Guerrilla rock lives!
This homemade rock trio is unplugged, unrepentant and determined to reawaken the area’s live-music scene. It’ll soon be coming to a sidewalk near you! Or a parking lot. Or a light-rail car.
In the world’s largest metropolises, barflies and trendy club-goers rarely leave the house before midnight. But by 10 p.m. on a Friday night in downtown Sacramento, most people had settled into their nightlife niche.
Mikuni Sushi was bursting with young professionals downing sake cocktails and trading stories about their workweeks. The collective exhaust of 100 cigarettes hovered over the back patio at Streets of London, where pub-crawlers clutched pints of ale and huddled around picnic tables still wet with early-evening drizzle. At Old Ironsides, 20-somethings with tight T-shirts and deliberately messy hair guzzled similar libations while waiting for the New Strange to take the stage. The Flame Club’s well-worn stools already were occupied by weekend regulars, some of whom were drinking beers smuggled in from their homes. Though the Press Club’s Friday-night crowd was still two rounds away from braving the club’s tiny, checkered dance floor, the DJ was already spinning 1980s new-wave chestnuts. At the same time, members of Red Tape and the Hoods unloaded instruments from their vehicles, double-parked on L Street, for a hardcore punk show at the already-crowded Distillery later that night.
All over the grid, music was playing, scenes were forming, and happenings were happening—except on K Street. Blame it on the threat of rain, but the slick, pedestrian-only section of the street was practically deserted. A couple waiting for the light rail at the Cathedral Square station were the only witnesses to the arrival of Sacramento, the band. Unbeknownst to the pair, they had just been granted prime seats for the guerrilla street band’s first concert of the night. By the time the bars closed, hundreds of downtown club-goers would have had the same experience, but at 10 p.m. on K Street, the couple were left to puzzle it out on their own.
Jon Boston, 33, led the band to the rail stop. He carried a folding chair and wore a brimmed hat coated in duct tape to repel the rain. Kevin Ryan, 25, followed with an electric guitar and a 9-inch-tall Pignose amplifier. Tall, thin and dressed entirely in dark denim, his expression was inscrutable behind shiny aviator sunglasses. Sohrab Nahreini, 22, sported the glam-rock version of Ryan’s dark glasses and a ratty blond wig that ended at his shoulders and clashed with his dark goatee. He arrived last at the light-rail stop and set down his burden: a homemade drum kit that included a snare drum, a cymbal and two brushes resting in homemade PVC-pipe holders, all mounted to a base board. A double-pedal bass drum made of a large, lidded Tupperware bowl completed the kit.
The couple looked back and forth from the band to each other several times before the woman finally spoke. “What’s going on?” she asked.
Ryan answered nonchalantly. “We’ve got a show.”
“Where?” she asked.
He pointed at the tracks. “On the train.”
She looked incredulous. “You’re going to play on the train?” she said. “What’s your band?”
Boston and Ryan stepped aside as Nahreini rotated the drum kit so she could read the logo taped to its front. A thin, horizontal line bisected the white cardboard sign. Resting on top of this line were four black rectangles arranged vertically, like the skyline of a small yet familiar city. The woman leaned forward to read the band’s name underneath.
“Sacramento?” she read. The couple burst into laughter.
Sacramento, the band, just smiled as the light-rail train pulled up.
The band members’ grins faded as they noticed the two uniformed security guards in the back of the car. Determined to carry on with the show, Boston whispered hurried advice to his bandmates. “Just act casual,” he told them. “Don’t let on that we’re going to play.” They carried their instruments to the front of the car, as far as possible from the guards.
Sacramento’s plan to board undetected was foiled when a boisterous man in the second row noticed their instruments and gave a raspy shout: “All right! Let’s hear it! Play a song for me.”
The three musicians stared out the windows and tried not to draw attention to themselves.
“Play me some Led Zeppelin!” the man yelled.
