Bless the Beast

Kamps, Kalem, and Clair: Our three critics on bEASTfest 2002.

By Garrett Kamps

On the first night of bEASTfest it was cold and windy; foreboding perhaps. The motley crowd standing outside the Oakland Metro — so varied they seemed like mannequins from a hundred rejected Diesel ad campaigns — indicated that what the East Bay needs most if it wants to improve its music scene is a little direction. Not that diversity isn’t a good thing, but if the Metro’s going to be able to afford a liquor license or the Stork Club a new PA, then a scene that can attract more than a handful of patrons per venue per night might help. And while you’ve gotta applaud bEASTfest’s organizers for trying to provide a unified vision, it’s unfortunate that their efforts only served to highlight the scene’s shortcomings, rather than overcome them.

One of the festival’s problems became apparent after watching performance artist Erika Sodos trying to wrangle her way out of the trashcan she stuffed herself in while talking about masturbation: We couldn’t leave! The seven selected venues — Starry Plough, Black Box, 21Grand, Blake’s, Rooster’s Roadhouse, Oakland Metro, and the Stork Club — were all at least a few miles apart, which meant there was no way to hop over to a different joint to check out a different band and not miss the evening’s headliner, Gravy Train. Ideally, the cool thing about music festivals is the choices. If what’s going on in column A doesn’t shizzle my nizzle, columns B, C, and D may be offering something better, right? But if B, C, and D are in B, F, and E, then I’m pretty S, O, and L.

So we stuck it out for Gravy Train, and thank God it delivered. Though the performance was delayed for twenty long minutes due to technical difficulties, a devoted fan, Brontez Parnell, eased the burden in the interim by treating the audience to the dance routine from Janet Jackson’s “If,” dressed only in his skivvies.

When the Train finally mounted the stage, it opened with a rendition of the holiday classic “Christmas Time Is Here.” Sung in falsetto voices by four sex-crazed carolers dressed in matching short shorts, the song took on a whole new meaning. They then segued into their usual dosage of crap-ass electro and libidinous lyrics. Highlights included the sodomizing of a plastic Frosty the Snowman, as well as Parnell once again grabbing the spotlight when he jumped on stage, this time buck naked, to get his seven bucks’ worth.

After the spectacle, because all of the venues had their shows scheduled simultaneously, there was nothing to do but go home and feel bad for anyone who purchased an all-access pass.

The following evening at the Stork Club was dubbed Welcome to the Digital World. The show featured Oakland’s digital deviant J Lesser, the laptronic phonics and visual victuals of Sagan, and an opener called Festival of Stillness, an all-acoustic duo which, while impressive, really didn’t fit into the night’s theme.

Comprised of Merlin Coleman and Dan Cantrell, Festival of Stillness opened the show with gothic hymns that fused Eastern European folk, Indonesian gamelan, and even Tuvan throat singing. Though these acoustic lullabies were arresting at times, it was hard to imagine that a crowd that had come to see headliners Lesser and Sagan had much interest in them. But as it turned out, most of the whopping ten members of the audience were friends with Coleman and left just after her band played, leaving about five others, not including the clamorous assholes at the bar, to experience the rest of the program.

As Lesser kicked things off, what began as a thudding series of burps, twerps, and warbles eventually segued into what could have been the heavily digitized soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Bengal. Though the aural chaos was difficult to keep up with, the end result was a challenging maelstrom of sounds. Well, that and the subwoofer at the Stork Club blowing out, which prematurely halted the performance and forced Sagan to perform a high- and mid-frequency-only set. “I guess it just didn’t like those sounds,” said a smirking Lesser from the stage.

Though the members of Sagan — boyfriend and girlfriend Lesser and Bevin Kelly (aka Blevin Blectum), and visualist Ryan Junell — would feign modesty after the show, their set managed the lack of bass beautifully. As Junell’s images of Kelly and Lesser frolicking in a park melted in and out of another video track depicting rush-hour traffic, the musicians laid out a sonic lava lamp of digital events: dual drum breaks fighting with one another for control of the beat; pianos twinkling austerely amidst a fuzz-filled background; and synthesized cicada beetles chirping out glitches that sounded like machine-gun fire in slow motion. If you managed to let yourself just kind of slip into the fold of visuals and sound, the performance was transportive.

