Empress Of Headlines the 20th Street Block Party

The Mission’s free, neighborhood-centric alternative to monster festivals returns this Saturday Aug. 18, outside Noise Pop HQ.

Outside Lands is always a blast — thank you for the vagina pants, Janelle Monáe — but if you’ve ever been caught in a crush of humanity while trying to bypass Cocktail Magic via Bacon Lands, you can easily exceed your crowd-tolerance threshold. So we always welcome the return of Noise Pop’s smaller and considerably more manageable alternative, the 20th Street Block Party.

The fact that it’s free to get in is even better, although the $10 suggested donation benefits the nearby Mission Language and Vocational School (MLVS). This year, a lip-synch battle with KQED, a pop-up Amoeba Records store, and a dog park join the fun outside Noise Pop headquarters and up 19th and 20th streets between Harrison and Bryant — along with DIY crafting from Workshop SF, performances from the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and plenty of food and drink.

Attendees will find a broad cross-section of Mission favorites, such as braised lamb sandwiches from Salumeria and Thai iced teas from Farmhouse Kitchen, to empanadas and alcapurrias from Mission Boricua, to grilled elote and barbacoa tacos from Tres Truck.

Food isn’t the only dimension that got a boost. Rather than two stages as in past years, a third stage will showcase local DJ talent. In light of all that, it’s easy to lose track of the musical performances, always an eclectic bunch — and this year’s lineup is no different, spanning S.F. pop-punk band The Total Bettys to indie-rockers (and long-time friends) The She’s, as well as FAN and The Marias. Anchoring the 2018 festival are dual headliners Jeff Rosenstock and Empress Of, the moniker of Los Angeles singer-songwriter Lorely Rodriguez.

While a small, neighborhood-centric festival sounds wonderful to most attendees, such performances can actually be scarier for the artists.

“It’s more vulnerable, in a way, and they can see every detail and movement,” Rodriguez tells SF Weekly. “All the attention is magnified when you play for smaller crowds. … It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they can see everything you’re messing up.’

“Those are always the shows you learn from,” she continues. “I try to do smaller, warm-up shows as much as I can. Earlier in the year, I was asking my friends who were touring through L.A. if I could open for them but not tell anyone or put my name on the bill. It was great, because I got to walk up on stage and be like, ‘Hey, I’m Empress Of, I’m going to play some new songs.’ I’m really surprised my friends let me do that.”

That degree of anxiety sounds slightly strange from a precocious talent who came to prominence in 2012 with her synaesthetic “Color Minutes” project, a series of 15 or so short YouTube videos played against a specific Pantone hue. After 2015’s full-length Me brought her wider acclaim, Rodriguez has periodically released dreamy and occasionally pointed singles (“Trust Me Baby,” “Go to Hell”) ever since.

Some of her songs, most notably “Water Water,” feel as though they give birth to themselves the way a magician can pull an impossibly long set of handkerchiefs from out of nowhere. With cool production across all her releases, Empress Of’s sound might be compared to that of a preternaturally wise naiad who can turn catcallers to stone, or a comprehensible, R&B-inflected cousin of the Cocteau Twins’ Elisabeth Fraser. A new album is forthcoming, but all Rodriguez will say is that it will be released “in a measurement of time that I’m not going to reveal.”

The Block Party will have Tarot readings, and as it turns out, the corresponding figure from the Major Arcana is where the name Empress Of originated. With its associations of motherhood, fertility, and power, the Empress card resonated with her. But Rodriguez doesn’t maintain a daily Tarot practice.

“I don’t want to judge people for seeking things that guide or help through their lives, but for me personally — I’m such a practical person,” she says. “In a lot of ways, it’s just hard for me to get into that headspace.”

She concedes that there’s some truth to planets’ retrograde motion and that a full moon can leave her “feeling absolutely crazy.” But while no five of pentacles is getting in her way this Saturday, Empress Of’s oeuvre is indelibly connected to her physical environment. Rodriguez, who is of Honduran descent, had recorded Me in a “pueblo mágico” in Valle del Bravo, Mexico, at a house owned by a friend’s family — a residency that came at a crucial time, when she was living less than happily in New York.

“New York can be great for a lot of people, but as someone from L.A., 3,000 miles away from their family, and poor, I wasn’t really creatively inspired there,” she says. “I was talking to my friend who had a house on this lake, and he really cares about my music a lot, and he was like, ‘Just buy a ticket and go to my parents’ house.’ It turned out to be a really huge contributor to years of my life, because I play that music to this day.”

While a collaborative project with a well-known retailer took the Empress association a little too literally, Rodriguez isn’t averse to more thought-out art direction in that vein. Earlier this summer, she posted an image to Instagram of her looking like an Amazonian warrior-queen, with elaborately styled hair and gold breastplates. It was for a short documentary tribute to Aaliyah that her friend Cara Stricker directed for MAC and Vice.

“Missy Elliott was in it, Princess Nokia — I got to work with some of the best people behind the lens,” Rodriguez says. “That was the first time where it was like, ‘You’re the Empress, let’s make you look majestic.’ Usually, I’d be like, ‘Barf!’ but because I knew I was working with the best of the best, I was like, ‘Yes, let’s go there.’ ”

In other words, San Francisco might be lucky to have Empress Of hold court in a setting this intimate.

20th Street Block Party, Saturday, Aug. 18, noon-6 p.m., outside and around Noise Pop headquarters at 20th and Bryant streets. $10 suggested donation; 20thstreetblockparty.com

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