30 days, 30 gigs: Sacramento live music
A challenge, a couple writers, a bunch of guest lists and no sleep till July
Could two SN&R music writers attend one concert in the region every night for an entire month? The dare was issued—Nick Miller and Josh Fernandez were up to the challenge. Each spent the past month going, literally, to a gig a day. They got hands stamped, Nick got drunk, Josh got a new kitten and they were both frisked by more muscle-bound men than they care to admit. And collectively they gained a new perspective on the wide array of music scenes that make up our region. Here are a few snippets of what they saw.
• • •
I arrive at The Press Club a little paranoid, tired, angry, edgy and wishing I could be doing something more relaxing, like watching the Food Network or sleeping—or relapsing. It’s 11:30 p.m. There are 10 people at the club, including the bartender. A metalhead I have seen around town for the past decade or so paces with a Pabst tall can. He’s a Dungeons & Dragons metalhead rather than a Slayer metalhead, a solid life choice all-around.
Two dudes, Swims, get onstage, one behind the drum set, the other on bass. I’m confused; wasn’t Competing supposed to perform? I’m infinitely too tired to care.
Ira Skinner, who runs The Press, is in the back of the club rocking out. Or as much as a guy can rock out while seated on a bar stool. His beard bounces like it’s been well-conditioned.
Swims sounds like metal chairs thrashing around the eye of a tornado. “That’s like something I would play on my keyboard when I was little, and I wasn’t even trained,” my girlfriend says. Then, bless her heart, she falls asleep on her bar stool. She’s only with me because I told her that if she came along to most of these shows, we could get the kitten she wanted. (Slowly, she’s becoming a delusional collector of cats.)
With no audience, the band plays a couple songs, then goes outside for a smoke break, then gets back onstage and continues. Wedding bloopers are on the bar’s TV. A groom barfs, a bride falls, the laugh track plays on.
• • •
I enter the Fire Escape Bar and Grill in Citrus Heights and punk Danny Secretion welcomes me with an F-bomb. Oh, it’s a song: “Three Chords and a Fuck You” or something like that. Kinda belabored, kinda catchy. He’s solo, sans co-Secretions, just wrapping up his set. I order a beer, bottled.
Charles Twilling of the original Capitol Garage books, promotes and runs sound at Fire Escape, and Sundays are all-ages matinees. It’s sorta crowded. Four punk dudes loaf at a merch table, looking stoic, perhaps miffed at the mainstream crowd. Lot’s of dad jeans and trucker hats. Only a couple street punks.
It’s the last gig ever for the next band, Isonomy, teenagers with chops, including a talented girl drummer. A parent armed with a camcorder thinks he’s Steven Soderbergh. Teenagers hold hands and form what the lead singer calls a hug pit. No one hugs me.
The set drags. Rule of thumb: The second band in a five-band lineup doesn’t get to play for 45 minutes, even if it’s your last gig ever. They cover Minor Threat. Ian MacKaye’s lucky he’s not here.
But props to Twilling. There aren’t many places in suburban hell to catch a good band. He’s filling a void. Now, if he only could arrange a light-rail line back to Midtown.
• • •
A young blonde collects money in Tupperware as kids trickle into a living room in Midtown to catch Ramona Córdova, a folk act from Arkansas by way of New Orleans. Furniture in the dining room of the Craftsman is gone, the soft-spoken Córdova plopped where a table might go. A crowd encircles him. He adjusts his Coke-bottle glasses and polyester suit and begins.
Córdova sings in a soft, whispery hum of no more than 40 decibels, quiet like the voice you’d use to wake someone up in the morning (unless you’re a slave driver—Mom?). He noodles on the guitar, raw, calloused fingers plucking nylon strings. It’s an absorbing, pin-drop moment.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
The smoke alarm. Cigarette smoke. Córdova stops, laughs, sighs. It’s an awkward pause. Someone yanks the alarm from the ceiling. Córdova composes himself, shuffles and starts back into the song at the precise measure where he left off.
I’m peering through the kitchen entryway. The girl with the Tupperware full of cash settles next to me, leaving the till on top of the kitchen stove. I wonder how much money the performers will take home. Twenty bucks? Nothing? Córdova’s traveled cross-country on tour without a major label to foot the bill. The blonde grabs the Tupperware off the stove and secures it between her right foot and the linoleum floor.
