Words by: Greg Keidan | Images by: Josh Miller
Opening Weekend :: 02.05.09 – 02.07.09 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA, CA
Until now, music lovers living on the east side of the San Francisco Bay have faced a dilemma when considering a night of live music. Because most performers choose or are forced to play exclusively at one of S.F.'s many excellent venues when they come to the region, we can either leave the show before midnight to catch the last BART train home, fight traffic and take our chances finding a parking spot, or throw ourselves on the mercy and the couch of a city dwelling friend. So, the re-opening of the Fox Theater in downtown Oakland as a premier music venue was potentially very good news for those of us in the 510 area code. I joined fearless Bay Area photographer Josh Miller for the first three nights of shows to get the lowdown, and I'm happy to report that the new Fox rocks, and it may be the best overall venue of its size in the region.
|Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA|
Thursday | 02.05.09 | Opening Night Gala
The Fox opened its doors to paying customers for the first time in 43 years on Thursday for a VIP invite/$250 a ticket party for 800 well-off or well-connected guests, including state Attorney General and former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and current Oakland mayor Ron Dellums. The extravagant party was supposed to be closed to the press, but JamBase managed to charm our way in thanks to the kindness of the lovely ladies working for Another Planet Entertainment, the Berkeley based company managing the venue that is run by former Bill Graham Presents executive Gregg Perloff.
The evening featured free champagne, wine, Hangar One martinis, sushi, clowns, a burlesque show, and oh yes, music. After some local openers including a stunning opera singer named Sophia Chew, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, an excellent seven-piece from New Orleans, took the stage at 9:30 p.m. and brought the crowd out onto the dance floor. The ample wooden floor space features small built-in cooling fans, an innovation I had never before experienced. Shorty played about an hour long set that featured originals and classics, opening with a rousing rendition of Fats Domino's "Whole Lotta Lovin'," a song he originally performed with Lenny Kravitz and the Rebirth Brass Band (Shorty joined Kravitz's band at the tender age of 19 and also played with Rebirth before leading his own group). Other highlights included "The Mardi Gras in New Orleans," which he said was a mix of Los Lobos and Professor Longhair's versions, a James Brown medley, as well as crowd favorites like "St. James Infirmary" and "When the Saints Go Marching In," and even a soulful reading of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On."
"We got off the bus and I was like, 'Wow we get to play in this beautiful place?'" said the humble 22-year-old Shorty (born Troy Andrews) backstage after the show. "Everything here is very musician friendly. I wanted to just stay in the dressing room it's so beautiful down there. Everyone here was very professional and friendly, I felt like I was at home."
|Trombone Shorty :: Fox Theater|
After the show, we headed to nearby Café Van Kleef for their signature fresh-squeezed greyhounds and more live music. Since Fox shows will begin around 8 p.m. and end at 11 or 12, patrons will have the option to catch BART back to S.F. or continue the party and support smaller live venues in O-Town like Van Kleef that rock out until 2 a.m.
With $75 million in public and private funding invested in renovating the stunning 2,800 flex-capacity Fox (in addition to the 1000 seat balcony, they can set up seats on the floor, have an open dance floor or have cocktail tables on the floor, depending on the desired vibe), there is great hope that this gem will be on the leading edge of a downtown Oakland renaissance. The city owned Persian-Art Deco themed gilded palace will host diverse music acts, catering to a younger demographic than the close by Paramount Theatre. It will compete with the historic 2300 capacity Warfield across the bay for top notch acts, and already has secured an exciting lineup of shows including Cake, The Black Keys, Band of Horses, Animal Collective, TV On The Radio and B.B. King.
The new Fox is also home to the Oakland School for the Arts, a tuition free charter high school for some very lucky teens. Students will get the chance to interact with famous performers, who can mentor local youth or teach a lesson before taking the stage. New bars, restaurants, and 2,000 residential units are also slated for development nearby as part of a long planned revitalization of Oakland's Uptown.
"This is a treasure that is a very important part of the Oakland renaissance," said Jerry Brown when I asked him if the renovation project was a play by the city of Oakland to compete with San Francisco for the Bay Area's music dollar. "Hopefully we will take customers wherever we can find them. If San Francisco is Hertz we are Avis; we are trying harder."
Friday | 02.06.09 | Public Opening Night
We returned to The Fox the next night for the official public opening, a sold out show headlined by seminal early '80s SoCal punk rockers Social Distortion. Being honest, I am not a fan of this genre. There was a time in the '80s when the Sex Pistols resonated with my teenage overabundance of wasted testosterone, but I never really got the punk thing. I resolved to keep an open mind and kept my foam earplugs handy to guard against further hearing damage. Reading the band's MySpace page, I learned that lead singer Mike Ness developed a reputation early on as a brawler and once got part of his ear bitten off in a bar fight, and two of his band members quit at their 1983 New Year's Eve show due to his heroin addiction. I decided that JamBase wasn't paying me enough to risk an interview, but I resolved to stick around to hear and see what it was all about despite feeling far out of my element in the packed house of tattooed hipsters.
|Social Distortion :: Fox Theater|
Two openers were on the bill this evening, The Black Tibetans and The Devil Makes Three. The Black Tibetans, who appear to be neither black nor Tibetan, started things off with a short set that blended a 1950s "Johnny B. Goode" guitar rock sound with punk. I was underwhelmed by their set, but I was impressed with the Serpico/Grizzly Man look that the lead guitar player was sporting.