Ryan looked at him. “Do we look like the kind of guys who—” but the man cut him off. “I didn’t ask you what you look like,” his voice growing ever louder. The other passengers put down their newspapers and halted their conversations. All eyes followed this exchange in the front of the car. “I said, ‘Play some Zeppelin!’”
Sacramento obeyed. The familiar opening to Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” filled the car as Ryan blasted through Jimmy Page’s famous riff, amplified only by the tiny, battery-powered Pignose. Nahreini beat the homemade drum kit until percussion ricocheted off the walls. Boston threw back his head and screamed the song’s opening war cry: “Ahhhhh ah!” Even without a microphone, Boston’s throaty voice tore through the close confines. “We come from the land of the ice and snow / from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow!”
Before Boston reached the second line, the security guards rushed to the front of the car. The one in the lead brandished his handcuffs and shouted repeatedly in a booming voice, “Cut it! Cut it!”
Sacramento stopped mid-song. Several passengers booed. The Zeppelin fan appealed to the guards. “The signs say no tape recorders, no eating. It doesn’t say no bands!” he pointed out.
The security guard (who pocketed the handcuffs when he noticed the camera of an SN&R photographer), explained that music could distract the driver. The rowdy fan was unconvinced. “How the fuck you gonna wreck on the train tracks?” he complained.
“Excuse me.” A female passenger had left her seat and was tapping the other guard on the arm. “Could you move?” she asked in a pushy tone. “I have to get a picture of these guys.” The guard looked surprised but took a step sideways. The members of Sacramento grinned as she snapped their photo with a disposable camera. “That was the best thing I’ve ever seen on the light rail,” she gushed to the band over the guard’s shoulder.
The guards had stopped yelling but showed no signs of backing down. Acknowledging temporary defeat, the band disembarked at the next stop.
“You should have kept playing!” a passenger called after them.
“Yeah, in jail!” Boston yelled back.
Minutes later, Nahreini realized he’d left his folding chair on the train.
There have to be easier ways to get a gig, but the members of Sacramento wouldn’t have it any other way. Weary of the labor inherent in booking and promoting bar gigs, the band has joined the ranks of downtown street acts, like the One Man Band and Fiasco Sideshow, in bringing live performance directly to the people. Their payment is the thrill of spontaneous, anything-can-happen performance and, if they’re lucky, a tip-box full of dollar bills.
During a pre-tour interview conducted earlier that evening at Boston’s warehouse apartment, the band members explained Sacramento’s origins and intentions. Boston and Ryan, lounging on two of the warehouse’s several couches, consumed a succession of Pabst Blue Ribbon beers and tried to reconstruct the history of their friendship. Nahreini, far more reserved, sat on the floor listening and occasionally interjecting. He sipped a single can of beer through the entire interview.
After some debate, Boston and Ryan determined they’d first met in 1996, on the job at a Pizza Hut in Fair Oaks, and had started playing music together almost immediately. Their shared musical lineage included bands like Cody’s Kids, Joe and the Gigolos, Trailer Nation and their current spoof metal band the Pumpkin Seeds (who appeared on 98 Rock’s Sacramento Rocks Vol. 7 compilation).
Every few years, Ryan broached the idea of forming an informal street-corner band with Boston. It was a dream he’d been carrying since he saw Tucson street band Doo Rag play at the Crest Theatre when he was 14. Boston preferred to concentrate on their existing projects, but once he developed tendonitis in his “guitar-riffing arm,” the Pumpkin Seeds were limited to a handful of shows per year.
Ryan, who also plays bass for grindcore outfit Knife Thru Head, was restless for another project. Once again, he urged Boston to help him form a renegade band that would roam the Sacramento streets playing short, guerrilla rock concerts for the public. Boston could sing to avoid stressing his forearms. Ryan would play guitar. Even better, the informal nature of a renegade band would eliminate many of the problems they’d encountered in other projects.
“I personally don’t like to practice in bands,” Ryan explained, “because then it becomes like a job, like you have to be there. I just like to perform.”
