Cheap Musical Thrills

Give your ears — and your wallet— a summer treat.

Summer offers no shortage of ways to drop mad cash on musical diversions, from multiday festivals to hoary reunion tours. Consider the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park August 28-30 (, where $225.50 will buy you a three-day pass to see big names like Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys as well as newer breakout artists like TV on the Radio and M.I.A. For $75, you can see Duran Duran at the Fillmore on Tuesday, July 7 (1805 Geary at Fillmore,, while a mere $45 to $65 will gain you access to the rather stunning '80s lineup of ABC, Wang Chung, Berlin, Cutting Crew, and Heaven 17 down south at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga (14831 Pierce at Vintage,

But if the sputtering economy has you pinching pennies on the auditory amusement front, have no fear. The Bay Area has always been a place where you can find musical entertainment on the cheap, if you know where to look. From renegade buskers and surreptitious dance parties to free jazz nights and the dreaded karaoke, options for low-budget fun are everywhere.

Street cred

Street musicians abound in this town, perhaps in direct correlation to an increase in the population of underemployed professionals. In fact, the streets of San Francisco have served as a launching pad for such esteemed local acts as Ferocious Few and Two Gallants. A steady stream of raucous rockin' combos are continuing to pop up on corners around the Mission and downtown, and classically trained string trios, acoustic guitarists, and the occasional accordion player regularly surface in BART stations at rush hour.

Golden Gate Park has no shortage of talent lurking in its corners and tunnels, and the drum circle at Hippie Hill has taken on some wild new directions in freeform improv. Instead of just walking by all these public-space freebies, take time to soak it all in.

Then there are those gloriously strange sidewalk troubadours, long an S.F. tradition. Take Omer, for example. This fabulous furry freak brother has been haunting Valencia Street doorways since the early '90s, and his heavy-handed chord-bashing and ranting song-stylings are something to behold. Pay him some attention, and he'll deliver a performance best described as “singular.”

Club affordably

San Francisco clubs are beginning to offer recession specials, albeit not as much as bars in other cities, and not just at happy hour. Free DJs + drink specials = an affordable audio excursion.

Argus Lounge (3187 Mission at Valencia, has a never-ending cavalcade of DJs — and $5 Maker's Manhattans on Thursdays. The Casanova Lounge (527 Valencia at 16th St., never charges a cover and features a constant, eclectic mix of DJs. In the Lower Haight, Nickies (466 Haight at Fillmore, often has free DJ nights, including the '80s retro-blast of “Flashback Fridays.”

When it comes to the live stuff, many venues in S.F. don't charge much in the way of cover. Every upcoming show at the Hemlock Tavern (1131 Polk at Post, costs less than $10, and the Punk Rock Sideshow DJ night is free every Monday. The Rickshaw Stop (155 Fell at Van Ness,, Thee Parkside (1600 17th St. at Wisconsin,, and Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St. at Missouri, often have shows for $10 or less.

If you're feeling a wee bit Celtic, the Plough and Stars (116 Clement at Second Ave., features traditional Irish music and roots rock, with cover charges only on Friday and Saturday. Other budget venues include Annie's Social Club (917 Folsom at Fifth St.,, the Knockout (3223 Mission at Valencia, and the Red Devil Lounge (1695 Polk at Clay, Consult their Web sites for details.

For a fairly comprehensive list of upcoming local shows, see the List: It's a great no-frills resource, and prices are listed for all shows. For even more comprehensive Bay Area music and event listings, visit

Get out

If you're up for an excursion to Pleasanton, the Alameda County Fair runs July 1 through 19 (Valley and Bernal, All concerts are free with the $10 fair admission, and the lineup features some staggeringly county-fair–level acts, including Charlie Daniels, Night Ranger, Con Funk Shun, Gregg Rolie from Journey, and a Journey tribute band. Hoooo boy!

On a more outdoorsy front, the venerable Golden Gate Park Band is celebrating its “127th Season of Glorious Music” with a variety of vintage classics every Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. in Golden Gate Park's Bandshell (

Disco al fresco, anyone? Dolores Park in particular has become a breeding ground for ad hoc daylight dance parties, especially when the weather is nice. While there are e-mail lists and Web sites like where you might be able to find advance notice, sometimes it's best to just show up and hope you get lucky. Or you could bring a portable sound system and have a spontaneous MP3 DJ set with your friends.

If you're looking to shake a leg in the evening, many dance clubs offer free or cheap admission if you show up on the early side; runs a weekly list of recession busters, offering free or reduced cover with RSVP to various nightspots.

The art of noise

Cafes and art galleries are great places to see outstanding live music on a limited budget. Dolores Park Cafe (501 Dolores at 18th St., has free music on Fridays; it tends toward the folkier female singer-songwriter side, but bizarre experimental noise acts show up once a month. Revolution Cafe (3248 22nd St. at Bartlett, has live music almost every day, including the trad/mod chamber group Classical Revolution every Sunday from 8 to 11 p.m. and the ever-popular Marcus Shelby Trio on Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to midnight.

The downtown/Hayes Valley location of Caffe Trieste (1667 Market at Gough, has free jazz many nights — check its Web site. Trombonist and legendary comedian Mal Sharpe's Dixieland jazz band plays 3 to 6 p.m. every Saturday at Savoy Tivoli in North Beach (1434 Grant at Union, no Web site).

On a grungy stretch of Market Street, Luggage Store Gallery brings decidedly more experimental sounds weekly to Creative Music Thursdays, with a $6 to $10 sliding scale, no one turned away for lack of funds (1007 Market at Sixth St., Meridian Gallery (535 Powell at Bush, offers concerts on the second Wednesday of the month featuring new, traditional, and world music, with a Midsummer Music concert scheduled for July 11.

Finally, there's the mother of all free S.F. music venues, Stern Grove (19th Ave. and Sloat,, with Sunday concerts through August 23. There's nothing like taking in top-notch sounds in this most bucolic of settings, but you have to get there early for a good seat. Highlights this season include Joan Baez on July 12, the Lyrics Born Revue on July 26, and Bollywood Sufi superstar Kailash Kher on August 2. Just don't forget to bring chill-deflecting layers and a picnic lunch.

Read more articles from Summer Guide:

Fun Times from Uncle Sugar: Fifteen fabulous ways to stimulate the local economy.

Reading Highway 1: A literary road trip up the Mendonoma coast.

Hotels, events and books for your trip north on the Highway 1/Shoreline Highway

A Pint-sized Pub Crawl: Tour the city's breweries and brewpubs this summer.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories