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The best of the Bay Area's "costume rock" 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2009
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While the rest of the country raids thrift store and drugstore bargain bins for sexy, dead, and dead-sexy looks every October, San Francisco is the proud home of the year-round costumer. We don't need Halloween on the calendar in order to don something truly ridiculous — by the time fall rolls around, we've already been in disguise through street fairs and parades, foot races, desert adventures, drag shows, and symphony galas.

The persistence of outrageous garb is more present here than perhaps any other music community (SF Weekly scribe Mike Rowell says he's often heard S.F. tagged "the costume-rock capital of the world"). For decades, our rock bands have been as clever (or, in some cases, as genuinely stupid) with their outfits as they've been with their music. Just in time for the biggest costume holiday of the year, then, here's a select list of the Bay Area's most (in)famously outfitted acts.

The Tubes ('70s)
An early collision of parody, punk, and performance art, San Francisco's the Tubes spent the '70s riffing on popular culture from a variety of guises. Frontman Fee Waybill was ever the actor's musician, remaking his alter ego to match the theme of the evening. He staggered around in platforms and flirted with various genres and monikers, including "Hugh Heifer" (country) and "Quay Lewd" (British pop). Some members of the Tubes transitioned to the silver screen, getting all costumed up for bit parts in Xanadu; Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.

Crime ('70s)
The members of San Francisco's original punk act (which refused the punk tag at the time) dressed in full regulation cop uniforms, which they claimed were easy to come by at local uniform outlets. Self-identified as the city's "First and Only Rock 'n' Roll Band," the group was provocative in sound, attitude, style, and bookings. Fittingly, Crime's most notorious show went down at San Quentin, where word has it that the inmates weren't quite sure what to make of its raw, sneering sound. Band members have come and gone over the years, but you can still occasionally catch rare gigs (sans the cop look) from frontman Johnny Strike and drummer Hank Rank.

Caroliner ('80s-'00s)
Caroliner is one of the few acts to transform not only its members, but also the setting in which it performs, into an enchanted, multicolored wonderland. The freak-bluegrass noiseniks adorn the stage, their instruments, and themselves with beautifully creepy designs that merge the animal kingdom with psychedelic visual fantasies. Between the deeply rhythmic jams and the web of interconnected visual designs, Caroliner performances put fans in a blissfully bizarre-world trance.

The Residents ('70s-present)
The Residents have long been the deities of San Francisco's musical costume class, appearing only in their iconic giant eyeball heads, top hats, and tuxedos. The musicians refuse individual identification, instead working as a unit to push the way we experience genre-melding recordings and multimedia performances. No style of music is safe from the Residents, who have flirted with neoclassical pieces, the Beatles catalog, and "the effect of riding a carousel while on LSD."

The Mummies ('90s)
The garage-rock scene is very familiar with playing dress-up before the bands get onstage. While new-schoolers like Nobunny make a name from behind a simple giant bunny head, the Mummies earned their infamy in the '90s with even thriftier accoutrement. As we wrote last week, the band was as cheap and sloppily thrown together as the bandages its members used to dress themselves.

Phantom Surfers ('90s), the Phenomenauts ('00s-present)
Surf rock has arguably inspired more matching outfits among musicians than any other genre. In San Francisco, Phantom Surfers were the masked men of this instrumental style wave. With black raccoon eyes, little bow ties, and svelte dinner jackets, their look was as kitschy as their sound. A decade later, the Phenomenauts rode surf to the stars, giving their look and their tunes a sci-fi sheen. The band dresses like a modern-day Star Trek crew, with an arsenal of "Phenoma-gadgets" as props — many of which double as instruments. The Theramatic Helmerator is the group's one-of-a-kind spin on the Theremin, which creates essential space exploration melodies.

Pink & Brown ('00s)
John Dwyer has made a name for himself in San Francisco over the past decade. But one of Thee Oh Sees' frontman's earliest local music incarnations put him inside a dirty cotton-candy-colored body suit as the fleshier shade of Pink & Brown. Live, the noisy guitar-and-drums duo came off like freakish punk luge competitors, flying into crowds with instruments in tow, their head sweat soaked up by creepy DIY bankrobber masks of the appropriate color.

Knights of the New Crusade ('00s-present)
The Knights of the New Crusade fight the groupthink of religious zealots from behind the double-layered armor of smart-ass wisecracks and big-ass knight costumes. It didn't take long for the band's "secret" to leak: that these men in shiny silver uniforms are not, in fact, outspoken Christian fundamentalists but rather vets of the local garage-rock scene getting goofy with swordplay onstage. The fact that the Knights are signed to Alternative Tentacles shows that Jello Biafra has, in fact, retained a sense of humor.

The Grannies('00s-present)
What's more punk rock than a grandma? Well, unless granny is Vivienne Westwood, everything. But the heshers behind the Grannies match senior-citizen looks with adolescent jokes and straight-ahead riffage, their silver wigs banging in the wind as they chant the chorus to "My Middle Finger Says You're Wrong."

Mochipet ('00s-present)
Guitar-based music doesn't have the complete lock on costumes here. Daly City's Mochipet takes to the turntables from inside a giant furry purple dinosaur outfit. Sonically, the dude born David Wang gets as wild and woolly as his adopted skin, producing a masterful mix of dance music that pulls from glitch, dub, crunk, and hip-hop.

Here are more photos of Bay Area's most (in)famously outfitted acts

Who's missing from this list? E-mail your suggestions for your favorite costumed Bay Area acts to Jennifer.Maerz@SFWeekly.com and I'll post the best ones to our pop-culture blog, All Shook Down.

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Jennifer Maerz

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Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

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