“What I wanted to do, along with Kevin, was to have fun in a band,” Boston added. “Not to be sitting there getting all pissed off and calling each other up like, ‘Dude! Why didn’t you come to practice? What are you doing, man?!’ Not to be all pissed because someone’s not helping load the equipment.” Boston gestured to the Tupperware drum set he created for the band. “I wanted to keep it small, homemade.”
The duo agreed on everything but a name for the project. They rejected several possibilities before Boston hit on the idea of naming the band after the city. “I was like,” he lowered his voice to an ominous whisper, “'Sacramento.’” He leaned back on the couch and grinned. “When I said, ‘Sacramento,’ we knew right then.” One month into the project, mutual friend Nahreini joined on drums, and the trio was complete.
For the past six months, Sacramento (the band) has cruised Sacramento (the city) on a series of one-night “tours” once or twice a week. A typical tour begins at the warehouse, where the band drinks beer, writes new songs and runs through that night’s set.
Currently, the band’s sets are 50 percent cover songs, but its original catalog is rapidly expanding. “We’ll write a new song, and we’ll play it that night,” Boston said. “So, when people see me out there with lyrics written on my hand, that’s because we just wrote that song.” By night’s end, the band will have played the new song for an audience five or six times. If it works, it’s added to the set—no practice necessary.
Sacramento’s original music is up-tempo, stripped-down rock ’n’ roll. The bare-bones instrumentation—a necessity for portability—is matched by the band’s simple, anthem-style lyrics. Each song is intentionally accessible, so passersby on the streets can immediately mosh, clap or sing along.
Once it’s warmed up, the band packs its gear into the back of Ryan’s van and heads into the night. Nahreini, who said he’s always the designated driver because Boston and Ryan “get crabby when they have to stay sober,” pilots the van through downtown Sacramento looking for places where crowds are gathered.
Sacramento usually performs on the sidewalk in front of clubs, bars and restaurants—though it has performed at private parties; on public transportation; and, when asked, at pre-scheduled, indoor bar gigs. (Even at a club with a professional sound system, however, Sacramento insists on no amplification but the Pignose.) The band is most often seen after midnight, when live-music shows are letting out and people are on the streets. Its only rule is to refrain from playing outside a club while a band is performing inside. “We don’t like to dog bands by playing when they’re playing,” Boston affirmed.
Otherwise, Sacramento plays anywhere that catches its eye. The audience response ranges from people dancing and leaving money and beers in the tip box to people throwing rocks, grabbing the band’s instruments and threatening to call the police. Each time the guys unload the Tupperware drum kit, there’s no telling whether they’ll be met with hostility or applause from the denizens of their namesake city.
After a harrowing one-night tour in the suburbs of Sacramento, where club owners threatened to call the police at 12 of 13 impromptu shows, the band decided to play primarily in the downtown grid. “In the grid, we make the most money,” Boston explained. Though the members of Sacramento all work day jobs unrelated to music, the tips they make at their shows subsidize the beer and gas expenses incurred while touring.
Even in the grid, however, there are limits to hospitality. For example, Sacramento has found that patrons of upscale nightspots like Harlow’s and the Monkey Bar often ignore the sidewalk concerts and rarely tip. “We’ve found that, generally, the more money people have, the less they tip,” Boston reported. And even at some homier downtown bars, they’ve been threatened with police intervention.
Ryan is unfazed by such tactics. “It’s my understanding that bars get fined when the cops come out, even if they make the call themselves. So, we’re always like, ‘Go ahead. Call the cops!’ and we just keep playing. For something like a noise complaint, it takes them an hour to show up, and we’re long gone by then.”
He took another sip of beer. “Sometimes I wonder if the police are going to catch up with us one day and charge us with 50 counts of disturbing the peace,” Ryan admitted. “Maybe for this article, we should be called Fresno.”
The bandmates laughed but then got serious. They play in Sacramento to have fun, they explained, but they also have a calling: to liberate music from the bar scene. The band’s anthem “Street Rock Parking Lot” also functions as its mission statement, with lyrics like “Seven dollar cover charges, three-fifty drafts? / Soon that will be a thing of the past / Street rock parking lot, let’s bring our scene back.”
