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Baseball season! San Francisco's musical farm team down south 

Wednesday, May 30 2007
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It's baseball season. I know this because my Muni ride home by the ballpark is now jammed to capacity with an alternate breed of commuter. Boisterous orange-and-black-clad sports fans smelling of beer and salted animal guts converse in game speak — a lingo where striking out has nothing to do with failing to score with the opposite sex.

Regularly communing with baseball fans has gotten me thinking about farm teams. Not the ones with pitchers and batters; the kinds that drink pitchers and play guitars. Breeding grounds for new talent happen in the arts as much as with jocks. Every big city has its musical farm team town — the spot where the young players sharpen their game, a place located just enough gas tanks away that its artists don't hit fouls with jaded crowds before they can build a modest following. The budding bands in these outposts practice in the basement circuit, gig in coffee shops, and record in home studios. When the talented denizens of these feeder burgs tire of playing the same three clubs, they don't have to wait to be called up to play in the big city. They simply move to San Francisco and become part of our home team.

In recent years, Santa Cruz has earned prime feeder status. The beach-bum college destination has a humble history in the rock 'n' roll world. MTV quasi-darlings Camper Van Beethoven crafted punchy skate punk there in the late '80s, while the Fucking Champs' instru-metal was a mainstay on the Santa Cruz punk circuit in the '90s. Champ Tim Green has since become one of San Francisco's most respected rock producers. More recently, Bay Area-via-Santa Cruz acts like Comets on Fire inspired a new legion of acid rock jammers, signing to Sup Pop and performing at the U.K.'s mega-fest All Tomorrow's Parties.

It's a slow scene to catch nationally, but Santa Cruz is still fertile stomping ground for musicians. Aside from getting to exist on one of the most beautiful patches of Earth, you can sort of afford to live, practice, and make records (without racking up noise complaints) all in one space. Cozy local bars like the Blue Lagoon and the Attic let bands pull their performance together in a professional space that's mellower than the big S.F. venues. Meanwhile, the 800-person-capacity Catalyst club attracts enough touring talent to keep the geeks up on new music.

A final plus: Santa Cruz is home to a hungry, music-savvy audience that goes to shows, local and otherwise. That helps build momentum for bands on a small scale, so when they hit the Bay Area they've got a crowd for the big clubs already in tow. "People come out to see the bands they like and they support them long-term," says Pete Bernhard of Santa Cruz's the Devil Makes Three. His country punk band is able to headline Great American Music Hall because his fans not only pay admission for the home shows, they also follow the trio on the road. "People started to come from Santa Cruz to see us play in the city," says Bernhard. "That really helped us — we've gotten to the point where we have a really decent crowd in San Francisco and nearly half of them are from Santa Cruz."

Below are a couple Crackerjacks poised to move up the majors — gotta cram all that baseball lingo into one column now — or in the case of Mammatus, seasoned pros who thrive in the outfield and don't budge from down south.

New Thrill Parade

Status: Halfway between AAA and the majors (four of the six band members are moving to San Francisco).

New Thrill Parade frontman Amitai Heller chatted with me over the phone during his smoke break from the local record store, where he was only too happy to discuss his relocation: "I want to be positive, but the negative side is that we've reached our capacity of our draw," he says. "Santa Cruz is for people who play more accessible music, [they] never have to leave." NTL's stage show reportedly includes costumes of beet "blood" and war paint, and its most recent disc, Universal Shame, has Heller drawling out an inner-city-ER-room howl. The music lands somewhere between Nick Cave, Gun Club, and Indian Jewelry — which is to say there's plenty of agitated gloom involved. "Santa Cruz has a mystique that outsiders like to talk about and explore, with the woods and nature and psychedelic element to it all," Heller says, "but our band really centers on music that's a little more bleak. It doesn't really mesh as well [here] as I'd hoped it would in San Francisco."

Emily Jane White

Status: Moved to San Francisco last year.

I bookmarked White's MySpace jukebox so that I can repeatedly get transported by her folksy, old-soul alto, one that carries a sense of gravitas no matter the subject matter. The same indie kids who go cross-eyed for Cat Power and Feist will find a lonesome beauty to pine over in White. Her minimal arrangements of guitars, strings, and piano were perfect for Santa Cruz vet Cam Archer's film Wild Tigers I Have Known. That movie, playing at the Roxie for another minute, is a moving art-house pastiche about the bleak childhood of a gay junior high outcast. White contributes the slow waltz of the title track (Comets and Six Organs of Admittance are also on the Tigers soundtrack). In a recent Weekly article, White admitted she didn't have the same confidence to perform beyond the house party circuit until she left Santa Cruz.

Mammatus

Status: Prime targets for S.F. recruitment.

Mammatus exploits the wonders of its locale in Corralitos, which is nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains, by having a studio nestled into its homestead. The band's new acclaimed release, The Coast Explodes, delves into Northern California mainstays of stiff winds and, you know, dragons. Coast also offers glimpses of chatty bird interludes, sci-fi folk, and paganistic rambles into the "spirit world" alongside bulky rock sludge. Having just come off a U.S. tour with revered Japanese experimental collective Acid Mothers Temple, Mammatus is poised to join Comets as the next big psychsters from Northern California.

Birds Fled From Me

Status: AA but definite AAA potential.

Birds Fled From Me is the nom de MySpace for one Rachel Williams. She's releasing her debut in July, but for now she'll send you a demo if you write her a letter — just one display of the homespun charm she has toward her music. She's an unknown for now — I found her site randomly — but she still bats 1000 with her music. Williams' songs carry an innocent Renaissance Faire-meets-Bjork quality, between her choice of instrument (harpsichord, although she also uses piano and guitar) and her trilling admissions of the romance in "taking kisses." The bedroom recordings showcase Williams' operatic vocals, which are gently overlaid to keep the song structures intimate and allow her occasional whispers to be heard. Time passes slowly on these tracks, and the pace is kept by shakers or knocked about a bit by simple Casio beats. It's perfect music for a town that itself moves to a pace set by the surf, the skaters, and a natural seclusion from the big city.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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