For the final night of bEASTfest it was off to Rooster’s Roadhouse (in Alameda!) to catch The Phenomenauts, Glitter Mini 9, the Heavenly States, and the Matches, an assortment of punk, rock, and rockabilly bands. Showing up at about ten o’clock, I was able to catch the last three power-punk anthems of the Matches’ set before the entire show was over. As the audience members filed out, Lawrence Schwartz, soundman for the Roadhouse, explained that the Phenomenauts went on at nine sharp and the other two bands were no-shows.

“I can only assume it’s because they’re not professional,” he speculated. “Maybe they don’t understand how this business works. Maybe they’re too cool for school.”

Or maybe there was a Gilligan’s Island marathon on TV and that seemed more important. As much as it sucks to pull out of a show at the last minute, you can’t blame anyone for not taking bEASTfest too seriously. It takes more than a banner hanging at five disparate venues to create a sense of cohesion. It takes more than festival T-shirts to foster a sense of pride. Despite rain, sleet, snow, or gloom of night, both bands and crowds should be proud to support the scene in the East Bay. Perhaps if someone delivered a festival equal to the enormous amount of talent and interest that exists here, they would.

Who invited the oompah band?

By Stefanie Kalem

A joke overheard shortly after arriving at Rooster’s Roadhouse for bEASTfest’s official Amoeba Records Nite: Why are indie rockers no good in bed? Because they’re always talking about the seven-inches they don’t have.

“Welcome to bEASTfest,” said the accordion player onstage. “We’re the house band, Bass Line Dada, and this is a song by Kurt Schwitters.” You woulda thunk that a trio covering koo-koo Dadaist songs would fit in perfectly with the rest of the bands on Amoeba Nite … and you woulda been so very wrong. The tension in the air at Rooster’s that night could have been played with a needle. Before Bass Line Dada even finished its second song, a member of French Radio was already talking about tossing his beer at the stage. And though its witty lyrics, bright red bass, electronic drums, and generally peppy aesthetic might have entertained the Alameda regulars, Bass Line Dada got very little play amongst the CD clerks and their attendant entourages that night.

The ten members of the Why Because had already set up at this point, but they then shuffled off to huddle outside, leaving Bass Line Dada to play a few more notes. “You’ve got literally two and a half minutes,” the soundman said. “When you see them coming back in, just speed up.” Which they did.

When all of the Why Because had taken their places behind synths, drums, horns, guitars, and such, one of the members announced the first song as “The Creation of the Universe and the Musical Evolution Thereafter.” That turned out to be the only piece — a practice shared by all of the bands in the official Amoeba lineup. The Why Because’s forty-minute-or-so set began with clattering and snapping played on nonmusical implements, and then moving into improvised singing tones, an a cappella swell with Doppler effects. Then came the grunts, and syncopated tribal percussion. True to its title, the piece seemed to speak of a secret history from some other world. And just like here on Earth, when members of the Why Because wandered around the stage, it was hard to tell if it was all a part of an act, or if they were just looking for the next thing to play.

After taking a detour into acoustic guitars, the band kicked up a noisy sandstorm of computer-augmented free-jazz, and, eventually, in a hail of pots and pans, finished. Or at least the crowd, numbering 30 to 35 at this point, seemed to think so, as they began to applaud.

Next up was O-Type, whose drummer had two MIDI synth pads. His bandmates played two guitars, miles of pedals, and another drum pad, this one on the floor and processed through even more pedals. A member of the audience named the genre “Bands That Emulate the Ocean with Varying Degrees of Prosthetics.”

When the set was over, one of O-Type’s guitarists just stopped playing and left the stage, the look on his face clearly saying, “My work here is done.”

The final Amoeba Nite band was French Radio — two turntables, a guitar, lots of effects, a bicycle wheel, and a reel-to-reel machine conspiring to make something dirty, hypnotic, like the aftermath of a homicide spied through smudged and shattered windows. There was no solid rhythm, and a squall like a baby’s came from an unidentifiable source. The set ended with an apropos sample: “They found that music could help incite beastlike behavior, could rouse the desire to kill.” Wonder if anyone warned Bass Line Dada.

