touches on metalhead topics like pot, Satan, and, well, more pot. The second half of the record contains six live cuts from their first release, Vol. 666. The footage perfectly captures the experience of Old Grandad live: Singer/drummer Will Carroll does his best hellhound bark, guitarist Erik Moggridge stirs up sludgy metal leads, Max Barnett pounds his bass, and the audience chants in approval. Live, Old Grandad is the heavy metal equivalent of knocking back Ripple: You grimace when it goes down, but two hours later you're speaking in tongues.
In the six years since Spike 1000 relocated to San Francisco from Bakersfield, their sound has been transformed into a blunt and heavy instrument. By staying intact through years of continuous gigging at the lower rungs of the local ladder, their constitution has been proven and their teeth cut sharp. Now, opening for bands like Korn and God Lives Underwater, Spike 1000 is finally starting to turn some heads. If they decide to smash those heads with a fusillade of heavy munch 'n' crunch rock, well, who can blame them? There are four members of Spike 1000 and all are accomplished players and good fun to watch, but the band is undeniably anchored by the presence of vocalist Shannon Harris. Sharing far more with Tool's Maynard James Keenan and the Deftones' Chino Moreno than with any of her female contemporaries, Harris has a voice that can blast your hair back one minute with volume and grit and then smooth it forward again with soul and sexiness. Of course, it wouldn't mean a thing if her band couldn't swing, and that's no problem for guitarist Bill Thompson, bassist Mike Hennick, and drummer Jeff Jones. As a group, Spike 1000 confidently stretches out heavy grooves into engaging four-minute ruminations on anger, frustration, and pain. Like the blues, heavy music about pain doesn't make you hurt -- it makes you feel better.
After a four-year hiatus, East Bay rappers the Coup are once again raising their political voices with wry commentary, stinging rhymes, and laid-back beats. The 6-year-old band took time off to raise families and fight what they see as racially unfair laws in Oakland, like the ban on cruising around Lake Merritt. The time in the trenches served them well: They've since produced 14 galvanizing new tracks for Steal This Album. The record starts with "The Shipment." DJ Pam the Funkstress drops a low-key harmonica line that slowly merges with rolling, funky beats with a country-funk feel. MC Boots punches out rhymes like a well-trained boxer, weaving and bouncing yet always coming in for the kill. On "20,000 Gun Salute," Boots tells the story of the only armed chapter of the NAACP and the relevancy that 1950s group has today. Politics aside, the new material still contains plenty of the Coup's incisive humor. (These are the same guys who parodied Snoop Dogg with "Genocide and Juice.") "See me rolling about town/ You might think I'm a star/ Every three months in a different car/ Like the other day in my '81 Datsun/ With my alternator ridding shotgun," Boots rhymes in "Cars and Shoes." Through both direct attack and sarcastic humor, the Coup definitely practice what they preach.
Invisibl Skratch Piklz
Not many five-piece bands can layer sound thicker than a full-on opera with one instrument. Then again, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz aren't your average band. They're the world's premier DJ collective in the emerging realm of turntablism, the genre of hip hop that uses snippets of other records to produce unique collages of beats, scratches, and voices. DJs Q-Bert, Shortkut, Yogafrog, D-Styles, and Mix Master Mike began rocking house parties 10 years ago, making a name for themselves by spinning everything from Eric B. & Rakim to Rush. Together, they essentially took scratching into a new realm. The collective entered and won every DJ competition for three straight years until contest organizers asked them to retire and allow other DJs a chance. Now the Piklz are at the top of their game, touring the world to showcase their talents and judging the very competitions they once ruled. When not on the road, members of the Piklz can be found injecting serious turntablism into both massive and critically heralded acts like the Beastie Boys and DJ Shadow. The latest full-length to come out of the collective is Mix Master Mike's Anti-Theft Device. To hear the CD -- and any of the other Piklz's musical collages -- is to immerse oneself in the future of hip hop, a place where deep beats envelop bits of funk and spacey vocal samples.