I was excited to see The Devil Makes Three. I heard some good buzz around this trio at the 2007 High Sierra Fest, but this 40-minute set sandwiched between two punk acts was my first exposure to their sound. I was happily surprised to discover a talented, high energy bluegrass trio with dark, intelligent lyrics, great acoustic instrumentals, beautiful three part harmonies and the most attractive, talented female stand-up bass player (recent U.C. Davis grad Lucia Turino) I have seen since I used to catch Sharon Gilchrist tear it up in Santa Fe with Mary and Mars. One Social Distortion fan near me yelled out, "Shut Up, Hippy!" after their second song, but the pierced leather-clad crowd mostly seemed to be tapping their toes along with me, won over by the hard driving beat and lead singer Pete Bernhard's fast paced, urgent vocal style. A rollicking "St. James Infirmary" was a highlight for me, and I picked up their live album featuring that song at the urging of a female fan, who assured me that she was not stalking the band members despite her voluminous knowledge of their life stories.
After the set, Bernhard told me that it actually isn't unusual for the band to play at punk shows. "When we got started in Santa Cruz, all of our friends were in punk bands, so we used to play punk shows almost exclusively, just not usually at this big of a show. It's always interesting and challenging to try to play to a crowd that doesn't really like your style of music. Social D has hardcore fans, people come who want to see them. We used to try to tweak our set based on the type of crowd, but now we just do our thing regardless of the crowd - there is no point in trying to fit in because we don't!"
They should fit in better when they play at SXSW, High Sierra, Bumbershoot and Strawberry festivals later this year.
I noticed during The Devil Makes Three's set that The Fox is still working on dialing in their sound system. There is a boomy echo effect noticeable from the middle of the floor. According to Jason, the house soundman, the sound system is a work in progress. "They haven't done the acoustic treatment yet, and this place is all solid material, so you are hearing the natural acoustics of the building," he said. "There is a similar effect at the Warfield Theater, but they have done a lot of acoustic treatment over the years to deal with the echo." Jason said they have been discussing different options for getting sound to the back of the balcony effectively, and that management wanted to get some shows in and get more input from the sound team before installing the final sound system. He estimates that the final system will cost between half a million and one million dollars, and promises that The Fox is dedicated to making it the best sound system in the Bay Area.
|The Devil Makes Three :: Fox Theater|
Social Distortion, beneath a giant banner with a classic roadster on it proclaiming "30 Years of Underground Rock 'n' Roll," overcame the echo effect by playing so loudly that you couldn't hear the echo. Five guards kept the crowd surfers from being tossed onto the stage as the five-piece band gave the excited crowd what they came for. I couldn't understand many of the lyrics, but the tattooed dude next to me assured me that Ness is a lyrical genius and excitedly told me what they were playing ("Don't Take Me for Granted" and "Sick One" were two early songs played before I retreated to the bar.) The urgent, angst ridden songs tried valiantly to connect with my inner 17-year-old boy but that part of me no longer seems to have domain over my musical preferences. I couldn't get over the feeling that Mike Ness was YELLING at me. He is obviously hurt and angry about something, and it made me a little uncomfortable to be confronted with all that negative emotion. I left early, looking forward to returning the next night when my people would get their chance to rock The Fox.
Saturday | 02.07.09 | Jam Fans Invade
Saturday evening at The Fox was the event that I and other jam band fans were anxiously awaiting. Local favorites ALO and Spearhead sold out the show almost a month in advance, and they did not disappoint the packed house of appreciative hometown fans, putting on an inspired, high energy show.
|ALO :: Fox Theater|
I wondered ahead of time how the operators of such an ornate, beautiful and expensively restored venue would react to an invasion of modern day hippies. Other than a perfunctory pat down at the door, this was as kind and welcoming a venue as any I'd ever encountered. I didn't see anyone get hassled by the friendly staff, and psychedelic icon and East Bay resident Wavy Gravy was in attendance and told me he had a blast.
The show started out with a short set from Orlando's Solillaquists of Sound, a diverse hip-hop/electronica act on the same label as Spearhead, featuring great beats and a nice mix of male and female vocalists. I picked up their 2006 release As If We Existed after the show, and I have been enjoying their politically conscious, jazzy hip-hop beats and lyrics since.
