Pop Philosophy

New East Bay Music Venues

East of EdenIn 1992 I was living in a squalid, two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. The roof leaked and the walls were paper thin, and the raving drunkard next door screamed into his phone at all hours of the night. To make matters worse, my roommate and I didn't get along. He was a dedicated pothead -- the kind who smoked to escape reality rather than understand physics -- and a ponytailed guitarist as well. We would have big arguments about music, with him telling me that if I only listened closely to Steely Dan I would throw out the atonal, amateurish stuff I liked. I would respond that singer Corin Tucker (then in Heavens to Betsy, now in Sleater-Kinney) had more soul in her tonsils than all the members of Yes put together. Of course, now I see that those arguments weren't really about music: They were about how much we hated each other.

Back then, the East Bay had plenty of places to hear music, including the Heinz Club, the Berkeley Square, the Pill Hill Zoo Haus, 924 Gilman, Blake's, Merchants, La Val's Subterranean, and Thunder Bay. Still, I can recall many natives moaning even then about the dearth of decent venues; in the following years, as many of the clubs closed, that moaning only grew louder. Now, with San Francisco as friendly to the musically minded as frost to Jack London's nose, the East Bay may be showing signs of a resurgence.

Former UC Berkeley students Alfredo Botello and Iiad Mamikunian launched one of the first volleys when they opened the Ruby Room on 14th Street in Oakland in July 1999. East Bay bars tend to fall into one of two categories: mangy dives with seven years of grime on the jukebox glass or homey digs overrun by frat types who think U2 is cutting edge. The Ruby Room was different. The bar, decorated in half-kitschy, half-menacing tones of red and brown and perpetually cloaked in darkness, featured knowledgeable DJs and popular theme nights such as DJ Kitty's Wednesday funk/mod/soul showcase.

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Emboldened by the Ruby Room's success, the duo recently opened a second club, Radio (435 13th St., Oakland). "People seem to really be responding," Botello says. Radio is far more upscale than the Ruby Room, with a glitzy bar done up in what former architecture student Botello calls "Chinese art deco meets haunted house." Like the Ruby Room, Radio offers several theme nights, including goth, '80s metal, glam, and old-school reggae.

Inspired by the crowds the two new bars were drawing, Sean Sullivan began presenting "Soundboutique," a Thursday night DJ gig at the Ivy Room (859 San Pablo, Albany). Sullivan, who got his start in 1990 doing mod events, specializes in obscure funk and soul, while his fellow resident DJs, Jacob and Jenny T, branch out into early rap, metal, and reggae. "I wanted to start "Soundboutique' in order to convince Bill, the owner, to have other DJ nights the rest of the week," Sullivan says. "I want to get a glam show, a '60s show, an electronica night. Anything danceable and fun." So far the jury's out on the compatibility of the neighborhood bar and the DJ crowd; the Ivy Room's regulars aren't quite sure what to make of its new patrons -- and vice versa.

As for live music, the East Bay now hosts several new nightspots. For experimental sounds, the art gallery and performance space 21 Grand (21 Grand Ave., Oakland) opened in July of last year. Its goal is to mix art forms, booker Sarah Lockhart says. "We want people to come for one thing and get exposed to another." Upcoming shows include a solo performance on Feb. 10 by violinist Carla Kihlstedt of the Tin Hat Trio, Charming Hostess, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and a Feb. 14 event with Modesto noise/improv group Autis Toole and antic percussionist Moe! Staiano.

For rock, there's Kicks II (581 Fifth St., Oakland), a venue that opened in September. While the club's sound tends to be sharp -- largely due to its brick interiors -- booker Monica Serrano has shown a welcome desire to schedule nascent local groups and foster the East Bay scene. The club recently held a charity show for the Oakland Outreach Program; on Friday, Feb. 2, it will host a release party for the new Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers benefit CD, H.E.A.R. This. The show will feature the White Trash Debutantes, the Lewd, Pissant, and Visitor 42. Tickets are $10; call (510) 839-3006. (A second benefit takes place Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Paradise Lounge, 308 11th St., S.F.)

A number of underground spaces such as Club Hot, the 40th Street Warehouse, the Vulcan Warehouse, and Burnt Ramen host punk, noise, and other types of bands. Of course, to protect the clubs' semilegal status, I can't give you any more details -- except that you probably won't find my old roommate at any of them.

 
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