Don't even think of insulting Mystik Journeymen with a record deal. The Oakland-based hip-hop duo has been an autonomous entity for so long that they can be both in your face and in your head without the help of record companies. Street poets Pushin' Suckas Consciousness (aka Tommy) and Vision Tha Brotha From Anotha Planet (aka Corey) boast a prophetic sonic style that puts them at the center of the underground hip-hop scene in the Bay Area and far beyond. Skilled on the four-track, the Journeymen have self-produced 10 separate releases. Forget the hook-filled beats that mainstream artists lay down for commercial radio, these rap revolutionaries believe in aggressive lyrical constructions and tracks that will upset the system. "I'm independent as fuck/ I could walk up to an A&R and say hey yo wassup!/ Grab a pen, Mystik Journeymen, we wanna sign you/ Four hundred thousand, what you wanna do/ I kick that fool in the head with my shoe/ How'd you suppose I'd sign my life to you hoes," goes but one emphatic declaration of independence. With an underground reputation established in Europe, Australia, and Japan, the band knows how to turn a hip-hop crowd into a community in one set. As the Journeymen's legend says, hip hop should not just be seen and heard. It should be shared.
The next club-worthy dance groove you hear may come from a family singing the praises of the Sufi saint Ali. From the opening track "Ali Dum" on their album Taswir, released this summer on the City of Tribes label, Ali Khan updates the 500-year-old, Indian-based devotional music qawwali with infectious hip-hop rhythms. Brother/sister duo Sukhawat Ali Khan and Riffat Salamat share singing duties, backed by a band that includes Riffat's producer/electric-guitarist husband Richard Michos, an American who joined the family after studying with its patriarch, Pakistani classical musician Salamat Ali Khan. The music's rich texture springs from an international confluence of Syrian violin, didjeridu, ambient electronic samples, pedal-steel guitar, mandolin, accordion, trumpet, and burbling tabla and tanpura percussion. As the Ali Brothers, Riffat and Sukhawat's father and his brother helped introduce qawwali to the States back in the '60s and '70s, but this band has taken the music in new directions, incorporating classical, folk, pop, rock, and reggae influences -- ranging from Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix to rave and Latin music. Riffat's hypnotic voice guides "Hay Ni Allah" (a traditional wedding song Sukhawat has described as celebrational, but one that tends to "make old ladies cry" nonetheless), while Kelvin Luster raps over "Takbir" ("The Greatest"), a song Sukhawat wrote backstage in Santa Cruz. Like classical Indian ragas, qawwalis are devotional, but like the slower, more romantic ghazals, they use syncopated poetry to bring audiences ecstatically to their feet.
In the grand tradition of great New York salsa acts like Tito Puente, Louie Rodriguez, and Bobby Valentin, Mazacote burst on the San Francisco scene after co-founders Louis Romero and Raphael Martinez had cut their chops as supporting members in countless other bands. At the age of 21, legendary percussionist Romero began a 15-year association with Fania Records that resulted in seven gold and five platinum albums with the likes of the George Guzman Orchestra, La Conspiration, and the Willie Colon Orchestra. Percussionist Martinez spent years touring with the likes of Charlie Palmieri, Buddy Miles, and Bobby Rodriguez before he formed the Montuno Street Orchestra in which Romero was a fundamental member. In 1995, when Romero and Martinez formed Mazacote, it was with the intent of bringing the hard-core East Coast Puerto Rican dance sound to the foggy banks of San Francisco. Salsa-crazed fans have been strutting their stuff ever since, turning Mazacote into one the most highly regarded Latin dance bands the city has to offer.
Whether he's channeling American improvisational jazz giant Thelonious Monk or the Yoruban deities of the Santeria religion he practices, pianist Omar Sosa commands attention. At last year's live Wammies performance, an appreciative hush fell over the crowd as Sosa, his white knit cap bobbing rhythmically just above the piano keys, leaned into the dissonant but riveting Afro-Cuban jazz hybrid that is his signature, and that regularly draws SRO audiences to the Elbo Room and Cafe Du Nord. The Cuban-born pianist and former percussionist studied European classical music and Afro-Cuban folkloric tradition at Havana's Superior Institute of Art, where he and his classmates spent downtime absorbing Latin dance music and American jazz by old-school masters like Oscar Peterson and modern fusion experimentalists like Chick Corea. Sosa's first band, the folkloric ensemble Tributo, toured Angola, Ethiopia, and the Congo as well as Nicaragua as Cuban musical ambassadors. Later on, Sosa's collaboration with singer Xiomara Laugart led to his foray into hip hop; he joined the rapper Ofill in a video for the song "The Cha Cha Chaplin Boys" and helped popularize hip hop in Cuba. He launched the jazz fusion band Entrenoz after moving to Ecuador, and his subsequent relocation to the States yielded a collaboration with Afro-Cuban percussionist John Santos at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He followed up his first CD, Omar Omar, with Free Roots, which features an all-star group including Jesœs Diaz on percussion, Elliot Kavee on drums, Rahsaan Fredericks on bass, and Sheldon Brown on saxophone. All the influences Sosa gleaned from his studies and travels come together on the release, augmented by guest rapping from Midnight Voices vocalist Will Power, who invokes James Brown's funk legacy on "Put It Down, Man, Shit."