Ryan elaborated, “We have this vision of other bands doing this. I picture, like, a drive-in theater with no movie going but a bunch of bands spread out. There are people drinking beer and walking around and partying. Bars kind of suck. You’ve got to pay a big cover charge and $4 a beer.”
“Plus,” Boston added, “you have to kiss ass to play there. In this band, we don’t kiss anyone’s ass.” He leaned forward and delivered his honest assessment of the band: “Sacramento is totally raw, like good raw meat. Well, not totally raw, like medium-rare. No, rare.”
After its aborted light-rail opener, Sacramento hustled back to Boston’s warehouse to get another chair and then hit the streets for the rest of that night’s tour. Sacramento planned to go to Streets of London, but the bright lights of the new Mikuni Sushi on 16th Street captured the band’s attention first. Huge plate-glass windows in the front of the restaurant revealed a full house of well-groomed professionals in business-casual ensembles. Sacramento set up directly outside the glass.
“Hello Mikuni!” Boston yelled.
“How’s the fucking unagi?” Ryan screamed. “Do you like sushi? Do you drink sake?”
The patrons closest to the window turned in surprise as the band launched into an original song, “Sacto Rock City.” Boston hurled the lyrics through the glass, sung in a raspy voice reminiscent of AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson: “Pabst Blue Ribbon, Tattooed women / Sacto, let’s go!”
Some patrons seemed determined to ignore the display outside, while others cracked open the doors to better hear the band over the din of the crowded restaurant. A businessman looking for a quiet setting for his cell-phone conversation frowned at the blaring noise of the impromptu rock show, much louder at street level, and scurried back inside Mikuni. Several waitresses in identical black outfits came outside to clap along. A group of exiting diners threw their hands into devil horns and banged their heads to Nahreini’s up-tempo beats on their way to the valet parking lot.
Sacramento played on—three, four, five songs. Whenever Ryan or Nahreini took control of a song, Boston shouted, “Solo!” and shined a tiny flashlight on the musicians. Finally, a neck-tied manager-type emerged to see why his waitresses had left the restaurant. He smiled when he saw the band. “You were good,” he told them at the end of the set.
“Were we free-sushi good?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know,” the manager hedged. “I only saw two or three minutes. You come back next week. I’ll be here.”
Emboldened by the reception at Mikuni, Sacramento pressed on to Streets of London. In deference to the bar’s English theme, they decided to play the Led Zeppelin cover again. It was near midnight when they entered the bar’s back patio with their instruments.
“There’s a band tonight?” a man at one of the tables yelled. “Oh yeah!”
Just like on the light rail, conversations stopped, and everyone stared at the band.
Boston yelled, “Ahhhhh ah!”
As soon as they recognized the classic-rock tune, the patrons gathered around, nodding their heads to the beat. People took photos with cell-phone cameras or called their friends, holding their phones out so their friends could hear the song.
Suddenly, an angry-looking woman stormed out of the pub’s back door, pushed through the crowd and jumped between Boston and Ryan. “Stop!” she yelled.
The patrons booed her. The band ignored her. She kept yelling, “Stop! You have to stop! We’re going to get a noise complaint.” Nahreini stopped playing, but Ryan and Boston continued as if she weren’t there.
Frustrated at Sacramento’s blatant refusal to respect the rules of the pub it had invaded, the woman threw up her hands. “Fine!” she shouted. “I’m calling the cops.” She stalked back into the bar. Nahreini picked up the beat, and the band finished the song to wild applause from the patrons. Having no wish to tangle with the cops, Sacramento said goodnight and beat a hasty path back to the van.
“Let’s go somewhere where we’re welcome,” Boston suggested.
They headed to the Flame Club, a modest bar on 16th and V streets where the unpretentious, beer-drinking crowd (and, more importantly, the management) is always friendly to the band. “We played our first show at the Flame Club,” Boston explained, “so we’re kind of affectionate about it.”
