Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and one man's trash is another man's treasure. In an ironic twist, these well-worn clichés help explain why a small crowd has gathered at Oakland's Uptown Nightclub late on a Tuesday night to watch a lone female musician, hunched over like an ancient cobbler, as she jostles an interconnected web of electronics and cables, molests various knobs and switches, wrestles with an electric guitar, and generally obliterates any trace of musical cliché. The result sounds much as one would imagine.
Soon, Liz Allbee will entertain hundreds of people in the concert hall at Oakland's Mills College, an international epicenter of new music, for a special concert honoring experimental music pioneer Fred Frith. But on this March night she is having a little fun in a local rock club for fifteen somewhat bemused onlookers. As minor-league as this may be compared to her other engagements, she is doing important work: excavating a small piece of the East Bay's prosperous yet distinctly underground avant-garde music scene. The point is not what she's playing — indeed, many would debate whether it is music at all — but rather where she's playing.
"I was surprised that they had an experimental night here — an actual place with a bar," said Oakland's Reid May, whose curiosity got the best of him. None of the other avant-garde concerts he's attended, though they account for about a fifth of his overall live music intake, have been at a place this nice, this ... official: one with a bouncer, a liquor license, and a quality sound system. Normally it'd be a converted art gallery, a nonprofit arts center, some dude's house — or, at the other end of the spectrum, an academic setting like Mills.
This is precisely the purpose of the Uptown's monthly Avant-Garde Tuesdays series: to draw experimental, avant-garde, and improvisational music from the sidelines and into a safe, welcoming, fully permitted space. The music may be daunting, but the setting certainly isn't, affording both performers and fans the opportunity to try something new.
The impetus for the series came roughly a year ago from Uptown co-owner Ray Yeh, a longtime Oakland resident and fan of avant-garde music. "We're trying to do our best to represent what's going on musically in the East Bay," he said. "There's a lot of heavy hitters in this area in terms of contemporary 21st-century music." His idea was to create a monthly series modeled after John Zorn's New York City venue the Stone. Current curator Sarah Lockhart also serves as programming director for 21 Grand, the venerated, oft-embattled headquarters for strange music in the East Bay.
Yeh now says the avant-garde nights, which take place every third Tuesday and are always free of charge, have become some of the club's most important. They're certainly not the most profitable, but that's not the idea — the program is geared more toward giving musicians a place to play and fans a place to listen than it is toward making money. And while Yeh notes that the majority of the series' patrons know what they're getting themselves into, others may find themselves inadvertent converts. "People's first inclination is to go 'Whoa, that's weird,'" he said. "It usually takes two to three times for people who are not used to it to start understanding it. It's all basically exposure."
As far as exposure goes, the Uptown has company in Kingman's Ivy Room, a swank lounge on San Pablo Avenue in Albany that hosts regular DJs and skews more toward cologne and cocktails than live music. But every Monday night the place is infiltrated by a sweeping array of avant-garde music, from improvised electronics with video production to free jazz and sheer noise. The man behind it is Monday-night bartender and booker Eric Leppo, an experimental musician himself who happened upon the idea out of boredom eight months ago. "On Monday there was just nothing, and I'm there all by myself," he said. "So I thought, 'Screw this, I'm gonna make this interesting.'"
That's just what he's done — especially when it comes to interactions between the bar's regular customers and its new Monday night sound. Leppo recalls a group of twenty or so women in their forties who would gather regularly at the Ivy Room to knit. One night they were blindsided by a particularly abrasive performance. "They just couldn't take it," Leppo said, so they split. On another occasion, a deafeningly loud set involving two drum kits drove just about everyone from the room. Leppo wasn't fazed: "I love for that kinda thing to happen" — not because he dislikes customers, but because he embraces creative freedom no matter how far afield it may lead.
Open-mindedness seems to be the prevailing sentiment among a handful of unsuspecting drinkers at the Ivy Room on March 16, when the lounge's most prominent Monday night series has brought in about forty people. The Experimental/Improv Hootenanny & Social Club is another free monthly program — in this case occurring every third Monday — designed to give musicians an informal place to play and fans an opportunity to experience their music on non-threatening terms.
Informal is the operative word: There is no stage at the Ivy Room, and Leppo encourages musicians to make full use of the lounge area, which is separated from the bar by only a few widely spaced pillars. The lounge resembles a large living room with plush couches, dark wood end tables, glowing chandeliers, dim orange lamps and sconces, and soothing chocolate brown paint on the walls. In the middle of the space, seated on a large leather cushion, one musician scrapes silverware, a large mixing bowl, a tin can, a Slinky, and other random metal objects over a taut snare drum and an inverted cymbal while another improvises along with his electric guitar. Only fifteen feet away at the bar, a few twentysomethings chat vigorously, impervious to the commotion — or at least wholly unoffended.
Oakland musician Lucio Menegon, who has also performed at the Uptown's avant-garde series, established the Hootenanny with Leppo's support and continues to curate the general program each month (being a hootenanny, it's prone to extensive collaborations and unannounced drop-ins). "Our goal when we first came in was to get kicked out," he said. "Because we figured the Ivy Room was not the place to do a gig. So we said, 'Let's just do the most fucked-up music we can.'" This, incidentally, explains the terrified knitters.
But Menegon was also once responsible for blowing the minds of a few suit-wearing businessmen who'd stopped by for drinks after work. "They were just transfixed," he said. "They were standing in front of us, staring." Next to getting kicked out, this must be second best: witnessing the revelatory look in one man's eye as he discovers the treasure in sounds another deems trash.
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