Graham Connah's Sour Note Seven
Pianist/composer Graham Connah is arguably the silliest serious bandleader in town. Perhaps you've seen him perform in bovine mask at premier beef eatery Harris', where he once worked for a spell as the unlikely house cocktailer, or maybe you've encountered his parched between-tune banter at hip jazz/improv hangs like Bruno's or Beanbender's. Since 1992, the former 'shroom-peddling leprechaun of UC Santa Cruz has crafted an unusual music-man image here in San Francisco that's at once off-kilter and rigorously sober. (That he cites celestial free-jazz pioneer Sun Ra and out-rock madman Frank Zappa as influences comes as no surprise.) One of the scene's most respected jazz composers, Connah tempers the absurdist bent of his lingual gymnastics with intricate scores that draw on the considerable chops of his Sour Note Seven bandmates -- clarinetist Ben Goldberg, tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth, trombonist Marty Wehner, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Smith Dobson Jr., and Charming Hostess vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg. The arrangements on the wryly titled Gurney to the Lincoln Center of Your Mind, the bandleader's third self-produced recording, extend his concept of striking a balance between the fiery unpredictability of improvisation and the development of fully notated composition. The vocal tracks add an extra theatrical dimension to his work, with nutty lyrics like, "I live in terror of a Dred named Scott/ Those fidgety digity chops he's got/ The groove is phat his licks are mack/ Stay out of the way of his staccato attack," which reinforce Connah's self-styled role as perhaps the drollest, smartest songwriter in Bay Area jazz.
Lee Press-On & the Nails
Forget what you heard about swing music being safe for Mom and Pops. Lee Press-On & the Nails play swing from a time when hip flasks were mandatory, pants were bigger than cars, and spit doubled as hair tonic. The band consists of 10-plus cool cats from all over the Bay Area who dreamed of starting "the most feared jump-swing band." They succeeded. Frontman Lee Press-On -- who often wears a black-and-white striped zoot suit to complement his elevated hair and fangs -- commands the stage like a cross between James Brown and Pinocchio: a mojo-workin' fairy tale character wrapped in a sheet of blotter paper. Each band member, jumping, jiving, and stopping on a dime under the direction of their crazed bandleader, is at ease with both swing classics ("I'm Beginning to See the Light") and adrenalin rockers (Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher"). The Nails' debut record, Jump Swing From Hell, captures the group in their element -- threatening audiences with infectious rhythms and heat-tempered brass. It starts with a Dizzy Gillespie cover and quickly moves to the appropriately titled original "Big Pants Dance." Throughout the rest of the album, the band raises the roof with voodoo drumbeats, searing trumpet solos, and medleys that flirt with cartoon soundtracks. Somewhere in between, Lee Press-On provides a dictate for all of his listeners: "Yank those trousers higher than Corey Haim/ Because it ain't hip till you're in total pain."
