The Kids Will Flock 

Sheep paraphernalia? Instrument-swapping? Welcome to the new, improved Ramp.

John Ringhofer likes him some sheep imagery. Some sort of sheep-Slinky contraption clings precariously to his mic stand. He has furnished crowd members with official "Sheepy" paper masks, to be cut out, strung up, and equipped with eye holes for seeing, and perhaps a mouth hole for breathing and/or baaaa-ing. And now he's pounding out a tune about sheep gone astray, shearing his acoustic guitar and gaily singing in a ceiling-scraping voice best described as "wide-eyed."

Resting on the toy organ in front of him are a stuffed animal sheep and a small canister that, when flipped over, emits a satisfying baaaa sound. He stops the song periodically to play with these toys. Later, he will wind up a tiny plastic sheep that will walk clear off the organ, also in mid-verse.

John is a little loopy.

Delightedly so, though. Mr. Ringhofer is the one-man band behind Half-Handed Cloud, a burgeoning Christian twee-pop Berkeley institution selected as the main attraction for this February Saturday night's grand reopening of the Ramp, itself a burgeoning Berkeley institution that, alas, was booted out of Berkeley.

The Ramp surfaced in the summer of 2002 in the basement of the Seventh Day Adventist church at 2236 Parker Street. Pastor Ron Pickell, soon joined by gung-ho booker Justin Lewis, had conceived it as a monthly youth outreach show: Bring in some bands, bake some cookies, and throw a hootenanny free of alcohol or proselytizing religious chatter. Young big-shot bands (Hella, Deerhoof, Why?) soon turned it into an East Bay hotspot. But PO'd neighbors less than enamored of the racket raised a ruckus with Berkeley cops and code officials, and though Ron fought valiantly -- crafting defenses from the Freedom of Religion ploy to the I'm Just Giving Kids Something to Do strategy -- he eventually bowed to the pressure and shuttered the Ramp in late '03.

Now, more than a year later, his baby has been reincarnated in Oakland, at 219 E. 15th Street, a block from Lake Merritt. The spot is inhabited by Regeneration, another church group that once rented space from Ron's still-functioning Berkeley digs. So now Regen is helping Ron, giving him the run of a snappy gymnasium one night a month. Ron is clearly still peeved over his war with the Berkeley neighbors, but he anticipates far less of a hassle in Oaktown.

As for those new digs -- nice spot, guys. The Ramp 2.0 is essentially a miniature basketball court covered in carpet that you'd imagine would make ball handling rather difficult. Fifty-some folks lounge on couches or comfy chairs. And Red Pony Clock sets up right beneath one hoop -- if you sunk a three-pointer you could probably knock the drummer unconscious, which wouldn't be all that traumatic from a musical perspective, since she's eight times louder than anyone else in the band.

Red Pony Clock represents a burgeoning California trend -- a choir-sized pack of affable early-twentysomethings who appear to have decided to form a childlike pop band earlier that afternoon, and attempt to play every musical instrument ever invented simultaneously. Typically, half of this sort of group is clearly thrilled to be onstage while the other half looks absolutely mortified, and will flee the stage in terror while the set's final note is still resonant.

This can produce glorious results: The fifteen-strong SF white reggae collective Still Flyin' hijacked Noise Pop a coupla weeks back. And while Red Pony Clock is nowhere near that transcendent, it's worth a half-hour of your time. Frontman Gabe Saucedo, with his thick glasses and Alpha Nerd demeanor, bears a strong resemblance to John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. An apt comparison, as he balances a kitschy exterior -- the official Red Pony Clock banner looming behind the band is bright blue, with a bright yellow sun and, yes, a red pony -- with superpessimistic lyrics. Here comes the sun/Closer and closer/It's gonna burn us alive!, Gabe wails. "What book of the Bible is that from?" my companion whispers.

But instrument-swapping is this evening's dominant trend: guitar, drums, sax, organ, trombone, tuba, vibraphone, tambourine, the inevitable banjo. Mr. Half-Handed Cloud -- who will play in all three bands this evening -- seems hell-bent on playing them all himself. And though RPC's stage banter is self-explanatory -- "We've had one practice as a full band," followed by "I'm gonna mess this up in ways no one ever thought possible" -- it's all endearing enough to be tolerable. Same for our next victims, Mantle, fronted by Ron's son Joel, who looks like the angelic version of Jay from all those Jay and Silent Bob movies, his waterfall-long hair cleaved in two by a ski hat. He pounds his acoustic and moans I'm just afraid to admit I'm scared/If you come today and I'm not prepared. John is still playing fifty different instruments, and the drummer is way too loud.

And then, bring on the sheep. Half-Handed Cloud's third album, Thy Is a Word, and Feet Need Lamps, is self-described as "Songs about Bible mayhem, etc," but it's crafty enough to ensnare nonbelievers and Death Cab for Cutie fans. God, it's your mercy that greets us each day/We'll wake up each morning and jump rope, Ringhofer sings, and you actually don't feel like punching someone. The three-man backing band he has assembled for this soiree is fantastic -- the drummer, in a feat of ingenious innovation, uses brushes -- though John still jumps abruptly from one instrument to another mid-song, an H-HC specialty.

Ron, a good friend and devout fan of John's, enjoyed the set tremendously, though with all the Bible talk in the Ramp 2.0's inaugural gig, he is quick to note that subsequent shows will be secular. "That was a concern I had, with this being the first thing we came back on, that people would get the wrong impression," he says. "We intend on doin' basically what we were doin' before. I guess our goal is to try to provide a space for bands that are kinda just getting started or not that well known, and are really creative, to let them have an opportunity to play. And if they're Christian or not Christian, that's not really the issue."

To prove this point, the next Ramp gig on April 9 will feature Rob Crow, who borrows H-HC's goof-savant aesthetic, but not so much the spirituality. Heathens can jump rope, too.

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