Next up was ALO, who opened with the appropriate crowd pleaser "Barbecue." The show kicked off a weeklong benefit tour of California for Music in Schools Today by the band. Bay Area fans were excited to see this local favorite, whose members have been spending a good deal of time with other projects lately and only came together for special occasions last year like Outside Lands Festival, Las Tortugas Festival, two nights at The Independent for New Year's and Jam Cruise 7 (presumably because keyboardist/vocalist Zach Gill has been busy working with Jack Johnson, and who can blame him? Cha-Ching!). "This place feels like a shining ray of hope coming into the Bay Area and I'm proud to be a part of it. Score one for Oakland!" said Gill from the stage.
The dance floor was packed for ALO's entire set, which also included "All Alone," "Plastic Bubble" and "Maria" from their 2007 album Roses and Clover, a funny new one from Gill's solo album Stuff called "Don't Touch My Stuff," and "Walls of Jericho" featuring Dave Brogan on vocals as well as drums. But, the highlight was a cover of an Allen Toussaint song made famous by The Pointer Sisters in 1973, "Yes We Can Can."
"That one felt really good in light of the recent election," said bassist Steve Adams. "It was really special and exciting to be there for the opening weekend. The energy of being there was fresh and everyone was figuring it out as they went." Adams lives a few blocks from The Fox in downtown Oakland, and he is excited to see the area being revitalized and to have such a majestic music venue close to home. He told me that many area musicians have a lot of faith in Another Planet Entertainment, who he says have a reputation for treating their artists well and having solid values. The small company has also garnered respect for taking on Live Nation. "I love playing at The Independent and the Greek Theatre [two other venues managed and booked by Another Planet], so I will always support them and I was very excited to be asked to be a part of this event," said Adams.
|Cherine Anderson :: Fox Theater|
I asked Adams to share any ALO related scoops with their JamBase Fans, and I'm happy to report that the band plans to tour more this year (they will probably return to High Sierra) as Jack Johnson is taking some time off from the road, and ALO is planning to release a new album late in 2009. Dan "Lebo" Lebowitz hopes to release a solo album this spring, and Adams' other project, Big Light, is recording an album with production assistance from Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips.
Next up was a surprise - a melodramatic offstage voice announced a special additional opening act, vocalist Cherine Anderson, a Kingston Jamaica native who is featured on Spearhead's 2008 release All Rebel Rockers. Anderson started with "Redemption Song" and sang a couple more tracks to a backing soundtrack. She has a great voice but the vibe was a little cheesy ("Let me see your lighters in the air!") until she brought Oakland born Michael Franti and his band Spearhead to the stage for "Everybody Ona Move," which I love even if it kind of sounds like it was written for a cell phone commercial. The packed house was instantly jumping on command, screaming and singing along. Next up was "Hello Bonjour" and then "Time to Go Home," two upbeat songs from Yell Fire that had the crowd rapt. Anderson returned on backup vocals for "Rude Boys" and "Little Bit of Riddim," two strong tracks from Rockers, and she stayed for the rest of the two hour set. I thought her powerful vocals and sexy feminine presence provided a strong counterpoint and balance to Franti's masculine command of the stage.
Franti broke out a couple of older tunes for those of us who loved him before the Playstation 3 commercial, playing "Everyone Deserves Music" and then "Ganga Babe," featuring guest vocalist Azeem, a former Spearhead member and talented Oakland resident. Then it was back to the new material with "All I Want Is You," "I Know I'm Not Alone" and "Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong," this last really showcasing Anderson's powerful vocals.
|Spearhead :: Fox Theater|
Franti's set encompassed a full range of emotions, and although the unfinished sound system didn't always make it easy to hear what he was saying in some of the quiet moments between songs, he talked about how putting his 20-year-old son on a Greyhound bus across the country inspired "I Got Love for You," playing a poignant version with longtime collaborator Jay Baum on guitar. Franti also talked about being at the Presidential Inauguration and singing, "Na na, hey hey, goodbye!" with thousands of people to President Bush.
Much of Saturday's show felt like a celebration of the end of the Bush era and the hope that many of us feel with the election of Barack Obama. For me, the high point of the set and the whole weekend was when Spearhead brought a bevy of guests to the stage during the encore, including members of Solillaquists of Sound, for "Obama Song." I saw him play this celebratory anthem on Jam Cruise 7 with a trio, but it made a much bigger impact with the full band and guests. I finally felt like I was at a party worthy of the huge historical significance of my country electing the black son of an African immigrant to be president. YES WE DID!
Will Oakland's $75 million dollar investment pay off? It's a risky time to start a new business as we face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Just about every week I notice another shop that's closed its doors. But now more than ever, people are in need of a great place to forget their troubles, celebrate and let loose. Just as our new president is hoping an economic stimulus package will revitalize our nation, the city is hoping that this investment in the performing arts will revitalize a downtown that badly needs it.
"Hopefully the prosperity that passes through here will ripple through other businesses in the area, as well as lifting the spirit of the community," Franti said backstage after the show. Azeem added, "The people need this. All they do otherwise is go home and watch TV and get scared or frustrated or lulled into being sheep. They need places to go to be inspired and healed, and that is what this place represents for Oakland."
Continue reading for more pics of The Fox's opening weekend...