Beth Lisick Ordeal
About four years back when poetry slams still ruled San Francisco's smaller clubs, one-time suburban mall rat Beth Lisick began reading her coming-of-age ruminations on guys, girls, work, shopping, clubbing -- basically, the stuff of life -- to word junkies at local hipster joints like the Chameleon and Paradise Lounge. Her clearsighted observations, brutal honesty, and pungent sarcasm almost at once drew high-profile attention. She performed in the Revival Tent on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour and a couple of years later started to appear around town with some of the more adventurous rock and jazz improvisers like Eskimo guitarist John Shiurba, Splatter Trio drummer Gino Robair, and saxophonist Dan Plonsey. In 1997, Manic D Press published Monkey Girl, Lisick's incisive debut collection of prose-poem shorts, featuring hilarious-horrific tales ("Devil's Vacation," "Elegy for a Greedy, Slothful Orthodontist") and essential mantras ("The Answer Is Plastic," "Nice Is Easy"). Later that year she mounted a successful DIY reading tour of the States, placed "Empress of Sighs" in the distinguished Best American Poetry anthology, and founded Beth Lisick Ordeal with Actual Size bassist George Cremaschi, Eskimo vibist David Cooper, and Eskimo/Tom Waits drummer Andrew Borger. Entertaining, provocative, and surprisingly musical, Lisick's charismatic spoken-word style meshes easily with the instrumentalists' unusual grooves. Equal parts quirky ambience, unpretentious lounge pop, and swinging/slamming jazz, the Ordeal's CD debut, Pass, on local Du Nord Recordings, should hit stores by mid-November. Though the group's eclectic sound may repel narrow-minded listeners, Beth Lisick's a magnet near impossible to resist.
Mexican wrestlers wearing chicken suits and tutus, synchronized flaming guitars, and throngs of fans pumping their fists in the air: For San Francisco punk band Ain't, it all comes with the territory, or at least it did last May, when the group filmed a video for their song "Drag You Down" at the Transmission Theater. "Drag You Down" is just one in a cache of quick-and-dirty rockers -- the kind that inspire kids to lock their bedroom doors, crank it up, and bounce off the walls -- from Ain't's most recent release, Washing the Blood Off. Jack Endino (the same Jack Endino who engineered L7, Nirvana, Hole, Mudhoney, and Babes in Toyland) sat at the controls for this album and the band's last, If It's Illegal to Rock and Roll, Then Throw My Ass in Jail, which both demonstrate the group's extensive punk and rock roots through their choice of material and collaborators. Endino supplied bass and Hazel's Pete Krebs played steel guitar for a killer cover of Brenda Lee's plaintive country number "Break It to Me Gently," and former Mudwimmin bassist Shug Lee weighs in on the Sonic Youth-like jam at the end of the arresting ballad "Que Dio a Luz." Old-school Boston punks may remember guitarist Sluggo from his days with Hullabaloo, but singer Laurian Rhodes' Portland hometown gets the nod throughout the Ain't catalog as well, from Elliott Smith's guest guitar work on Nope to Blood's final track, a cover of "Deep Sleep" by punk heavies Poison Idea.
For a band that's barely old enough to drive its own van to gigs, the Donnas certainly have their punk history down cold. A brash all-female teen-age quartet hailing from the Peninsula, their love for the Runaways and the Ramones extends all the way to their stage names: singer Donna A., drummer Donna C., bassist Donna F., and guitarist Donna R. Their imagemongering would sound like just another great rock 'n' roll swindle coming from most other groups, but the Donnas have the musical goods to back it up. On American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine, their widely acclaimed second album for Berkeley's Lookout! Records, they tear through three-chord sonic assaults that range from the glammy crunch of "You Make Me Hot" to the bluesy sludge-rock of "Looking for Blood." A world tour has given them a measure of fame -- like all real glam-rock bands, they're big in Japan -- forcing Lookout! to reissue their first album, recorded for local label Superteem. Live, they summon up all the adolescent energy that made punk rock great; most of today's punk bands would kill to be so blissfully unjaded. And when Donna A. growls, "I'll grow up when I'm ready," she sounds like she won't be ready for a long time.
One Man Army
The Bay Area is a bastion of punk rock, yet for the last 10 years the city's been largely passed over for its neighbor across the bay. One Man Army rejuvenates the tradition of San Francisco punk with a no-filler pub-rock style that manages to avoid the "we live for beer" trappings of most of their contemporaries. Lyrically, the band -- vocalist/guitarist Jack Dalrymple, bassist James Kotter, and drummer Brandon Pollack -- keeps things close to home with a hard look at growing up in S.F. Their debut record, Dead End Stories, reads like a street-wise survival manual, with tales that jump from struggles with girlfriends in the Avenues to losing friends to jail and drugs. The song "Three Strikes" rails against the California penal system with the story of a guy trying to make it on the streets only to find that three mistakes means his life. And in "Another Time" the band pays homage to a friend's mother who recently died. Even though the subjects are serious, OMA manages to temper the tougher lyrics by layering sing-along choruses over a swirl of melodic guitar work. There are plenty of good, beer-swilling pub tunes, but One Man Army's finest songs work best with dark bars, bourbon, and reminiscing about old friends.