It’s doubtful anyone in attendance would steal the cash, but you never know.
• • •
I’m sitting in front of R5 Records reading a list of shows and venues in town. I realize there’s a real chance of not even running into Nick Miller, the guy I’m doing the story with. He’s more into the indie-experimental/house-show scene, and he’ll probably spend his nights in some sketchy chick’s living room listening to bearded men bang on instruments until the cops show up. There are so many venues—Javalounge, True Love Coffeehouse, Luna’s, Delta of Venus, VFW Hall, the Distillery, the Boardwalk—that even at a show a night, it’ll probably be easy to avoid him.
I watch a few hot teenage girls with streaky bangs and studded belts and remember briefly what it was like to be young: awkward and horrible.
By the way, there’s a show at R5. But you wouldn’t know it, ‘cause no one’s here. I ask the girl at the counter what’s up. “[Intro5pect] called and said, ‘We need a show,'” she says. So just like that, the band has a gig. Thank God for Russ Solomon and his carefree ways. When I worked at Rick’s Dessert Diner, we couldn’t even change the radio station without having a cake plate thrown at us.
The drummer from Final Summation is in the audience. A band member watching other band members: a sign of a scene that supports its own. A scene can be vibrant, nurturing and loving, like a family. Or it can be masturbatory and self-congratulating—also like a family. Hmm.
I buy a copy of Deltron 3030 because I keep losing it.
• • •
“Do you want a moustache?”
They’re giving away fauxstaches: so Alive 2007. But I take one anyway. For my dog; he’ll wear anything.
It’s not busy for the second incarnation of Electro Shock, a first-Thursdays-of-the-month dance party at swanky MoMo Lounge, which is too bad. Or maybe it is busy and MoMo’s is just too spacious. Upstairs is indoors, crème-colored rooms with a bar and a dance floor. The scene leans more mainstream than alt, but the bangers over the speakers never discriminate. Downstairs is a backyard patio replete with fire pits and another deejay, bumping house. The crowd varies from alt-Asians in neon-colored skeleton pajamas to frat dudes with Heinekens. I’m not sure where I fit in, so I bounce.[page]
Dean Haakenson, Be Brave Bold Robot’s singer, is sweating like Rush Limbaugh in a Mexican pharmacy. His shirt is a scene itself. Along with Haakenson and his pores, tonight’s show at Old Ironsides also features Rowdy Kate and the Ancient Sons, and the place is packed. The Sons look extraordinarily happy to be here and the singer/guitarist (who served me my French toast at Cafe Bernardo earlier) looks calm, perhaps giddy. My old roommate Mike Farrell is on guitar. And despite his wacky Spanish conquistador outfit, he appears solemn, moody even—a far cry from his spastic, showy performances with Th’ Losin Streaks.
A frat-bro-who-never-went-to-college type of guy keeps asking me how good the next band is going to be (as if I could show him “this good” with my hands). He’s really into high-fiving people. And later, he becomes interested in choking people. Claustrophobia by itself is manageable, but with a strangler on the loose, it’s hard to deal with.
Take note other clubs: Old I is a Sacramento landmark for a reason; they have a big neon sign.
• • •
I’m particularly excited to end my week at Primary Concepts, a nice looking tattoo shop in Davis. I haven’t heard of any of the groups, but the name I Cut People sounds like something I seriously might enjoy.
The tattoo shop/gallery by day sometimes doubles as a venue by night. The owner, Jessica Cooke, takes pride in the fact that Concepts isn’t your “typical” studio, meaning there’s art and couches, more of a museum vibe than a rockabilly, PBR kind of vibe. A guy on the patio outside says it reminds him of San Francisco. He’s homeless, though, so I’m not sure it’s a compliment.
As I Cut People sets up his laptop and gear, someone next to me says he’s skeptical. Frankly, I am too. I’ve seen laptop deejays and there’s nothing remotely interesting about them. Until now. This kid tells a frantically seamless story about hamburgers, drugs, sex and America. He utilizes movie clips, old songs, beats and whatever else he can mash together to make exclamations, like “You’ve got hate mail” and “You can’t afford California drugs.” When the scenesters applaud, their earlobe jewelry jiggles, which can mean only one thing: success!
