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After 10 Years, Rickshaw Stop Still Thrives on Funkiness 

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014
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Christopher White wanted to call it simply "Rickshaw." He likes to travel, loves Southeast Asia. The name didn't have much resonance for San Francisco, but that didn't matter, because White liked it. "And then my partner Waldo said it would sound better if it was a place. He said, 'I think it should be Rickshaw Stop,' and I said, 'Okay.'"

And thus, 10 years ago this month, a music club was born among the forest of car-repair shops between Civic Center and Hayes Valley, at 155 Fell St., near Van Ness, and christened Rickshaw Stop. White and co-owner Waldo Williams flew in actual rickshaws from Vietnam and China to decorate the place. They reclaimed a lot of old building materials from a former Catholic fraternity that was being demolished down the street to make way for the new San Francisco Conservatory of Music. None of the trimmings matched. There was no coherent aesthetic. They didn't care.

A decade later, the fraternity's stately white marble bar is still inside the former auto repair shop and TV studio, just across from the actual Asian rickshaws, downstairs from where the claustrophobic smoking room with the crooked windows used to be (it recently became a bar), in a club that's both shabby and chic, self-made, independent, draped in red velvet curtains, happily weird. And still hosting some of the best independent bands and dance parties in the city, as it has more or less since it opened.

This week, Rickshaw Stop is holding a mini-festival to celebrate its 10th anniversary. It's six nights of special shows by bigger artists like Geographer, the Spits, Mikal Cronin, YACHT, and more, all of whom were handpicked by White and the staff of the Rickshaw according to certain criteria. "They had to have played with us before, and we had to have liked them as human beings," White says. "That meant everybody ... including security guards." So if the band members were dicks to the doormen while loading out, they were off the list.

What White and the Rickshaw staff have created, though, is a big bright spot among the modest show calendars of mid-January, and a reminder of the important place that the compact but easygoing (and often all-ages) Rickshaw Stop occupies in the constellation of San Francisco music venues. Most of them specialize in either live bands or DJs, but Rickshaw hosts grubby punk outfits and thumping Saturday night bacchanals. On Thursdays, it opens to the 18+ crowd for Popscene, the long-running party of Live 105 Music Director Aaron Axelsen, who often books small bands everyone will have heard of in three years, and has his own way with the room's sound system. (We swear he sounds better on it than any other DJ.)

Hosting different kinds of events was always the goal, White says. "We wanted to do it all. We wanted to have a space where you could have a dance party, you could have a rock band, you could have a wedding." The hybrid arrangement is perfect for parties like Popscene, whose live acts and DJs cross back and forth over the rock/dance line. It doesn't really come at a price, either: In any given year, Rickshaw Stop will host plenty of the city's better small live shows. It often gets artists on their first stop in San Francisco, so the list of names that have played the room's compact stage is pretty impressive: M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Grimes, Silversun Pickups, and more. And it has incubated parties so successful they outgrew the space ­— like Blow Up, the nationally known indie dance night thrown by Jeffrey Paradise and Richie Panic from 2004 to 2010, where local crunk-pop outfit Wallpaper, among others, got its start.

Those kinds of bookings didn't happen immediately ­— White says it took some time to figure out how to run a club, since this was his first ­— but they've kept Rickshaw Stop going through a tumultuous decade in the life of the city. There have been difficult moments, business-wise. Many improvements have been made. (Several years ago, Rickshaw had a reputation for getting too hot at crowded events, but cooling-system upgrades have since fixed that.) Asked how the club is doing, White points to the loyalty of his staff, many of whom he says have been there since it opened, and who usually stay until other pursuits draw them to New York or somewhere else. "We haven't had to change," he says proudly.

Even the club's location, on an unlikely street in the very heart of the city, has become a strength, with fewer concerns about noise and easy accessibility. Ask White why they chose to put the club on a quiet block of Fell, and you'll get the same answer you get when asking why they put in an old marble bar, or decided to name it after an Asian pedicab: "The wacky reasoning behind everything is what feels right at the moment," he says. And that same wacky reasoning has now kept Rickshaw Stop going strong for a decade.

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Ian S. Port

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