The Blue Beat Stompers
After six years and more than a couple of lineup changes, the Blue Beat Stompers have solidified into one of the most gifted traditional ska groups the Bay Area has ever had to offer. They've performed in most of the top venues on the West Coast and shared stages with big-name third-wave ska groups like No Doubt, Hepcat, and Let's Go Bowling. But unlike their "contemporaries" who run blue-beat flavors through a '90s filter, the six traditional skins who make up the BBS are so firmly rooted in the historical legacy of ska that a person would be hard-pressed to separate their songs from those of first-wave acts like the Skatalites or Laurel Aitken. The Blue Beat Stompers' latest offering, Sit Tight and Listen Keenly, is a soulful blend of R&B, jazz, calypso, and rocksteady that reaches a level of sophistication deserted by most young white-boy bands from this era. Multilevel harmonies and lush backup vocals complement Will "Bones" Miller's infectious keyboard talents, while "Big Al" Stock's smoky trumpet mingles with the seductive tones of lead singer Steve "Papa" Figueroa. As in live shows, the Stompers give qualified nods to longtime favorites like the Blues Busters and the Melodians on disc. The beats are slower and more intricate than those with which new-sprung 2-tone fans might be familiar, but in the end ska is ska. Musical prowess aside, the Blue Beat Stompers have as much fun as any of their fans and, in case you are in need of proof, they thank Guinness and Jack Daniel's in their liner notes -- a detail of which Fatty Buster might be proud.
With only four members, Critical Mass is considered a tiny band by traditional ska standards, but what they lack in heads they more than make up for in energy, ebullience, and skill. After five years, the group's amalgamation of ska, rock, reggae, and hip hop has earned them a spotlight alongside such notables as the Skatalites, the Toasters, Bow Wow Wow, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Dave Wakeling, as well as the attention of maverick label Moon Ska Records. Their last album, Give It Up, Let It Go!, which was distributed by Moon Ska, captures the level of intensity that fans of these Bay Area favorites have come to expect from Critical Mass' live shows. Unexpected loops and hip-hop-style shout-outs to fellow West Coast ska bands like Filibuster, Missing Link, and Monkey offer a unique, ear-tantalizing juxtaposition to traditional 2-tone beats, rock-guitar licks, and jazzy brass refrains, while well-chosen samples bear witness to the group's highly developed sense of humor. For example, Willie Brown wages war on Critical Mass, claiming that the small outfit cannot shape public policy. Then, cutting to the chase, the mayor of San Francisco says in a moment of exasperation, "Why can't they just go home? Go back to Berkeley." Thankfully, Critical Mass has no intention of doing any such thing. They go in the studio next month to record a new album for Moon Ska.
While not hard-line traditionalists, Monkey is one of the few bands mining the ska vein that has the intention of playing a version of ska that isn't hyphenated. They're not ska-punk, ska-funk, or ska-Gregorian chant: They are simply ska, in a way that owes more to original acts like the Skatalites than to any of the products of ska's more recent waves of popularity. That means Monkey relies more on jazz, calypso, and Latin elements than most of what today's ska audiences have come to expect, a novel difference that has helped the band's popularity surge. Monkey's last several recordings, on Deluxe Records, are tasty samples of the group's horn-driven Jamaican jamboree, but live is still the best way to appreciate them. Monkey is seven members strong, and when the band starts to crank up its energetic live show it doesn't take long for the party to spread across the dance floor. Organist/vocalist Curtis Meacham can lead the group through hours of intense material. Dancing is mandatory, although the white socks/black suit combination is still, thankfully, strictly optional.