The end of the week brings joyful revelation: I find that at 33 years, I now prefer intimate shows. There are plenty of all-out-party venues—Old I, hipsters’ apartments, cologne-drenched Empire. But some of the most fun is at the smaller clubs. Unique, odd spaces like Primary Concepts.
• • •
DJ Tofu de la Moore from Righteous Movement steps onto Harlow’s stage. He tries to coax the crowd forward, but it doesn’t work. The beats start up anyway and the rest of the Righteous crew appears. They start into “Uprock,” but cut the track off mid-verse. Tofu threatens to call off the show. Finally, the slow-starters make their way to the dance floor and the show kicks off for real. Then it takes off. Woah, is that the HR girl from SN&R grinding it on the dance floor?
Sacramentans are an overly sensitive, self-conscious bunch. But when they let their guards down, dance floors can rival those of any town. Just don’t step on my toes.
• • •
Another house show, another crowd that doesn’t want to pay for live music.
The venue is in Midtown: bands play in the basement, kids chill in the backyard. It’s packed, here to see indie rockers Box Elders and Psychedelic Horseshit (a genre of their own). They’re bands from Nebraska and Australia, respectively, and no doubt it cost a pretty penny to make the pilgrimage.
Evidently, that’s not reason enough for some people to throw down a bit o’ cash.
“You all think music should be free, that bands shouldn’t be paid?” a guy with a bowl full of dollars asks? His voice booms over a contingent of teenagers silently puffing on ciggies, waiting for this guy to stop harshing their mellow.
He bellows again. “OK, too cool to help out touring bands. I get it.” He retreats to the basement.
It’s a shame, because Box Elders really deserve the cash. And not just because they’re good; they need new threads. The guitarist and bassist look like the Nelson brothers, only imagine Brothers Nelson stranded, naked, forced to wear Daisy Dukes and grunge flannels. They’re goofy, but when they strap on the axes and lay down the pop-punk, it’s no joke. I throw $5 into the guy’s bowl. Is that enough? If not, how much? Five dollars will only get you one-fifth the way to S.F.
And you wonder why bands skip Sacramento.
• • •
I’m sick of indie music, so the prospect of watching Tower of Power perform at the Radisson is exciting. There are hundreds of people milling about the parking lot, which is so full that we had to park at Costco down the street. (I wonder if the White Stripes or Coldplay will fill parking lots when they are so close to death?)
My girlfriend and I meet an old man who says he’s seen Kool & the Gang 23 times and Tower of Power 16. The line to get in is a sea of geriatrics with chest hair poking from their Tommy Bahama shirts, conspicuously tanned white women at their sides. It’s going to be a great show, and certainly a change from the loud boozefests of Midtown. After 20 minutes in line and a prolonged hassle with the ticket lady and her boss, they won’t let me in. Guest list, my ass.[page]
Luckily, there’s a show at Bricka Bracka the same night as the Tower of Power show. Did I say I was sick of indie music? Uhh …
When we get to the Midtown gallery, the New Humans are playing. It’s a party for Andri Tambunan’s photography show. A solo breakdancer is popping and locking like he has a whole crew behind him. People browse the photos while watching Live Manikins’ DJ Rated R cut on the decks. It was about 110 degrees in that upstairs gallery and while people are polite, they are all burning up inside.
• • •
All bets are off on Second Saturday when it comes to enforcing the city’s live-music laws. Anyone can play anywhere, and pretty much every band and their mom gigs.
Musical ineptitude is omnipresent. Bad jam bands take over. Outside Crepeville: ouch. On 20th between J and K streets: “DJ Train Wreck.” That Krishna jam outfit on the corner of J and 20th and their patchouli riffage: Someone, please, put them in a lead box.
Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of all the lame bands so that you appreciate the amazing ones.
• • •
It’s Father’s Day. Chuck Ragan from Hot Water Music, Ben Nichols from Lucero and Tim Barry from Avail are playing solo at Blue Lamp. To my total surprise, Blue Lamp is absolutely packed. By 6 p.m. people are drunk, but Nichols is more hammered than anyone in the room. He tells meandering stories for most of the evening in his gruff drawl, and he even plays a few songs. It’s spontaneous—each artist gets on the stage for a few minutes and asks the audience what they want to hear—and one of the best shows yet. On my way out, I notice the drummer from Final Summation standing in the crowd. He sure gets around.
