"President, Sound Engineer, and Bad Tempered Old Bastard," is the title on Frank Gallagher's business card. But the surliness there and on the card's slogan — "Intimidating musicians since 1975" — is contradicted somewhat by the man's demeanor, as well as his occupation. Gallagher is the longtime sound man at El Rio; he's run the mixing board at this beloved Mission dive bar and live venue for more than 25 years. And even he will admit that you don't spend a quarter-century improving the sound of bands most people have not heard of — and will never hear of — if you don't really love it.
"It keeps you young," Gallagher says of his work, with a gravelly chuckle. "When a band is on, and the hair on your arm stands up, you know they're doing something right, and you know you're doing something right — it's as good as sex."
In person, Gallagher leans more toward charming curmudgeon than bad-tempered bastard. He's quick to laugh, and eager to flip through dozens of old calendars showing the years of bands he's booked and done sound for at El Rio. He seems to wear a plain white T-shirt, a charcoal vest, and jeans every day. Longish blond hair lends the 61-year-old a vaguely Iggy Pop air. In decades of performing and mixing, he's never worn earplugs — he says they ruin the highs — but he seems to hear just fine.
Gallagher is a music lifer, a man who's given most of his best days to the business just because he wanted to, and not with any hope of getting famous or hauling in a fortune. He's helped El Rio become a small but crucial music institution in this city, a club eager to host local bands of many styles, even ones whose audiences number in the double-digits. His influence is visible in events like this weekend's 19th annual Shit-Kickin' Memorial Day Concert: an outdoor gathering of local country-rock bands, all chosen by him. In a wildly changing city, Gallagher is also a reminder of the kind of mecca San Francisco has been — not just for bright-eyed musicians hoping to make it big, but for others hoping simply to live a life they love and do good, satisfying work.
It becomes clear how good Gallagher's work is on a Sunday afternoon at El Rio, when the nine-piece local salsa band Mazacote is churning out rhythms on the bar's packed patio. Salseros twirl and sway on the planks in front of the stage, grinning and laughing. Others stand around chatting loudly, still barely audible over the jumpy energy of the band. Gallagher stands off to the left, a captain at the knobs of his beloved Peavey mixing console. It's a relic from the late '70s, as are the Klipschorn La Scala P.A. speakers he still uses.
For a sound man, this is a fairly intense situation. Mazacote has nine musicians, each of whom needs at least one microphone and likely one monitor. Gallagher has to ensure that the mix of instruments in each monitor meets the needs of the persons using it, and he also has to take care that when the musicians play a solo — which most do at least once per song — they're loud enough in the house mix so their drums, or saxophone, or vocals, carry over the din. He must manage all this at once, while surrounded by loud talking and interrupted by friends stopping to say hi.
But Gallagher and his vintage sound equipment are pulling this off marvelously. The bongo player solos, and his drum strikes pop loudly and crisply. The bass player's electric five-string glides through its lines note by note, a warm net holding the various pieces of the band together, neither invisible nor overpowering. The brass section shoots gleaming exclamation points over the boiling rhythms of the band. The mix, at least through the house speakers, sounds impeccable — as the members of Mazacote have come to expect. "I consider him an artist, a sound artist," says Pete Cornell, the band's sax player, who's also a member of the Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra. "He's like the fifth Beatle for us."
A New Jersey native, Gallagher came to San Francisco on tour with a country band led by his brother, and decided to stay. In those days, he was handling drums and running sound at the same time, earning a solid living playing as many as 20 gigs per month. Eventually, Gallagher began running the board and booking shows at a now-defunct club called the Covered Wagon. He was using his own sound gear, which, it's worth recalling, he adores. One day, he heard that punk misfit GG Allin — who was infamous for releasing all possible bodily fluids on himself, the stage, and the crowd — was booked to play the Covered Wagon. "And I said, 'There is no fucking way this guy is going to shit on my equipment," Gallagher remembers. "'If that's music, I don't want no part of it.'"
So in 1987, Gallagher left and got a job bartending at El Rio. Eventually, he became booker, manager, and sound engineer, handling music on the patio, in the performance space adjacent to the bar, and in the main room. He's seen all kinds of acts come through, and made friends with more than a few of them — bands like Bay Area punk legends M.D.C., country-rockers Red Meat (which he gave its first gig), and a trio called Bar Feeders, whose members, Gallagher says, are "like my kids."
But despite his friendliness, Gallagher's title of "bad-tempered old bastard" isn't ironic. He alludes to some serious friction between himself and bands that turn their amps too high or disagree how shows should go down. And Gallagher is a man who gets his way. "He can be [grumpy], sure," says his co-worker, club booker Lynne Angel. "He's from Jersey, through and through. But with Frank, the difference is that if you make buddies with him and work the night as he wants it to work, then he'll love you. He's a little softy underneath that gruff exterior."
These days, Gallagher doesn't handle as many shows as he once did in El Rio's performance space. He works there Saturday nights, and does the special events and patio shows on Sundays and holidays. He's never far away, though — Gallagher lives in one of the apartments upstairs from the bar, and has for decades. This doesn't allow him a lot of escape from work, since, as he says, the soundproofing in his building is "not good." But that's okay. "If you want to live over a bar," he chuckles, "you can't complain."
One of the rooms of Gallagher's apartment is filled with a massive metal shelf of vinyl records, organized alphabetically, and a full drum kit he still uses. On the living room walls hang posters from shows Gallagher put on — past notices for his Shit-Kickin' Memorial Day concert and Cowgirlpalooza on Labor Day, which will see its 12th anniversary this year. Around the perimeter of the small living room loom massive black speakers: another set of imposing La Scalas he bought at Goodwill, and some towering Cerwin-Vegas hooked up to his home stereo, which is taller than the TV next to it. In the middle is a single red recliner — the only seating in the room — next to a clean ashtray. Gallagher puts on a Pacific Mambo Orchestra CD and turns the amplifier up to level three. The sound is crisp, warm, and intensely loud. As it plays, Gallagher glances around the room, looking happy. This is home.