There are moments in the best of pop where the voice and words of the singer seem to come from your own head. Those flashes of connection are Beulah's targets, and the group hits the center on song after song. From their origins as a home-recording project to their current status as beloved -- if rare -- local performers, Miles Kurosky, William Swan, Steve Lafollette, Pat Noel, and Steve St. Cin have continued to build a name for themselves as San Francisco's contribution to the musical aesthetic that finds its clearest manifestation in the Elephant 6 collective. (Elephant 6 released Beulah's debut, Handsome Western States, last year.) More so than cousin acts the Apples in Stereo or the Olivia Tremor Control, Beulah isn't afraid to emphasize the guitar in their variation on Beach Boys-cum-Beatles-influenced pop, a sonic choice that makes the S.F. band more accessible to those who still cling to the notion that rock just ain't rock without guitars. But sonic styling can't pay the bills unless there are some real songs in there somewhere, and Beulah's songs shine. Through frank arrangements and the fearlessly vulnerable lyrics of vocalist/guitar player Kurosky, who sings in a sometimes quavering but refreshingly irony-free voice, Beulah shows that the song is the true king of pop, and we are the subjects.
Charming Hostess understandably has broad appeal with Bay Area audiences. Not only does bandleader Jewlia Eisenberg play the gender-bender game better than a mack politician in drag, the group's live shows rarely fail to drop the tightest, quirkiest, most digable power grooves on the planet. Drawing from the hippest world-music movements of recent years and then some, Charming Hostess slinks between ethereal Balkan choir song and exuberant klezmer hoedown as if Old World Europe were sleeping with altrock East Bay. With a frontline trio of siren singers -- Eisenberg, Carla Kihlstedt, Nina Rolle -- and a funky, rocking core of former Idiot Flesh instrumentalists -- guitarist/saxophonist/flutist/percussionist Nils Frykdahl, bassist Dan Rathbun, drummer Wesley Anderson -- the septet punches up melodies and lyrics from the outcast folk tunes of Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain, Turkey, and the States. In a kind of one-world union for misfits of every persuasion, Charming Hostess pushes beyond the dead ends of musicmaking convention: The Idiots sometimes sing along for surprisingly stunning a cappella harmony; Kihlstedt and Rolle often double on violin and accordion, respectively; the boys in the band don evening gowns, the ladies suits and ties; tunes from both the Ozarks and the Delta yield an improbable white-girl soul worthy of a Southern Baptist revival. It's kind of like they're rewriting the modern-rock Bible with an Old World quill, disrupting expectations with each turn of phrase.
Storm & Her Dirty Mouth
The impressive, 6-foot-tall, fiery redhead figure that Storm Large cuts almost matches the intensity and force of her pipes. The Amazonian Storm can wail, really wail, revving from moan to deep-throated growl within half a measure. Storm plucked two members of her current band from the remains of perennial 11th Street club favorites Flower S.F., who broke up on the cusp of a major label deal. While that band trafficked in funkier beats, Storm & Her Dirty Mouth -- now guitarists Michael Cavaseno and Geoff Pearlman, bassist Ubi Whitaker, and drummer Dan Foltz -- believes in more straight-ahead rock and a driving, bottom-heavy dirty-blues sound. At times, Storm's bellows recall early P.J. Harvey or Ann Wilson's tough-chick rumbles from Heart's glory days. The singer's lyrics, aggressive and deliberately provocative, are catchy and often confrontational. (Check out "Ima Yora," about a whore and a no-good bastard.) Bay Area rock fans glommed onto Storm and those dirty words without hesitation. Now, the group seems in control of its own destiny. The first Storm & Her Dirty Mouth EP, released this month, was recorded at the Plant with Thom Wilson, the guy who produced the Offspring. While they wait for the record company weasels to start sniffing, Storm and the band will be gigging the S.F. club circuit. Listen hard.
Ledisi, the voice of Anibade, doesn't care much for terms like "R&B" or "acid jazz." The attitudinal diva sings, writes, acts, and produces, but she won't be constricted by labels that make it easier for others to understand her. Blending pieces of classic jazz, rock 'n' roll, and soul, Anibade fuses one genre with another: Ledisi -- a Beach Blanket Babylon veteran -- will scat over a fleishig R&B cut or the band will toss in a soaring line from a Hammond B-3. Consummate show people and almost guaranteed crowd-pleasers, Anibade can tailor a performance to entertain jazz fans, blues aficionados, or Friday night North Beach yuppies.