• • •
There’s no rhyme or reason to what Sacramento offers, scenewise. The hip-hop scene, while slowed down over the past 10 years by club closures, is back in full force. The folk scene is alive and well (a little too alive, if you ask me). And the punks are finally coming back now that all the Nazi skinheads are married and collecting welfare.
I show up late for Ross Hammond’s Home Haircut Series at True Love, but luckily, Noah Nelson is at Luna’s with his former band Las Pesadillas.
Luna’s is dark, there’s food and the stage is right up in your face. You can eat, drink, look out the window, watch the band and not feel oppressed by having to dance or look like you’re paying attention. It’s good for music. It’s relaxing, which sometimes is exactly what a band needs. And what a music lover needs. The band plays drinking songs that feature Nelson’s swift guitar work. They’re tight as can be. It’s fun to watch engaging, witty music, and a big change from the aggressive, “serious” music I’ve seen thus far.
• • •
Even if you’re the most incredible cover band in the world, you still kinda suck. And if you’re mediocre, which the band covering excerpts of Abbey Road‘s “Medley” at The Shack in East Sac most definitely is, then you’d better at least be having fun, which they are. And so is everyone else. Fair enough—just don’t cover any Van Morrison.
A week later, I walk my dogs by The Shack, and a troubadour’s rockin’ “Brown Eyed Girl.”
• • •
Early on in this experiment, Nick issued a “crappy show dare.”
Which is why I’m in Roseville at the defunct Underground. Jon Pinney, a Mormon who sings and plays the keyboard, is the feature tonight. Justin Farren (not a Mormon) opens up for him, and the audience of gleaming young blondes with cargo shorts and sandals is seemingly delighted by his dastardly ways. They especially like when Farren says “shit.” And they nearly wet their special underwear when Hammond, in one of his songs, implies that he had sex out of wedlock in a car. Tee-hee.
Pinney, however, is the main attraction. The Mormon with the wild eyes of a sociopath gets behind the keyboard and belts out a few tunes to the orgasmic chagrin of the female audience members.
“If you’re single, you can come up front,” he says, making goo-goo eyes at the Aryan, er, Mormon, women.
“Is he making a move on the entire audience?” I think.
“If you’re female and single, come up front,” Pinney corrects himself.
Because, in case you aren’t following along, Pinney is a full-blooded heterosexual. The rest of the show consists of a heterosexual mosh pit; a lot of heterosexual banter between Pinney and his female fans; and even an oddly incongruous, but surely heterosexual, kid lying on the floor with a full-mast erection. Heterosexual erection, that is.
• • •
On the Y is a metalhead teenager’s bedroom: fuzzy black-light posters, a Marty Friedman shrine, wall-sized Guns N’ Roses spreads. And they claim to serve the coldest beer in town, which is dubious, but I’m not about to split hairs: The guy at the end of the bar has a bag of ice on his head.
I take a seat at the bar with my big ol’ Nikon camera and big dumb Midtown smile. A guy gives a dirty look and retrieves a nearby pitcher of beer off the bar. I think I took his seat. By the way, no one drinks pints here. Only mini-pitchers. Of course, I order a Bud Light in a plastic cup.
The first band, Slip Into Coma, begins later than advertised, which seems to be de rigueur in this town. The three-piece opens with a Black Sabbath cover, and they’re decent. The drummer has double bass and like 80 toms, and the bassist rocks a Flying V. Old-school metal. About 15 guys hover stageside, shoulders gyrating, heads nodding. Not bad.
Midway through the set, the lead singer pauses for a little banter with the audience.
“Are there any gay people here tonight?” The crowd laughs.
“Anybody get married this week?”
“I’ll marry you, man,” a guy hollers.
The lead singer scoffs. “Ha. This one’s for you. It’s called ‘Rainbow body bags.'”
They tear into the song. The crowd’s pumped. I leave.
