San Francisco used to be THE place for live music. We had clubs all over the city that had bands playing their own music, not just house “cover bands” but music that would end up leading them somewhere. We used to have big clubs like Wolfgang’s and the Stone that were the center’s of the metal scene to some smaller clubs like Mabuhay Gardens that was the center for the punk scene. You had bluesy bands like Tommy Castro and Johnny Nitro playing down at some of the bigger bars on Fisherman’s Wharf with the occasional shot at one of the dive bars in North Beach.
Today? What happened? My friend Jimmy Arceneaux shared a video on facebook a few days ago that had me thinking about this. Jimmy was one of the guys who did the booking for the bands that played at the Stone, Keystone Berkeley, One Step Beyond in Oakland and for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the place in San Jose as well. All these places are gone today.
Broadway Street in San Francisco had 5-6 clubs mixed in with all the strip clubs that were running full strength through the 80’s – 90’s and now there’s nothing. There would be other clubs that would pop up for a few weeks or months and then fade away. Why was that?
Well, I can only blame two things. Industrial music and hip hop. Industrial music was kind of like heavy metal with sounds of machinery added in. It was very heavy and raw and at first the bands played live. Then as they go more technologically proficient it became pretty close to impossible to perform live what they did in the studio because the electronic equipment didn’t put on as much of a show as four guys in jeans or spandex and leather depending on which decade you’re looking at. Hip hop was a bit different in that they would record their CD and then do another mix down without the vocals so it was more like karaoke for an established band. The first time I had to do sound for a hip hop band called Aztlan Nation they handed me a cassette tape and told me, “play it”.
I didn’t know what to do so after the first song ended I stopped the tape and one of the guys runs over to me yelling, “just let it play!” OK, that’s an easy job for an engineer to do. Drop in the tape, press play, kick back and drink your beer. I didn’t really have any work to do anymore. The clubs didn’t have to worry about having the right or enough mics for the band. You just hit play and sat back. I think I finally walked off the side of the stage at some point because they didn’t need me anymore.
Eventually, this led to the “dance club” phase where bands had become kind of irrelevant. If you had enough space to pack in people and didn’t need to have a stage or a band to argue with over payment [which was rare] you could just give a DJ $50 to spin some records [remember those black 12″ things and no, I’m not referring to a porn film] and people would still come. It was somewhere in the 90’s that the live music clubs started to close or turn into “dance clubs” where you just had a DJ. Bands now had a tough time to make it.
You could fill out lots of paperwork and throw out some of your hard earned cash to get city permits to play a free gig in the park, but that started to get old quick when bands had to pay money to get people to hear their music. None of the DJ at the clubs played much if any of the unsigned acts at the clubs. Bands that used to play at the bigger clubs like the Stone or Wolfgang’s now were left with playing at very small bars like the Nightbreak on Haight St. and they were lucky to get a free beer for playing.
Live music will never die though. There are starting to be a few places popping back up for the bands to play again. Slim’s has come back from the dead and there’s the Avalon and Thee Parkside, but we still need places for live bands to play that have a capacity of more than 100 people. If you find some places other than little dive bars let me know because a lot of the old bands are coming back and there are new bands popping up that need a place to play.
So now I want all of you to step away from your computers on Friday and Saturday nights and go out and find some good live music and post comments about it here. Any upcoming shows you think people should know about, let me know and I’ll let everyone who reads this know about them.