The throng of mourners trying to squeeze through 21 Grand's front door Thursday night spilled out into the street. Little kids tottered precariously along the sidewalk, while the towering grown-ups above them stood around awkwardly, straining to hear the music wafting from the Oakland gallery and performance space. You could hear it, but you wanted to get closer.
Everyone seemed direly in need of a hug. But the one guy best suited for the task -- evidently famous for his hugs, in fact -- was the reason everyone was there.
Bay Area jazz and experimental bassist Matthew Sperry died June 5, hit by a truck in Emeryville while riding his bike to work. The 34-year-old left behind a wife, a two-year-old daughter and, judging from the crowd wedged into 21 Grand for his first benefit concert, an outsize gang of friends, collaborators, and awestruck admirers. They'd all gathered to raise money for Sperry's family and raise a little musical hell in the process.
News reports of Sperry's passing have circulated for nearly two weeks (police are still searching for eyewitnesses to the accident). But it's hard to get a real sense of a person from an obituary, though the sheer magnitude of his résumé still resonates: Collaborations with Tom Waits, David Byrne, and Anthony Braxton. A half-year stint as the bassist in the SF production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And countless jazz and improv and experimental noise projects he'd plunged into since invading the Bay Area in 1999. But Thursday night was our first chance to really wrap our heads around the community he inhabited, and helped create.
You couldn't swing your neck around without head-butting a musician and Sperry cohort at 21 Grand -- fully half the audience members, it seemed, had arrived hauling upright basses, many of which were temporarily stashed in the accordion shop next door. "Don't worry," one guy remarked. "Upright bass and accordion sound great together."
Indeed, a group of 25-plus musicians managed to jumble just about every instrument they could come up with into a majestic mess. There were cellos with small twigs jammed between the strings. Dueling acoustic guitars that were scraped rather than strummed to produce high-pitched whines like dog whistles or mourning crickets. There were gongs. Moogs. Rusty old dustpans strafed with violin bows. Buzzing electric guitars with feedback literally pounded out of them. And a contrabass flute, an enormous wind instrument shaped like a giant brass 4. This motley musical crew took the makeshift stage in solo performances, duos and trios, and full-blown avant-garde orchestras. And though Sperry's enthusiasm and influence engulfed everything from Jewish wedding music to Hedwig's corny glam rock, most performers mined the experimental vein, valuing noise over melody and the pregnant space between the notes more than the notes themselves.
It was a hell of a racket -- certainly not soothing under any other circumstances. Yet eerie as it all sounded, it did the trick here.
Sperry's wife, Stacia, stood up shortly before the grand finale, holding a speech together for ninety seconds or so: "I'm standing here with my heart in my hands. Thanks to everyone up here who's playing music -- there's just no words. There's just music. Thank you."
The finale itself drew the more than two dozen musicians to the front for an epic free-jazz freakout, led by a shrieking saxophonist violently gulping air between blasts. One guy pounded on a pair of drums shaped like oversize Lincoln Logs. Another methodically dragged a floor tom across the cement at his feet. Another laid his upright bass on the ground and used it as a bass drum instead. Another player just pounded the back of his acoustic guitar. It all built into a huge sustained, piercing note. The complete, unbroken silence that followed lasted a good three or four minutes. Moments of silence are always more powerful when they follow moments of violent, unhinged noise.
"I was blown away by it," admitted benefit organizer Phillip Greenlief as the crowd filed out. "The music was so full of tension -- everyone was playing their asses off. And it was all about Matthew, an attempt to honor him."
A whole cottage industry has sprung up seemingly overnight to honor Sperry. A memorial Web site, MatthewSperry.org, is now crowded with old photos and hundreds of posts from friends, distant family members, and collaborators. And last Thursday, while that piercing note and the silence that followed was still ringing in your ears, you could already buy the first CD in the "Matthew Sperry Memorial Series," archived from the huge collection of recorded material he left behind. It's a solo effort recorded in Seattle back in '98 -- five tracks of Matt conducting hostile, seemingly random air raids on his contrabass. Even for the willful and open-minded, it's tough to make any sense out of it. But there's a lot of that going around lately.
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