Whether you believe the legend or not, Valentine's Day has spawned traditions other than the Hallmark card and the Lonely Hearts Club: In the Middle Ages, women pinned the names of their sweethearts on their sleeves, expressing their feelings publicly and giving rise to an overused adage; in Wales, the lovelorn exchange wooden spoons carved with keys and keyholes which are meant to unlock their true love's heart; in England, a robin flying overhead means certain marriage to a sailor, while a sparrow suggests happy nuptials with a poor man and a goldfinch promises a millionaire, with or without joy. In San Francisco, Nik Phelps & the Sprocket Ensemble will celebrate the day by performing live scores to animated shorts about the age-old state of desideratum. Laugh at love as shown in the realm of computer dating, cloning, and dog walking, then take your best friend next door to cry in your beer. The Sprocket Ensemble's Valentine's Celebration will be held on Thursday, Feb. 8, at the Red Vic (1727 Haight) at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Admission price is $7-10; call 681-3189.
Local tales avow that the young Mark Growden ambled through North America like a monk, with naught but a tin whistle, the clothes on his back, and an egg-shaped wind instrument called a double ocarina. This suited the musical lover of pots and pans and other culinary contrivances: The lad was learning to improvise with ingredients offered by the world, and he trusted it would enrich his compositions, if not his pockets.
When he wandered into San Francisco he began writing instrumental scores for theater and dance. This went along fairly well until, as often happens, fortune arrived masked as calamity: All of Growden's instruments were stolen from his dressing room. Transforming his lament into song, the multi-instrumentalist found a voice that night, which eventually gave rise to Downstairs Karaoke, a full-length album of off-kilter ruminations that jump on carnival trucks and track muddy feet through Eastern European weddings.
On his second release, Inside Beneath Behind, we again find Growden's familiar ally Myles Boisen behind the mixing board and in masterful control of all sorts of guitar; Growden himself taking turns at accordion, Hammond organ, banjo, sax, auto harp, toy piano, PVC pipes, bass drum, two-by-fours, amplified scissors, and accordion reeds; other musicians contributing everything from thavil and gongs to trumpet and Wurlitzer; and the city itself sharing her air raid sirens at the tail end of "Green Heaven," a piece originally composed for Deke Weaver's play The Crimes and Confessions of Kip Knutsen: A Hockey Way of Knowledge. Growden includes several pieces, such as "1,000" and "Inside Every Bird," from his stage works, while taking the lyrics of "Devouring Time" from Shakespeare's "19th Sonnet," in the process giving Inside Beneath Behind the ruddy tone of Kurt Weill's Berlin stage.
At times dark and dangerously drunken, at other times tender and mournful, Growden's music paints pictures that expound on his careening words. The plaintive suggestion "Behind every word/ There's another word/ Spoken softer/ And behind that word/ The sound of laughter" precedes an effusive sing-along and accordion march that would suit a fire-lit ballet of shattered crockery. Tales of self-destructive spiders with 72 eyes and little girls captured in stone, teapots, and undertow drop into hushed lullabies that would give pause to the Brothers Grimm. While Growden's words read as abstractions, his music proceeds as a robust and bold narrative, with ample occasion for the listener to fill the cast from his own life.
Mark Growden's Electric Piñata celebrates its CD release on Thursday, Feb. 8, at Slim's with Rube Waddell, Faun Fables, Schloss, Brian Kenney Fresno, and Amaldecor opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8; call 255-0333.