It's nine o'clock on a cold, damp Saturday night in August. Along the bay shore in Albany, about a hundred feet from the water and beneath a canopy of fragrant eucalyptus, seventeen East Bay teens and twentysomethings have gathered for an illicit rock 'n' roll show. Heavy fog swathes the scene in a misty glow lit only by the glare of headlights from a Toyota pickup.
Nearby, swaddled in sweatshirts, jackets, and blankets, stand Real Blood's most loyal fans and friends. Over the last year and a half, the East Bay band has made a habit of playing such guerrilla-style shows at nontraditional venues. This is the first time the three musicians have performed outside (not to mention off the power grid), and setting up their gear plus an 1,800-watt gas generator on the sand takes upwards of forty minutes. "We're gonna do all the good songs first, in case the cops come," proclaims bassist Adam Gonsalves once they're ready.
Thirty minutes and nine scrappy indie rock songs later, when the band has finally fought off the chill in its fingers and the audience has emptied the last bottle of Red Stripe, it's time to split. Just then a security truck from nearby Golden Gate Fields appears in the adjacent parking lot, rolling by at a menacing crawl. But before the guard has a chance to investigate, the music falls silent and the crowd dissipates into the fog.
Despite their penchant for playing illegal shows, the members of Real Blood — Gonsalves on bass and keyboard, Greg Abate on guitar and vocals, and Justin Pader on drums — are hardly rock 'n' roll rebels. Rather, they're responsible, thoughtful musicians who upon careful consideration decided this was the best way to build their band. In an act utterly devoid of recklessness, Abate phoned the Albany Police Department on the day of their show to ask what sort of punishment might result from playing a concert on the beach if, say, a friend's band were so inclined. A maximum $500 fine and thirty days in jail wasn't enough to deter Real Blood.
Previous nontraditional Real Blood venues include an abandoned warehouse in Emeryville and apartments in Berkeley, Oakland, Walnut Creek, and Concord. The one that started it all was the New York transplants' first gig in the East Bay: a performance at a friend's party in early 2007 that went swimmingly for both the band and their accidental audience. "They're more psyched, because they didn't have to pay to get in. Everybody's drinking their own beer. And we got our music out," Gonsalves said. "So we had a really positive first experience."
Playing traditional rock clubs hasn't worked so well for the band — it has only done three such shows, compared to seven "party shows" over the last year. What they consider strict booking rules and a few bad experiences have been enough to scare them away. Oakland's Stork Club, for example, books four months in advance and asks bands to build their own bills. 924 Gilman in Berkeley calls for tapes to accompany booking inquiries and requests that bands wait up to four weeks for a response. Gonsalves describes other local clubs' booking guidelines as "hostile." "From the position of a band that's trying to build stuff up, the structure that's there can be a pain in the ass sometimes. But there's no reason you need to go along with that. ... So I said, 'Fuck it, let's just play wherever.' ... To me, this is the musical equivalent of instant web publishing, like a blog."
There are benefits to doing so, such as playing by your own rules and earning the opportunity to make intimate connections with fans in unique locations. Familiar faces pop up at every Real Blood show, and while the group's draw may be small, it is dedicated.
Of course, this also means forgoing club benefits such as a bar, stage, and cash at the end of the night. But the most nagging downside is the chance you'll get caught. "That's the one big drawback," said Gonsalves. "You have to be constantly on the hunt for a new place." He and his bandmates aren't comfortable with playing the same spot twice, and as a rule they try to finish their sets and start breaking down within 35 minutes. Police have shown up at a couple parties they've soundtracked, but never when they were playing.
Yet the risk may not be quite as great as they imagine. Captain LaJuan Collier of the Emeryville Police Department says the last time the city cited anyone for needing a cabaret license was three years ago at a rave in a warehouse, though one is technically required whenever a live band plays for an audience. If Real Blood were to be caught red-handed, the odds are better for a basic noise infraction, or, more likely yet, simply being shut down and sent home.
According to Commander Angel Nova of famed Oakland sci-fi rock group the Phenomenauts, even that's a stretch. Though the band is now big enough to tour the country and sell out midsize clubs such as Slim's, it got its start playing impromptu gigs — "commando shows," as the band calls them — outside the Fillmore after concerts, at the Fisherman's Wharf, inside the California Music Awards and Warped Tour despite not being invited, and at a motley variety of other outdoor spaces and illegal venues including its own warehouse in West Oakland. Over nearly a decade of doing so, not once has the band run afoul of the fuzz.
"San Francisco and Oakland cops really have better things to do than harass rock 'n' roll," Nova said. "I love Oakland cops. They're not gonna bust you for some trivial crap. They're looking out for citizens, like they're supposed to. ... Though it is really scary to do. You start playing in front of a few people and you're not supposed to be there, it's a little scarier. But I wouldn't mind being arrested for rock 'n' roll."
He sympathizes with Real Blood's plight: playing clubs can be a real grind when you're just getting started. But his band's progression offers a vision of exactly where Real Blood would like to go. Non-traditional shows for tiny audiences can indeed lead to wider success. Now that they're more established, the Phenomenauts don't play on the street much anymore, but Nova says they're still known for it — and when they do, it helps maintain credibility among fans. No matter how many fancy clubs his band plays, Nova still prefers warehouses. "It's a more fun environment. Everyone's there to have a good time and you don't have too many rules."
Real Blood's long-term goal is a modest one, and the goal of so many working rock bands across the country: to make a living playing music. "The Guns N' Roses model of 1988 is not very appealing," said Gonsalves. "It would be wonderful if I didn't have to have a job, if I could just do this and clear the bills every month." Abate echoed with no uncertainty: "That's the dream." At this stage in their career, they're doing what they think will get them there. "We're not wedded to the idea of playing in parking lots for the rest of our lives," Gonsalves promises. But for now, it works.
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