There’s a slight breeze on this cool summer Friday. I arrive at my car and see Dr. Martens jutting out the back-seat window of the Corolla parked adjacent. A dark-haired woman has her head turned to the side, eyes closed, a man with his pants down crouched over her in the back seat. The traffic hums past on Fulton Avenue. I hit the road.
• • •
Fête de la musique happens to be the hottest day of the summer, so plans for total aural domination are scrapped for swimsuits and pools. However, I catch Chelsea Wolfe and a friend playing guitars, strolling east down N Street, singing “Have a little fun” over and over in 100-plus degree weather. Awesome! Creepy!
The Javalounge put on a 16-band extravaganza in spite of the heat. But there’s A/C at that place; not very French, punks. Live Manikins kill it in the parking lot at work.[page]
Ken Fury is the unofficial scene dad of the Sacramento Pyrate Punx chapter. He paces out front of the Javalounge, a handful of vinyl LPs tucked under his arm. There’s a very cool Pyrate Punx insignia on the back of his leather jacket. And he’s totally down to chat music.
He books and promotes local punk shows, and this Sunday night’s a great one: Javalounge’s packed. Riot on Rosewood, Dance 4 Destruction, Bastards of Young—three other bands are lined up to play, too. Three bands too many, in my opinion, though Fury likely would beg to differ. At least punk musicians are the fastest and most efficient at setting up gear, playing a set and breaking it all down. Emo kids of the ‘90s were the worst.
I’m watching Bastards of Young when Josh Fernandez rolls into the club. We pretend like we don’t know each other, like we both stole each other’s girlfriends or something. “I’m not here.” The lead guitarist for Bastards probably wishes he wasn’t here: He’s out of tune and his amp head tanks mid-set. They’re a solid band, but maybe that’s what you get when your lead singer’s wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. Oh, snap!
• • •
They say Sac hates hip-hop. That’s crap. Sac hates electronica.
Which is not to say deejays Muppetblast and Tha Fruitbat’s Synthetic, a night of electronica music, hasn’t seen its fair share of crowds over the past few years; it has. But now that they’re at the Blue Lamp once a month on Wednesdays, it’s going to take work to get the ball rollin'. Too bad, because they’re unique musicians.
After leaving the Lamp, I’m biking down 21st Street when someone yells “Niiiick Miiiiller.” My first guess is Josh. Wrong: Tim McCord and his brother, Matt McCord. Tim plays guitar for the Snobs and bass for Evanescence. Matt’s one of the best drummers, producers and engineers in town. They invite me for beer at Rubicon, which flows into the wee hours.
If society elected its leaders based on musical acumen, then Tim and Matt would have to fight to be Sacramento’s mayor. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody in town with more knowledge and talent.
• • •
It’s been a surreal month, that’s for sure—punk rock, hip-hop, folk, Mormon erections and all. It’s been an awakening, going out every night, watching different groups of music fans interact. Scene upon scene and not a single fist-fight, shooting or unwanted pregnancy.
On Thursday morning I wake up early to take a long run around the city. On my way, there’s a disheveled man sitting in McKinley Park. In fact, he’s one of the ugliest people I’ve ever seen. His nose is bulbous and spotted with dark red welts; his eyes are puffy and he’s wearing taped, broken glasses. He’s sitting on a park bench picking at an acoustic guitar light enough that it sounds like tiny songbirds flying in a pattern. It’s 5:45 a.m. and there’s still a thin settling of fog on the ground. His voice hums melodically. Eerie is not the word. Horrible or beautiful, maybe.
• • •
How is it that everyone knows the lyrics to Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back"? “So I’m lookin’ at rock videos. / Knock-kneed bimbos walkin’ like hos.” The song was No. 1 on Billboard for five friggin’ weeks in 1992. Of all the possible anthems that summer—Kris Kross’ “Jump,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge"—"Baby Got Back” is what sticks. And, over 15 years later, this is the song some 20-year-old sorority girl is singing during Thursday-night karaoke at the Pine Cove. This place used to be a cop bar; now it’s where co-ed Greeks convene to polish their sing-along chops. If anyone busts out “My Humps,” I’m outta here.
