A Festival Reinvents Itself

Freight & Salvage takes over the annual downtown Berkeley music fest.

Freight & Salvage is offering downtown Berkeley a big ol’ howdy this weekend in anticipation of the venerable folk club’s move from its West Berkeley digs up to the Downtown Arts District next year. Taking the reins of the annual late-August music festival sponsored by the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Freight is at the center of an aural smorgasbord served up Thursday through Sunday in more than a dozen venues along the Shattuck corridor.

“We’re in the midst of building our new club and the idea of being involved with the festival without even being finished yet was just very exciting,” said the Freight’s artistic director Steve Baker. The festival opens at noon on Thursday at the Downtown BART station with Amendola vs. Blades, a tough improvisational combo featuring Hammond B3 organist Wil Blades and drummer extraordinaire Scott Amendola. Produced with support from the Downtown Berkeley Association, the City of Berkeley, San Francisco Foundation, and KPFA, the four-day event features more than thirty acts, including pianist David K. Mathews Soultet at Downtown Restaurant, capoeira at the Brazil Cafe, blues diva Lady Bianca at Anna’s Jazz Island, and rising trombonist Natalie Cressman at the Jazzschool. (For a complete schedule see DowntownBerkeleyMusicFest.org.)

While the event is being billed as the First Annual Downtown Berkeley MusicFest, in reality this is just the latest incarnation of a festival that’s been held for more than a decade under evolving monikers. Launched by the Downtown Berkeley Association to perk up business, the festival has become a seasonal harbinger of the return of students to Cal. Back when it was largely an outdoor event, it went by the name of the Front Row Festival. And when the Downtown Berkeley Association decided to move it indoors in 2005, it turned production duties over to the Jazzschool, which led to the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival. “We realized that we’re not really equipped to run an arts event,” said Deborah Bahdia of the Downtown Berkeley Association.

But in a classic case of no-good-deed-going-unpunished, Jazzschool director Susan Muscarella came under fire last year for the lack of African-American artists booked at the event. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Jazzschool didn’t step forward for a fourth season. The only reason the Downtown Berkeley Association decided to continue with a music event in 2005 was that Muscarella shouldered the organizing responsibilities, a time-consuming, largely thankless task with no remuneration.

“Susan … really set the tone and led the charge to create the new festival format, bringing the shows indoors,” said Bahdia. “Now that they’ve moved on, we’re bringing in the Freight with their personality.”

There’s still a heavy helping of jazz running through the event, but the concept for the revamped festival is to cast a wider stylistic net. Rather than trying to put its own stamp on the festival, the Freight has largely left each venue to book itself. For the longest-running full-time folk and roots music club west of the Mississippi River, the Freight now has an ideal opportunity to raise its profile with the coveted student audience.

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the nonprofit organization was born swimming against the current. Originally a cozy coffeehouse at 1827 San Pablo Avenue, one block north of University, the Freight quickly became the East Bay’s leading roots music venue at a time when the region’s rock scene had won an international reputation.

By the late 1980s, the Freight had long since outgrown its confines, and moved to its present location at 1111 Addison Street. When it opens its doors next year, the Freight’s new 18,000-square-foot building will provide performance and teaching spaces with a 440-seat listening room (double the capacity of the existing venue), as well as a music lounge seating 2,050 people, a state-of-the-art Meyer Sound system, a cafe, and six classrooms.

Not that the Freight is a total stranger to the Downtown Arts District. Over the years, it has staged occasional performances at the Berkeley Rep, and the centerpiece of the MusicFest is the Freight Fiddle Summit on Thursday at the Roda Theatre, across the street from the construction site where the new Freight broke ground on April 1.

Featuring a dazzling cast of string players, the Fiddle Summit marks the 25th anniversary of Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle Camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Essentially a festival within a festival, the concert is a Celtapoolooza with fiddle master Bruce Molsky, Gaelic singer Mary Ann Kennedy, 21-year-old step-dance expert Nic Gareiss, and the superlative duo of Irish fiddler Martin Hayes and Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill.

Fraser himself, one of the most revered Scottish fiddlers’ in the world, also performs as part of his remarkable duo with Bay Area-raised, Boston-based cellist Natalie Haas. The recent Juilliard graduate has been touring recently with fiddle legends Mark O’Connor and Natalie MacMaster, but she’s at her most inventive with Fraser, with whom she recorded a breathtaking series of duets on In the Moment.

“We’re still exploring this amazing journey of these two instruments, and we’re having a great time,” said Haas, who’s on faculty at the Berklee College of Music. “We’re creating new music and exploring the potential of the duo sound.”

Growing up in Menlo Park, Haas is part of an old-time music renaissance exemplified by brilliant young players like her younger sister, fiddler Britney Haas, who made her recording debut on Darol Anger’s 2002 Grammy-nominated album Fiddlers 4. The sisters grew up attending the Valley of the Moon camp and catching shows at the Freight, but playing the cello, an instrument with a minimal old-time pedigree, Natalie Haas has largely been forced to invent her own technique.

“There were not that many cellists treating it as a rhythmic chordal instrument for backing traditional music,” Haas said. “I had to develop a style that was suited for the cello by studying guitar players, bassists, drummers, and fiddlers, particularly Alasdair and other faculty at Valley of the Moon. The cello is very versatile and can play all of these roles. I’m still exploring how to apply all these things to my own instrument.”

Besides the Fiddle Summit, the MusicFest is essentially competing with the Freight’s regularly scheduled gigs, though on Saturday afternoon the club is presenting “A Taste of Soul Poetry” at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. It’s a preview of that evening’s Soul Poetry performance at the Freight, a popular event organized by Dan and Dale Zola featuring spoken recitation backed by Middle Eastern instruments.

“We’re helping out at the Farmers’ Market,” Baker said. “But we’re not booking any other venue. It’s the conception of the Downtown Berkeley Association not be too genre-specific. The idea is to let each venue express itself. It should all add up to a great cross section of Bay Area music.”

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