When Sacramento unloaded its instruments, there were eight patrons smoking in the parking lot behind the bar. A woman immediately yelled, “It’s the guys with the Tupperware drums!” A man opened the bar’s backdoor and called to his friends to come out.
Before the end of the first song, the crowd had more than tripled. Robbie Percell, guitarist for the local band Quitter, called out, “Pump some fists” from the back of the crowd. Hands went up in unison as the crowd sang along with the chorus of “Dinosaurs”—another Sacramento original—chanting, “The dinosaurs died and we took over!” again and again. Drivers tried in vain to enter the parking lot but were blocked by the renegade rock show.
The bartender came out between songs and dropped a handful of bills into Sacramento’s tip box. “This is how you do it, people,” he said to the crowd. “Don’t be shy now.” Dollar bills sailed into the box from all sides.
After the night’s earlier unpleasant confrontations, the Flame Club’s welcome lit up the band. It played an unprecedented seventh song—the twice-aborted Led Zeppelin cover. The entire parking lot screamed, “Ahhhhh ah!” along with Boston, who laid down on the wet asphalt and delivered the lyrics while rolling on the ground. Ryan planted a foot on either side of Boston’s writhing body and played his guitar in a rock-star straddle. The band finished to vigorous applause.
“Thank you, Flame Club,” Boston yelled, his voice hoarse from so many unamplified songs, “We love you!”
“That’s the good thing about this band,” Boston said as Sacramento drove on to The Press Club. “If we have a bad show, we have a good one the same night. We don’t spend the whole night saying, ‘I kept dropping my pick. I couldn’t hear the monitor. Wah!’ We don’t have to worry.”
The crowd outside The Press Club was small but enthusiastic. A young man with slick hair and a denim jacket immediately established himself as the Sacramento expert in the crowd. “It’s Sacramento the band, dudes!” he told everyone around him. “Have you seen them yet? Just watch!”
(This phenomenon—the self-appointed Sacramento authority—occurs at most of the bars the band frequents. Many times during the night, audience members competed for the title: “I’ve seen them five times.” “Well, I’ve seen them seven.” Sacramento has unwittingly become a benchmark of street cred in the downtown scene.)
The recorded music inside The Press Club was so loud that the barely amplified sound of Sacramento failed to draw any more patrons from inside the bar. The tiny audience, six people who were outside already when the band pulled up, danced on the corner under The Press Club’s sign. They offered the band a few dollars and some cigarettes, even going so far as to place one in Nahreini’s mouth as he drummed. There was a tense moment when a police car stopped at the red light on the corner, but the officer behind the wheel just nodded his head to the beat and smiled before driving off.
By this time, it was well after 1 a.m., and Sacramento’s energy was fading. Boston’s throat was sore. Nahreini complained about the cold, and Ryan wondered how long the batteries in his Pignose would last. The band decided to play one more show at The Distillery and call it a night.
The Distillery was quiet when Sacramento arrived. Assuming the Red Tape/Hoods show had ended, Sacramento started unloading the Tupperware. Jeff Jaworski, Red Tape’s front man, walked over to greet the band and informed it that The Hoods were about to begin their set inside. True to its promise never to play over another band, Sacramento agreed to come back in 40 minutes. Jaworski promised to announce Sacramento’s set to the crowd as a post-show treat.
Trying to keep up their lagging energy, the members of Sacramento drove to Old Ironsides. Club-goers lingered on the sidewalk after that night’s performance by local rock band Dungeons and Drag Queens. Sacramento’s arrival again was met with a flurry of conversation from the audience about who had seen them before and how many times. Two mod-looking boys requested “Shot Down” by 1960s garage band the Sonics. Sacramento obliged, and the pair began a twisty, mod dance in their tapered pants. A woman shouted into her cell phone, “Can you hear this at all? It’s a guy sitting on a folding chair playing Tupperware and a guy singing. It’s awesome!”
