Live Review: Oakland United Benefit Show at the Fox Theater

For five hours, local artists and bands performed in honor of the Ghost Ship Fire.

The morning of December 3rd was a dark one for many in the Bay Area.  Reports were flying around about a fire that had happened somewhere near Fruitvale and the scores of people that were missing. As the day crept on, the news became increasingly dire, and eventually the Ghost Ship fire claimed the spot as the 6th most deadly single-building fire in American history.  The DIY artist communities have been hurt the worst, losing not only friends and family, but now being in danger of losing their homes, their work, and their livelihood, as the city cracks down on DIY live/work spaces, inspecting them for code violations and putting the entire  underground artist community of Oakland in danger of displacement or complete destruction.

Put together in just eight days, Wednesday, Dec. 14’s Oakland United show at the Fox Theater featured a roster of musicians, speakers, and artists in an effort to raise money for those affected by the tragic events of Ghost Ship and also to raise awareness for the tremendous loss the surviving members of the community may face in the very near future.  All proceeds from the five-hour show’s ticket sales, as well as those collected from the raffle and silent auction items (which ranged from tickets to Burning Man to a signed guitar from Metallica), were donated to the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts Oakland Fire Fund, which had raised just shy of $700,000 at the start of the event. (The number is expected to break $1 million following the fundraiser.)

The first to perform after an introduction from Gray Area’s Josette Melchor was singer-songwriter Mike Deni, better known as Geographer.  Like many of those in attendance – and those that were lost in the tragedy – Deni made his way west to the Bay Area to find sanctuary.  After a beautiful rendition of “Verona,” Deni mentioned that the reason he has decided to stay in the area after years of change and the introduction of so many new obstacles is that these communities do so much more here than they do elsewhere.

“They take care of us,” he said, before sweeping into “Kites.”  Geographer was swiftly followed by woozy indie outfit Jay Som, helmed by Melina Duterte, cooing the words to her 2016 single “I Think You’re Alright.”

Much of the remaining music consisted of covers that were sewn together with the performers’ collective heartstrings, beginning with a pair of songs penned by the late, great Leonard Cohen.  The first came by way of Confederacy of Beards, an all-male a capella group from San Francisco, delivering Cohen’s legendary “Hallelujah” as a mosaic of warm baritones, basses, and tenors. Confederacy of Beards was succeeded by a delicate rendition of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” by Rogue Wave’s Zach Schwartz.  Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito performed his song “The Working Poor” in response to journalist Sam Lefebvre’s reading of his Pitchfork article detailing the struggles facing Oakland’s DIY community following the tragedy.

Local synthpop duo Them Us Are Too lost one of its two members in the fire as well, 22-year old Cash Askew.  Askew’s bandmate Kennedy Ashlyn (with Askew’s partner Anya Taylor) played a thunderous, wailing cover of Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness,” the dark echoes of synths pairing with the ghost-like “whoa-oh-oh’s” the duo sang after each utterance of “Are you listening?”  Also appearing on the bill were duo tUnE-yArDs, stripped of their many backing vocalists and percussive instruments, though the minimalist setup did not sway singer Merrill Garbus, whose signature androgyny-soaked vocals dominated the quivering production. Decade-long Bay Area resident Thao Nguyen (of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down) stripped down two of her songs, playing this year’s “Hand to God” on acoustic guitar and singing “Holy Roller” with only the accompaniment of a banjo.

The event’s second half started with a bang, kicking off with the lineup’s only non-local act: Baltimore’s electronic mastermind Dan Deacon, who did his best to purge the theater of any negativity.  First, he used his frantic brand of electronic music (heavily reliant on circuit bending, vocal distortion, and thumping percussive beats) to re-energize the audience, insisting that those on the lowest level of the pit enter into an impromptu dance contest.  As he played “The Crystal Cat,” participants entered the newly-formed ring of dancers and abided by his rules of being “sassy as fuck” for five to 10 seconds before tagging someone else in to take their spot.  When the music stopped, Deacon had us all grab hands with our neighbors and raise them toward the ceiling as he guided us through a visualization of those we love, those we have missed, and those around us in that very moment.  Deacon may not be local to Oakland, but having started his own DIY community (Wham City) back in Baltimore, he is entrenched in the spirit of artistic community.

During the other electronic acts of the evening, namely local “ethnotronica” outfit Beats Antique and a heavenly collaboration between ambient performers Tycho and Christopher Willits, the soft murmur of drug deals being made among the crowd gave me pause, but then I had to smile.  Knowing that enhancement is a part of this community’s spirit, I found it comforting to hear the calls for “rolls and doses,” as it was welcome evidence of a return to normalcy – or however close one can get to normalcy after such a devastating loss of life in such a tight-knit group.

Although Primus was the headliner of the evening – and many came just to see them – it was not their music that made head turns last night: it was Les Claypool’s beautiful frankness in addressing the crowd.

“I wish we were meeting under a more pleasant situation,” he said.  “I grew up here around the Bay Area, and I spent a lot of time in places like Ghost Ship, creating with others.  They are spectacular environments, and they need to be protected.”

Primus then launched into a four-song set (“We will play music, and try to make everyone feel a little better,” Claypool said), culminating in the bizarro basslines of “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver.”

When Sam Lefebvre described the photos of the burned warehouse as “a rib cage parted and relieved of its heart,” I wept for I know that this is true.  However, after Oakland United, it would seem that Oakland never really lost its heart, as it has been here all along.  The veins have been severed, but with a strong will and the right kind of treatment, we are not yet lost.

“Can we do it there?” asked Glynn Washington, of moving our communities elsewhere.  “No. The best stories come from here first.”

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