Led by Ray Wilcox -- the charismatic man-about-town who fronted Zircus, played guitar with Alison Faith Levy, and books the Edinburgh Castle -- !Tang has garnered itself the reputation of one of the greatest sweat-inducing funk bands around. On their most recent release, How Do You Take It, the nine-piece troop proves its musical chops with groove-laden, ska-accented funk provided by eight accomplished musicians from the University of California Marching Band. Still, no single recording could match the level of intensity and dedication on display at live shows, which combine the high theatrics of James Brown with the modern-day inventiveness of Jamiroquai. Wilcox, who has himself been the deserving muse of countless local artists -- most notably filmmaker Danny Plotnick who starred the singer in Pipsqueak Pfollies, Steel Belted Romeos, and Sumbass From Dundas -- has finally found a band that uses all of his formidable talents.
What It Is
Whatever What It Is is, it is one funky it-thang. The pride of Gainesville, Fla., What It Is coalesced in 1994 when guitarist Avi Bortnick hooked up with bassist and vocalist Jerry Kennedy. The two fleshed out a crack band and set to conquering dance floors throughout the Southeast. After releasing When Groove Was King, the group relocated to San Francisco in June of 1996. The local club scene instantly embraced What It Is' polished brand of James Brown's hard funk, Terence Trent D'Arby's smooth groove, and Tower of Power's danceable jams. Think of the Brand New Heavies and that classic-sounding positive-vibe funk and you're most of the way there. Comfortably ensconced in a loving San Francisco scene, What It Is dropped the sophomore Soul Pop last year. The album shows a clear progression, the band effortlessly slathering the release with get-down emotion, buttery raps, and well-chosen samples. The group is even more enjoyable live, as their regular crowd will attest. When What It Is steams up, the band is capable of getting the entire audience on the soul train and driving them down to funk station.
The Aquamen play in the deep end of the pool. They're the guys who cannonball off the high dive and laugh at the old man fussing about the big splash. Depending on who you talk to, the following is fact: Collectively spawned from Poseidon, the band is 2,000 years old, and all six members -- El Capitan Mike, Ensign Nat, First Mate Srini, Lookout Steve, First Engineer Turtle, Cabin Boy Vic -- are world-class water ballerinas. The group's actual four-year history of bacchanalian surf rock includes the debut recording Gin-o-Sonic and numerous watery live performances. This summer, the Aquamen released Do the Alkeehol! (And Other Hits), a toast to their muse, demon alcohol. Bobbing and weaving numbers sing the praises of "Gin & Tonic," "Jose Cuervo," and "Wild Turkey." But as instrumentals like "Black Velvet" prove, the Aquamen can straighten out their ties on their sharkskin suits and go all swanky, like Frank Sinatra playing the stand-up Danny Ocean in the 1960 flick Ocean's Eleven. Beholden to the whole-grain youth serum that cranks up their stage energy at live shows and Tikifests, the guys thank Tanqueray and Bacardi 151 in their liner notes.
The Phantom Surfers
Dick Dale mimicked the pounding ocean with his reverb-drenched guitars. Agent Orange punked out the same waves. The Phantom Surfers took surf and made it an opera. Yep, opera. The Surfers celebrate 10 years on the San Francisco scene with their sixth release, Skaterhater. The record is an unsolicited rock opera sequel to the 1965 cult-classic Noel Black film Skaterdater. The concept album features a 15-song mix of tight instrumentals and surf versions of punk classics as well as songwriting collaboration with Davie Allan, the undisputed king of the fuzz guitar. The songs themselves sound like a tsunami hitting Ocean Beach during a Beach Boys concert: classic American music drowning in mayhem. The first cut, "Curb Job (Skaterhater Overture)," begins with a traditional thumping bass intro that quickly rolls into a flurry of reverbed guitar leads. The song sets the scene for Skaterhater's first act, where happy skaters clash with merchants who spread gravel along the streets and gun-toting members of the Chamber of Commerce's Clean Sidewalk Committee. By Act 2, the music is cranking out a wash of fuzzy guitars and galloping bass lines to tell the story of Blue, a wronged skater turned hellbent biker who burns for his Harley and a chance at revenge. The opera's finale is the record's finest musical moment. As Blue mows down his archrivals, the Phantom Surfers plow headlong into a surf ode to their favorite fanzine, Murder Can Be Fun (editor John Marr wrote the libretto). The band finishes with the Davie Allan & the Arrows classic "Drag Run." Who would have thought opera could be this cool?