Mid-song, the members of Dungeons and Drag Queens emerged from the club. “You guys are getting showed up over here!” a woman in the crowd told them. They nodded amicably. Dungeons and Drag Queens drummer (and occasional SN&R contributor) Eddie Jorgensen said, “These guys are the best band ever! What’s their name again?”
“Sacramento!” someone reminded him.
There was more than one $5 dollar bill in the tip box, so the band played on. Despite Nahreini’s protests, Boston and Ryan launched into a difficult Misfits cover that required him to use both bass pedals on the Tupperware. “If you mess up, who cares?” Boston shouted hoarsely, his voice nearing erasure. At song’s end, Sacramento collected its tips and shuffled back to the van, vowing that the next show would be the night’s finale.
Though they were 20 minutes early for their post-show gig, Nahreini drove back to The Distillery. They would go in and have a beer, they decided, and catch the end of the Hoods’ set. But when they arrived, the club was empty. A few dazed patrons wandered around the bar’s lawn, waiting to sober up.
“You don’t want to go in there,” a young, obviously tipsy man warned the band. “Something awful happened.” The man proceeded to tell a tale of a violent bar fight: Someone grabbed someone else’s girlfriend, bottles were smashed over heads, blood was spilled, and everyone fled before weapons were drawn or police were summoned. The Hoods never finished their set.
The bar was closed for the night, but there were still people out front. That was all Sacramento needed for a show. The band members briefly debated the likelihood that the cops would come and then decided to play anyway. “We’ll bring some cheer to this gloomy place,” Ryan resolved. The remaining patrons, many of whom looked visibly shaken by the fight or else just terribly drunk, seemed grateful for the distraction.
“We’re Sacramento,” Ryan told them. “Try not to fight each other while we play this for you.”
Perhaps because this was the last show or because they wanted to bring some levity to the dismal scene, the band members hammed it up between songs. “How are the levels?” Ryan asked the approximately 20 audience members. He gestured to his miniature amp. “Does anyone need earplugs?”
At every stop on the tour, people were excited by the surprise experience of a renegade rock show. Happening upon an unplanned concert by a band they might have heard about but couldn’t pay to see was a stroke of luck. And of course, the idea that musicians would risk arrest to perform for the masses for free is about as rock ’n’ roll as it gets. But beyond the delinquent rush of guerrilla performance, there’s something about watching a band called Sacramento shout energetic rock anthems about the city of Sacramento—the city in which nearly every member of the audience lives, works and plays. It’s a city that many scenesters will insult, but, cow town or not, the audience would not have experienced Sacramento’s renegade rock show anywhere else. For artists and club-goers continually trying to build a scene in the shadows of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the performance was vindicating. And that night, the thrill of Sacramento affected none so much as the bar-fight survivors outside The Distillery. They laughed easily at Ryan’s jokes, ready to forget their disappointment over the aborted punk show.
Someone requested Led Zeppelin, and “Immigrant Song” got its final play of the night. The rain, threatening all night, began to fall. The crowd stayed put. One man kept shouting, “Rock with your cocks out!” Another videotaped the entire set, weaving drunkenly in between the musicians while they played.
“See?” Boston said to the crowd. “When you’re rockin’, you don’t have time to fight!”
The band was visibly wearied, but it agreed to one more song. Then Ryan tripped backward over Nahreini and sent his drum set flying. “Oh no!” Ryan wailed. “That will take hours to set up again!”
The crowd laughed, because Nahreini had righted the simple drum kit before Ryan had finished his sentence, but Ryan was already gone. “That’s it!” he yelled as he walked away, still laughing at his own joke.
The fans called for his return, but to no avail. The tour that had united the urban professionals, light-rail commuters, security guards, beer drinkers, mod dancers, punk fans, restaurant managers, musicians, waitresses, partiers and police officers of downtown Sacramento in one common musical experience was over. Sacramento had left the parking lot.
As Boston and Nahreini followed Ryan back to the van, a man stopped them and said, “I never thought I’d say, ‘I like Sacramento,’ but I like Sacramento.”
“You see?” Boston said. “We’re ambassadors.”