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Requiem for a Cover BandIn San Francisco, there are music clubs -- some which aren't even closing -- that foster a richness of ambition, experimentation, and support for just about every musical genre you can name, and a few that haven't been named yet. And then there are clubs that are well served by the cable car lines. In any metropolis, both have their place; one offers an opportunity to explore something new, while the other provides a warm bubble bath of musical familiarity.
Steve Grealish is well aware of that difference, sometimes painfully so. He and Mark Jennings have owned the Polk Street bar Shanghai Kelly's for 14 years, and the Van Ness Avenue club Mick's Lounge for the past seven. But at the end of the year, the pair will jump ship from Mick's. They're currently in the process of selling the club, and while he declines to provide specific details about who the new owners might be, Grealish describes them as "professionals with a sense of style that's a little more in tune with what's going on." Grealish confesses that he and Jennings have taken the club as far as it can go. "It was frequently an exercise in futility," he says.
Opening in 1992 with comfy alcoves, a goodly sized dance floor, and a bright blue neon sign that served as a beacon on the generally sleepy northern end of Van Ness, the initial plan for Mick's was to make it a club with a New Orleans vibe, as well as a local watering hole, Grealish explains. But every club, in one way or another, is a victim of its location, and Mick's happens to be on the corner of Union and Van Ness. So while N'awlins acts like Zigaboo Modeliste and John Mooney would pop in and Link Wray visited as well, Mick's slowly mutated into more or a less a show club for funk-and-groove bands and cover-act shtickery -- good-timey fun for Marina types for whom the frat party didn't end. The Cheeseballs, Super Diamond, and Undercover S.K.A. were all Mick's staples, as were acts like Vinyl, who've played 100 shows there; Eric Stock gave up his job as a sound man there to play drums with Stroke 9, the Bay Area's latest handsome hit-makers. In 1995 the club was highly recommended to conventioneers by Business Insurancemagazine. "The bands are a great bunch of guys, even though they're doing something which most musical purists think is garbage," says Grealish. Ahem.
The situation makes Mick's a quiet place when bands aren't playing. Riff Raff dropped by on a recent Thursday before show time at a not-unreasonable hour (9 p.m.), and found ourself the only person there who wasn't an employee or band member. The phone rang, and the bartender picked up. "Mick's Lounge ... Pop Roxx and Slow Ride ... Pop Roxx is '80s covers, Slow Ride is '70s."
"I thought that there would be a mix, that it would be much more of a hang-around joint," says Grealish. "[The situation] forced us to do all our business around the bands. ... We tried a lot of things: charity functions, 5K runs, sponsoring clubs and Super Bowl parties." In the end, he says, "we became kind of a faceless entity besides who was onstage that night."
Grealish's attention to the club and experience as a longtime resident has drawn his eye to what's going on in the club scene in general, and he sees what's happening in SOMA as having a twofold effect on north-of-Market club owners like himself. On one hand, he sees the increased affluence of San Francisco residents creating a culture of live-music listeners more interested in cover bands. But, Grealish says, the changing face of SOMA as the clubs battle with tenants' rights groups and developers to preserve their place in the city has also cast a general pall on club life in S.F. in general. He supports a centralized club district. "That's what makes people go to New Orleans, Austin, and New York, and San Francisco ought to be noted for it as well. It's embarrassing when people come from New York and at 11:30 there's nothing to do," he says. "Is San Francisco just a restaurant city and that's it?"
Noise Pop UpdateIt's months away, but the eighth annual San Francisco Noise Pop Festival is already starting to come together. Slated for March 1 through 5 at a variety of local clubs, the city's best showcase of punky melodic bands is trying a couple of things differently this time around. No lineups are confirmed yet, but Jordan Kurland, who helps coordinate Noise Pop along with founder Kevin Arnold, says he's looking into the possibility of a "Noise Pop-oriented film festival," which would showcase films and documentaries like The Decline of Western Civilization and the Guided by Voices movie Watch Me Jumpstart. But even more ambitious is Noise Pop Chicago, which will happen May 11 through 13 with an emphasis on Midwestern bands. "There are a lot of bands that would love to come out for Noise Pop [in San Francisco], but can't because of the problems with touring and travel," says Kurland.
Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.
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