Getting Beastly in the East Bay 

The best culture doesn't trickle down, it bubbles up

Politicians never know what they are doing when it comes to culture.

George Dubya proved his mettle by appointing Wayne Newton as the leader of his overseas entertainment mob for Operation Dumbo Drop. (Bob Hope is unable to attend because he's in the studio with Jay-Z.) "Fellas!" Bush probably said at the Cabinet meeting, "We are undertaking the ultimate freedom coup. And it calls for the ultimate entertainer: Wayne Newton." What could his trusty posse do but nod in silent, adoring agreement? George Jr. knows what the kids like.

Our own Mayor Jerry Brown campaigned under the notion that he would bring back a vibrant arts scene in Oakland, but are we really going to trust a guy who dated Linda Ronstadt, a woman who made her living singing other folks' songs? She wasn't nuttin' but Wayne Newton in hot pants and roller skates.

Brown may say he supports the arts, appointing various people to an arts council and proposing more loft space for the six-figure salaried, but real arts Renaissances happen in a more boho way, when an individual or group of people, usually kinda poor, get together and do cool stuff, either artistically or musically. Right now in Oakland there are several "underground" warehouse spaces with bands every week, pirate radio stations, and usually a few kegs. These are the people who are rapping, making records, publishing zines, drawing cool comics or posters, and in general feeding a unique scene that is drawing interesting people to Oakland. Needless to say, hizzoner had nothing to do with this.

For example, bEASTfest, a gigantic East Bay music festival (East Bay is twisted pig Latin for beast) that begins next Wednesday, Nov. 28 and runs through Sunday, Dec. 2. It began last year and is already an institution, growing to, er, monstrous proportions. What was thirty bands in four clubs last year is now 85 East Bay bands in nine East Bay venues. Last year the promoters went into debt putting it on; this year they might fare better, hoping at least to break even. They are Misty Gamble, who books the Starry Plough, and the booker of the Stork Club, known simply as Dani.

"The whole reason I do things in the East Bay is to create a scene here so that people want to belong to the East Bay scene and claim it," says Dani. "If we're going to create anything lasting and substantial culturally, there has to be some sort of unifying factor." The small number of venues for so many local bands is something that needs to change as well. "The way that culture happens is people find a space, they renovate it, they make it happen," she says. "The infrastructure has not been put into place that assists people to create new venues."

Every night of bEASTfest there will be several showcases to choose from, and this year they've added other genres, including jazz, country, and spoken word. Artists as varied as Fred Frith, Drunk Horse, Anticon, Ramona the Pest, and Yuji Oniki are scheduled, as well as a label showcase for Adeline Records, a Voice Is Venom showcase, and a KALX live remote broadcast. This is a big deal, people. Maybe the powers that be in Oakland -- including hizzoner -- will realize that there is in fact a large audience for "underground" and rock 'n' roll culture over here. Maybe this will make it easier for new clubs to open up. Although judging from past experience, it doesn't look good.

Consider Sweet's Ballroom: The burgeoning space in downtown Oakland has a capacity of 1,000, but has been plagued by problems with ownership, promoters, and security. "Jerry Brown was not behind Sweet's Ballroom whatsoever," says Gamble. "When I worked there we would go and get special events permits. Five hundred to 1,000 young people would mob the streets, and the police would come and close the whole thing down. The police overreacted, then fights would break out, and it would look as though it was the promoters' fault."

Gamble is inclined to cut the mayor some slack. "Maybe Jerry is doing what he thinks should be done," she says. But surely if the city viewed struggling clubs as part of the cultural community that Brown talks about supporting, then a place like Sweet's, which has loads of potential but for the most part now sits vacant, might thrive.

Meanwhile bEASTfest lurches along, growing larger every year. The festival already is attracting sponsorship interest from liquor companies and the like. Who knows what next year will hold, but Misty and Dani are hoping they can gather up all the cultural institutions in the East Bay -- from fine arts to film to music -- and work with each other for the first time, instead of working independently and doing small contributions. "Sort of moving it forward in a bigger way," says Dani.

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