Jay Som’s Homecoming Ignites the City

Oakland’s Melinda Duterte is a blueprint for how local music can thrive.

Update: This story has been updated to note that Duterte was wiping away sweat, not tears.

Following its largest headlining show to date, Jay Som once and for all buried the narrative that the Bay Area’s music scene is in trouble.

Performing at Great American Music Hall on Friday night, the band fronted by Oakland native Melina Duterte burst with emotion. Toward the end of the evening, it appeared Duterte momentarily had to stop to wipe away tears sweat. She spoke of how many times she and her bandmates had come to Great American to see a show, and now here they were — playing to a rowdy crowd who loudly called for more when she and her bandmates finally took their leave.

Jay Som’s ascent from bedroom project to NPR darling is built on the back of Duterte’s talent for creating an intimate atmosphere that manages not to shy away from the noise but instead fold it into her sound. The unexpected bite in her work is like a cat nipping at your anklets from beneath the blankets — a moment of pain but, ultimately, cause for a smile.

Her rise has been fairly swift, and while her gigs in the Bay Area have been coming fast and furious since her Polyvinyl debut Turn Into in 2016 , each one has been an important stepping-stone on her way to Great American. It was there that everything seemed to come together in a celebratory evening that found Duterte and her bandmates letting loose and reveling in the moment. It could be felt as Jay Som leaned in to the hook on “The Bus Song” and slinked through the slower notes on “Baybee.”

The tired (and wholly inaccurate) narratives of declining returns from Bay Area musicians are based on the notion that as rents rise and the tech sector soars, there is simply no place left for bohemians to reside. That is increasingly true, but it ignores one vital truth: Hardship doesn’t quell creativity, it fuels it.

If the number of artists coming out of San Francisco proper has lessened in recent years, so be it. Last time I checked, iTunes didn’t have an option to sort by an act’s ZIP code. San Francisco’s loss is Oakland’s gain, as Jay Som’s triumphant performance proved. And Duterte’s career is still in its early stages.

For those that want to spend their allotted word count burying something that is well and alive, I wonder: When was the last time they saw Jay Som? Have these cultural undertakers caught a Madeline Kenney show recently? Where were they the last time 1-O.A.K. or Xiomara took over a stage?

The answer is likely not in the crowd, watching the lights cast happy shadows on grinning faces. They definitely weren’t outside as the shows let out, the sidewalks crowded with giddy fans hyped on the performance they’d just witnessed.

No one saysit’s easy to pay the rent as an artist in the Bay Area right now. In truth, it’s likely more difficult than ever. Yet that’s why the rise of acts like Jay Som is all the more incredible. With intricate, engaging work, Dutertre claps back against any notion that our streets are one iota less full of talent.

So let us take a break from the pretentious obituaries and instead, dive back into what we do best: exploring, celebrating, and analyzing the work of our many local artists. If we must now search farther down alleyways, travel deeper into the backrooms of bars — and yes, take the BART a few stops longer to do so, it is a small price to pay.

We need more Jay Soms. Let’s go find them.  

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