• • •
The VFW Hall is on a grimy street that runs through Orangevale. It’s a good street to be on if you need liquor, gas, fast food, heroin or a hardcore show. Hardcore kids are unlike any other, but, really, they all look the same: Vans, band T-shirts, baseball hats and shorts. It reminds me of my native Boston’s hardcore scene, where bands like Judge, Gorilla Biscuits and Warzone would play at strange, out-of-the-way halls and theaters throughout northern New England. At East Coast shows, there were fistfights and rival crews talking shit. This is a bit tamer, aside from the small fight in the parking lot before Killing the Dream went on.
The kids here seem truly excited to be at this show and make no secret of their love to dance—and by dance, I mean floor-punching and kicking other people in the shins. A tiny Mexican wearing a shirt that reads “L.A. Hardcore—Fuck Yeah!” walks away with a bloody nose, and I leave before I break my hip.
• • •
Later that week, at Delta of Venus, we watch the houselike restaurant and coffee bar transform into a venue to hold Sacramento’s Plush Lush, who raps his way into our hearts. Later at Ben & Jerry’s, a kid who couldn’t be more than 16 turns to his friend. “It was so awesome,” he says. “It was bad-ass.” He was right on both counts.
We head to Sophia’s Thai Kitchen where Not an Airplane is in the middle of their shoegazing set. The crowd is drinking heavily and not paying much attention to the band. The drinks are fairly cheap there, and that’s pretty much the main attraction. Davis folk guru Michael Leahy, who organizes the shows, is there looking very pleased with himself, and there are some ladies around that look very pleased with him, too.[page]
I begin at Atelier, a venue/clothing boutique with free music and no haughty hipster cliquishness. While chilling on the back patio, I bump into Anthony Schatz, formerly of Orisha and many other local bands, whom I haven’t seen in over 10 years.
After that, Silver Darling and Winter Trees at Fox & Goose Public House, which is Terra Lopez’s first gig of the evening. She’s heading out the door as I’m coming in, leaving for her Evening Episode set a block away at Old I.
Inside, Silver Darling singer Kevin Lee’s voice resonates so loudly in the restaurant, it feels like the entire place might come crashing down. Which would be a welcome reprieve: If I died at the Fox & Goose tonight, I wouldn’t have to go to any more shows. This month. Ever. I could forever rest under a pile of wood, brick, crumpets and Welsh-rarebit sauce.
My brother and electronica artist Citystate are here, too, friends with Darling guitarist Josh Ahlansberg. Not the biggest Americana fans, I ask them if they’re digging the show. They both make this face like they drank too much warm beer.
I catch the Evening Episode’s set at Old I. They’re a three-piece for the evening, but sound awesome stripped down. Then all of the sudden it’s 2 a.m., and I’ve got no way back home. Enter Lopez, her girlfriend, and hip-hop artist Wishing Well. They’re carrying gear. I grab a bongo, we all share a cab.
Who knows how we fit guitar, amp and bongo drum in the cab’s trunk. I’m stoked to be going home. I now know how it feels to be an artist like Lopez: barista by day, musician by night. I hang my head out the cab window like a dog. It’s been a long month.
• • •
Another Monday. The last night of my journey. The Press Club, thank God, is three blocks from my apartment. I’m looking forward to catching the English Singles, Mom, What’s Up? and the Pizzas show. Then maybe some sleep.
As I walk up P Street, it looks like a riot outside the club. Inside, there’s hardly room to breathe, seemingly everyone gripping a Pabst tall can. Someone told me that The Press Club sells the most Pabst tall cans in the country, which is a rumor—and probably a lie—but I like to believe it, because that says something great about our city: that we’re harvesters of fun without the sprigs of pretentiousness of, say, a San Francisco or, worse yet, Seattle. Or, of course, it says that we’re simply poor and tasteless.
• • •
I’m on my third tall can when the English Singles begin. I dig seeing Scott Miller lead a band: He jams chords and runs through songs with natural-born ease.
I see Josh out of the corner of my eye and wander over to bug him.
• • •
Someone taps me on the shoulder, and it’s Nick. We go out front. His eyes are red, drooping with fatigue. He says he’s two PBRs into the evening but looks like he’s been here all day smoking crack. I must look tired, too.
An old friend from college hollers our way, asking what I’m up to. I pause, confused, and point toward The Press Club sign. Music playing, people smoking, Monday. But for some reason, words won’t come out of my mouth.