Live Review: The Space Lady Transforms the Elbo Room

The Space Lady
Penelope Houston
Muscle Drum
Elbo Room
Friday, Nov. 14, 2014

Seeing a sole being strumming a jangly Fender Stratocaster, covering the creepy “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” seemed completely out of left field, but it happened. Muscle Drum (Rob Spector from SF’s Bronze) concluded Friday night’s opening solo set for The Space Lady at Elbo Room with the almost vaudevillian parody. It was thoughtful homage for a number more famously done by the great Bette Davis in her role as Baby Jane Hudson in Robert Aldrich’s gothic tragedy and cult classic — Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

He may have been incapable of out-creeping the fictitious, forlorn child star has-been (if that was even a goal), but the venue itself, subject to scrutiny with the imminent threat of shutdown to make way for condominium development, has served the Mission well in housing these types of outsider, left-field acts, The Space Lady being a prime example.

[jump] Some have gone as far as labeling her as an underground icon. She’s the unforgotten freak (meant in the most endearing way) who has gone from being a homeless busker on streets of San Francisco and Boston, to a legit record deal-wielding musician who’s just returned from a triumphant six-week European tour. Susan Dietrich Schneider, beloved by her loyal fans, is the physical embodiment of the weirdness San Francisco once readily championed. Her determination and drive possess spiritual qualities, especially in front of an audience when she becomes a transcendental vessel working her way through songs from her psychedelic catalog.  While Muscle Drum strummed, I darted to the back of the room where The Space Lady and her husband, Eric, (The Space Manager) sat at a well-stocked merch table. He knew me from when I had her as a guest on my radio show at San Francisco Community Radio/ KUSF-in-Exile, during her previous Elbo Room show in March, which was billed as her first “official” SF club gig. She asked how the station was doing. I told her we had an LPFM application in with the FCC, but didn’t get into the specifics about how that might put us back on the air. Her simple words of encouragement: “Big things sometimes start off small.”

Keeping with the stripped-down, singer-songwriter feel of the night, Penelope Houston, from pioneering SF punk band The Avengers, took the stage. A younger, drunker version of me might have heckled for some cheap laughs during this set because of the confessional nature of its sentimental lyrics. Houston created an atmosphere thick with transparent vulnerability; not exactly something an insecure drunk would really want to empathize with. Fortunately a more mature me sat on the sidelines and enjoyed the set soberly.
Armed with an autoharp, which at one point she’d trade for a melodica, and a proficient acoustic guitarist at her side; a barefoot Houston channeled a Grace Slick-meets-Jimi Hendrix fashion hybrid, through her choice of a white Woodstock-era jacket complete with fringe. I particularly enjoyed her earnest singing about Babushka and either the mistakes she’s made or the unfortunate circumstances that lead to a hard life at the corner of Golden Gate and Hyde.

The anticipation of a live Space Lady set may have ebbed a bit since she got plenty of attention earlier this year. The room wasn’t as packed as the first time around, but she still rocked the T40 Casio and got extra rambunctious when she pushed the volume to the limits on cover songs like “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” hit angelic notes by harmonizing with her synthesizer on “Major Tom,” and on Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” where the ecstasy became too much to bear that she had to let out orgasmic yelps. The winged helmet on her head with the blinking red, ping-pong ball was merely the icing on the cake. 
A natural-born risk taker, she even played a new song warning about climate collapse and rhymed that it’s “clear the end is near.” Coming from someone who’s waxed poetically about the effortless life of a seagull and how she longs to emulate its freedom (she really told me this in conversation once) it shouldn’t be too surprising that she sets off some seriously, cosmic, gentle-hippie vibes. The Space Lady sings the hits and transforms your spirit.

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