If you’ve gone souling around town in the past 15 years, you’re likely to have graced the dragon-guarded dance floor upstairs at the Elbo Room during Saturday Night Soul Party. San Francisco’s longest-running DJ night dedicated to 1960s and ’70s soul sounds celebrates its 15th anniversary on Nov. 3, a little more than a month before its final night at the Valencia Street bar.
On first and third Saturdays, DJs Lucky, Phegren Oswald, and Paul Paul bring boxes of hit 45s and innumerable lost-but-not-forgotten groups with verve, keeping the faith with heavy hitters from before most of the night’s attendees were born. You’re as likely to hear Marvin and Tammi’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as you are a deep cut from Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks or a northern soul tune by Jamaican reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. The energy is high, uncomplicated, and free of much of the us-versus-them vibe in other of the city’s scenes.
“We’re coming from a certain time more than we are a specific style. There’s this seven-year time period of ’65 to ’72 — whether it’s girl group soul, or southern soul like Stax Records, or big stuff with Motown soul and sounds from Philly and Chicago,” says Lucky, also known as Sean Siegle. “There’s 50-cent garage sale records and $500 rarities being played, side by side.”
Soul Party started in November 2003 when its three founders — who each came to San Francisco in the mid-to-late ’90s and were involved in the DIY punk scene — wanted a place to spin soul and Jamaican music. Their first Sunday night gig at the now-defunct Bigfoot Lodge on Polk Street had weird hours, bad sound, and no dance floor — and they were paid in Hamm’s beer.
“It was just our friends who would come by and hang out, and it was the second time I’d ever DJed,” says Paul Costuros, aka Paul Paul. About six months later, the group was offered a Sunday night gig at Casanova Lounge, which focused on ’60s soul.
At the time, San Francisco was experiencing an explosion of vintage record DJ nights, including Oldies Night at The Knockout. While many of those events were rooted in the city’s strong mod and soul subculture, Soul Party was unique because it wasn’t tied to a scene.
“I don’t think people had really done this before in this context; people danced in a very exclusive and ‘identiopathic’ way,” Siegle says. “Soul Party made this genre a universal music.”
Soul Party blew up quickly, and its sounds percolated out of Casanova faster than 45 rotations per minute.
“It was pretty chaotic and fun for a while,” says Phengren Oswald (government name Chris Dixon). “I lived in a house three blocks away with a garage with a big sound system, and we’d have these big after parties until three or four in the morning.”
Soul Party spent two years at Casanova, which became the happening spot it is today due in part to the event. Although the DJs had started to wear suits and some dancers would also dress up, lending to what might seem like a scene-y vibe, the Casanova Soul Party was open to everyone.
Dixon, Costuros, and Siegle promoted the party, met like minds while digging for soul records at Rooky Ricardo’s in the Lower Haight, and had a large, diverse friend group that they could count on to cut a rug. But Soul Party was in full swing at a time when other musical forces were gripping the city.
“Circa 2004, there was a definite vibe in the city where you … were seeing these disparate scenes from years ago hanging out together,” Dixon says. “San Francisco was a party town for years. You also had a bunch of kids who grew up here who came of age at that time and were in the Haight and the Mission and wanted to hang out.”
By 2006, Soul Party moved down the street to the Elbo Room, where longtime friend and booker (now co-owner) Matt Shapiro offered them a monthly Saturday slot in a bigger space. To celebrate their first party, the DJs had an after party in Clarion Alley with a portable turntable.
“I think it’s important to remember that this music was made to lift people up,” Siegle says. “It wasn’t exotic. We broke down the barriers and it was very easy because soul is universal.”
For the past three years, the Elbo Room’s landowners have attempted to redevelop the $4.2 million site into a mixed-use space. This month, Shapiro announced that the Elbo Room would officially close on Jan. 1, 2019. The Soul Party DJs (who were vocally opposed to the closure but friends with the owners) often bore the burden of explaining the Elbo Room’s complex status to confused friends and attendees.
“It was stressful and kind of angering,” Dixon says, adding that attendance dipped in recent years, and the night added guests for the first time in January 2017. “We’ve been there for over 12 years, so when the first Saturday of the month comes and I don’t go there, I’m gonna probably feel it. Anytime a venue closes it’s a drag for the city, but I feel like the Elbo Room had a really, really good run and became a respected venue that hosted a diverse set of acts. I think it’s gonna go out on a high note.”
Saturday Night Soul Party will certainly go out on a high note. The 15th-anniversary party will bring guests from the past year to play a set, and there are likely a few other surprises. The last two parties in December ahead of the closure will be “business as usual,” Costuros says. “Just trying to make it super-fun and review the past 15 years, and get super-loose and bonkers.”
Soul Party is looking for a new home and is also considering a floating party in the interim. Its selectors have different takeaways after hosting the longest-running soul DJ night in the city.
“It was an important night for a lot of people,” says Costuros. “It gave me the freedom to not have to work a full-time job. It helped me learn more about soul and buying records, it brought me to a bunch of friends who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
Dixon isn’t sure if Soul Party needs to leave behind a legacy. “Realistically, all we’ve done is try to provide a radical soundtrack for people having a really good time. The idea is just to play the best fucking music you’ve ever heard, and hang out and drink beers and listen to records.”