Earth Circus Productions
A dozen spacemen spin through the darkness, shimmering in silver from brow to boot, creating kaleidoscopes of light with flicks of the wrist and a glowing arsenal of staffs and sabers. A luminous butterfly with a 10-foot wingspan, bedecked in shifting patterns of starlight, swoops in on a draft. Ancient Egyptian concubines, ice faeries, unearthly contortionists, Parisian clowns, lascivious dancing girls, and maniacal tumblers stream through the audience, followed by an ultraviolet lounge duo from a galaxy far, far away. If this is what you see through the edge of your martini glass, you are definitely under the spell of Earth Circus Productions Inc. A small Bay Area company, which was founded in 1989 by Anne Reeb and Wendy Fink (two friends who had been trained in performance arts since the age of 5), Earth Circus began as a nonprofit troupe dedicated to environmental awareness, children's education, and dazzling spectacle. In 1998, heeding increased demand from its clients, Earth Circus started offering its signature blend of highly skilled performers, inventive costume design, cutting-edge lighting technology, and computer wizardry to grand galas worldwide, such as at this year's NBA playoffs pre-show and the Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones media launch. We figured, if the performers were good enough for George Lucas, they were good enough for us.
Often, Oakland's Mono Pause appears at gigs in disguise, performing as the God-loving, Darwin-hating Gulf War veterans of the White Ring or the frothy, Southeast Asian disco-pop purveyors of Neung Phak. Even when the six band members come as themselves, there's no telling what will happen. Before a recent Bottom of the Hill set, the band was tuning up when a cadre of masked men leapt onstage and dragged the musicians off; a voice from the loudspeaker apologized for the abbreviated performance, and audience members tittered nervously. After a few minutes the artists returned, wearing different clothes, and proceeded to recite the exact tune-up patter that had preceded their abduction -- only now you could tell that both times they were lip-syncing the spiel. Other shows have featured impromptu poetry readings, punk-baiting preppy attire, a set devoted wholly to the tuning of instruments, tracks played backward, and a suite of songs about a demented child. But the band's conceptual peculiarity works only because its musicians -- guitarist/organist Mark Gergis, keyboardists Peter Conheim and Erik Gergis, drummer Miles Stegall, saxophonist Heco Davis, and bassist Brently Pusser -- are vastly talented, able to imbue driving synth-rock, skronky free-jazz, Space Age cocktail lounge, and chiming Thai pop with the same unearthly glow. The combo records infrequently -- having released just one full-length record, Peeping Through the Listen Hole, and a handful of singles and cassettes, dating back to 1993 -- but plans are afoot for a new LP this winter. If past efforts are any indication, the album will be disturbingly alluring, like an uneaten doughnut in the trash.
The Phenomenauts The list of hallowed San Francisco events that the Phenomenauts have graced with their zany, high-energy presence goes on for pages. From after-show parties at the venerable Fillmore to VIP rooms at the California Music Awards, the intergalactic space-travelers have brought their magic to some of the Bay Area's most prestigious halls and clubs. Never mind that the band's post-show performance at the Fillmore took place busker-style on the sidewalk in front of the venue, or that its impromptu set at the awards show was cut short by security guards asking the Phenomenauts to leave. These are small details in the life of a group that lives, loves, and rocks on the grand scale of the cosmos. Founded officially in 2000, the act has its roots in Space Patrol, a polka-themed '80s cover band that played all its songs on homemade instruments. These days Commander Angel Nova, Corporal Joebot, Major Jimmy Boom, and Captain Chreehos use more traditional instruments, but their mix of pop, psychobilly, and rock 'n' roll is anything but normal. Decked out in bizarre astronautical outfits, the band members enliven their shows with such "Phenoma-gadgets" as the Thera-Helmet (protective headwear outfitted with a theremin) and the Streamerator (a leaf blower modified to launch streams of toilet paper into the crowd). The group's first full-length, Rockets and Robots, has been received phenomenaut-ly by radio stations and audiences all around the Bay Area, perfectly capturing the chaotic fun of the act's live shows.
Project: Pimento adds an exciting new wrinkle to lounge music, enlivening classy cocktail-hour tunes from the '40s, '50s, and '60s with the out-of-this-world vibe of the theremin. That instrument -- the only one in the world played without being touched -- is handled deftly by Robby Virus, and its quavery Space Age sound gives a fantastically fun twist to the Project: Pimento catalog. Live, the group has been known to put its jazzy spin on such classics as Burt Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer," the James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice," Henry Mancini's "Moon River," and the surf favorite "Miserlou." Project: Pimento singer Lola Bombay has a smoky, captivating set of pipes (and a burgeoning career as the leader of the acclaimed Lori Carsillo Quartet). She's supported by upright bassist Maker's Mark, drummer Top Shelf Rich, and guitarist Absolute Michael. The group is currently hard at work on its debut album, which will feature Tony Hatch's "Call Me," along with the Adler/Ross chestnut "Whatever Lola Wants" and the Shirley Bassey standard "Diamonds Are Forever." But fans don't need to fret that Project: Pimento's recording schedule will keep it off the stage. The studio time hasn't slowed down the band's tireless gigging pace one bit: From Bruno's to Cafe Du Nord to the Hemlock Tavern, Project: Pimento brings its bewitching lounge music to a venue near you. Smoking jacket and evening gown optional.