Dispensing with the campy Eames-chair cliches that make much of today's so-called "loungecore" music such a Muzak-y chore to listen to, Tipsy's Tim Digulla and David Gardner have made a smart and swanky pop blend that's both retro-happy and distinctively modern. Influenced by ambient techno swirls and hip-hop beats as much as cork-popping predecessors like Esquivel, Tipsy's Digulla, Gardner, and an array of co-conspirators mix together keyboards, horns, guitars, and turntables for their sauntering instrumentals. It's a sound that is beautifully all over the place: Their 1996 debut, Trip Tease, swims through a glistening ocean of Latin rhythms, psychedelia, surf rock, and Mystic Moods Orchestra chintz. Throughout the past year they've taken their self-proclaimed "Tipsylandia" on the road with upward of a dozen members and scored choice gigs, including a plum opening slot for David Byrne at the Warfield. As an old Sinatra album put it, it's a swingin' affair, but don't you dare call it easy listening. With a sound this complex and engaging, Tipsy finally ushers in an era of lounge-pop that does more than lie around like a shag carpet.
The Amazing Embarrassonic
All cover bands survive on disproportionate amounts of gimmick and talent. The Amazing Embarrassonic has both. Then again, although they can perform more than 250 covers the Amazing Embarrassonic isn't really a cover band. Sure, Lev Delany, Jim Galbraith, and Greg Foot play guitar, bass, and drums. And yes, they play songs that other bands wrote long ago. But the trio's got an unbeatable gimmick that sets it apart from average ape bands. The Amazing Embarrassonic isn't really a band, it's a human karaoke machine. Here's the way it works: Audience members sign up on a list; after drinking copious amounts of alcohol they approach the stage and choose a song out of the Amazing Embarrassonic's list; the band members switch instruments depending on which member knows the song best; the band revs up and the audience member sings the lyrics out of a book. Alcohol figures prominently in all stages of the performance. Like all karaoke, the drunker people get, the funnier the songs and the better the entertainment. And also like most karaoke bars, available songs range from good (The Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man") to bad (Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl") to worse (Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever"). It's a hell of a gimmick.
The Dukes of Hamburg
Inspired by German beat groups like the Lords and the Rattles, the Dukes of Hamburg have re-created the lo-fi '60s garage sound first popularized by British bands like the Kinks and the Yardbirds. Taking it one step further -- paying homage to the bands that likewise inspired the Brits -- the Dukes have restricted themselves to covering songs popularized by American masters like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Jimmy Reed. While the mono-styled recordings of the Dukes take some getting used to, their live shows, when frontman Russell Quan -- of Bobbyteens and Phantom Surfers fame -- and his fellow Dukes dress in disastrously unkempt bob wigs and bow ties, have become legendary among the Purple Onion '60s garage set. Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats would be proud.
Me First & the Gimme Gimmes
Punk rock musicians have always had a love-hate relationship with mainstream pop music. On the one hand, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel represent everything punk fought against: clinical songcraft, sappy lyrics, hammy singers. But whether punks want to admit it or not, it's the stuff they grew up on and those chords are hard-wired into their multipierced heads. So Me First & the Gimme Gimmes deserve credit for admitting their secret love for mainstream pop, and even more credit for turning that '70s schlock into bracing, frenetic punk rock covers. Led by Mike "Spike" Slawson with assistance from members of Lagwagon and Screw 32, the brash and adorably goofball covers on last year's album Have a Ball -- Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," Elton John's "Rocket Man," and Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" -- work surprisingly well in a punk context. Unlike bands like Killdozer, who growled through "American Pie" and "One Tin Soldier" like they were signs of the apocalypse, the Gimme Gimmes genuinely enjoy their work as middle-of-the-road archivists; if you think about it, the defiance of Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock" was always a punk rock anthem waiting to happen. The quintet have already proved themselves masters of pop's recent history; can Budokan be far behind?