Over at the Starry Plough the next night, the only really beastly thing was the rain outside, and the rising sweat of the masses inside. A mustachioed MC wearing a bright orange wig attempted to introduce Shelly Doty X-Tet in pig Latin, in honor of bEASTfest. O-nay Ice-day. The cute and funky Doty was rock-star-ready, with her muscle shirt and smooth voice. Her two backing musicians were skin-tight, and stayed appropriately out of the way as she threw down blues-rock licks and go-girl anthems. She redeemed herself to this reviewer when, three or four songs in, she explained that she hadn’t cut her hair in eight years, and then asked if her habit of tossing back her long dreads “looks stupid.”

Mark Growden’s Electric Piñata is far less self-conscious. As Growden and Co. set up, a fella standing near said, “With a banjo and an accordion, it can’t be bad.” Yeah, right, not unless he ruins those instruments for us all, forever, along with the dobro and the guitar and everything else he’d hauled up there.

Growden has the face of a real estate agent, but howls like the livid spawn of Eddie Vedder and Nick Cave. His band is a depressed klezmer outfit, with a hot-licks guitarist who leads them into Led Zeppelin territory every two and a half songs. It’s all vaguely sexy and chock-full of casual showmanship.

Far less casually showbizlike is Rosin Coven. Most folks at the Plough had come to see this band — one guy, who didn’t know any good jokes, even drove from Santa Cruz to go to the show, having lost his job that very day. With their “Pagan Lounge” shtick and elaborate ensemble (two cellists, a violinist, vibraphonist, trombone player, drummer, double bassist, and two multi-instrumentalist chanteuses), they’re like a nine-person Burning Man. The messages may be too holistically uplifting for cynical tastes, but RC definitely tickles the red on the ol’ Entertain-o-meter (though the only thing truly beastly about them are the goats they apparently roast on May Day).

Hey … that reminds me. Do you know many pagans it takes to change a lightbulb? Six. One to change it, and five to sit around complaining that lightbulbs never burned out before the Christians came along.

Happy holidays.

Da Troof and nothing but Da Troof

By Katy St. Clair

Oh, the weather outside was frightful … which may account for the less-than-standing-room-only attendance at some of the bEASTfest shows. That and the fact that, though there were many great bands, there weren’t many that actually could draw a crowd. Where was the Pattern? Where was Drunk Horse? Where was High on Fire, Etienne De Rocher, Bart Davenport, Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days, Black Cat Music, Noe Venable, the Enemies … all great musicians who weren’t a part of this annual celebration of East Bay artists.

This year bEASTfest also included nonmusical offerings such as poetry and performance art. It was a grand gesture to include these other things, but then again, that is what is wrong with the East Bay scene: too much artsy shit and not enough rock. Now, this reviewer is indeed biased, being a firm adherent to the “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance” philosophy. But it would have been better to strengthen the musical rosters before adding the other stuff.

That said, bEASTfest remains a step in the right direction — we need to shine a light on this side of the bay, especially since there ain’t nuttin’ going on in SF these days anyway. For those who went out to see the shows, a pleasant feeling of camaraderie trickled up at several venues, beginning with the Starry Plough on Thursday night for “Twang City.”

As people trickled in and took their seats, the pub’s TV was set to football. As soon as the first band took the stage, though, the channel changed to a live rodeo, and everyone refilled their glasses and sat back for some amazing country music. To put it plainly, Smelly Kelly’s Plain High Drifters was the most enjoyable band all weekend, playing honky-tonky covers that were all related to debauchery: Little Feat’s “Willin’, “Carmelita” by Warren Zevon, and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” by Kris Kristofferson. Smelly Kelly was in his usual form with great zingers like this one: “Welcome to Yeastfest! A celebration of yeast! I know some of you ladies aren’t so happy about it.” Let’s face it, country music was made for cover tunes, and when they are performed this well you cain’t go wrong.

Next up was Calamity & Main, comprised of most of the members of the Plain High Drifters, playing a tight set of honky-tonk originals wherein three of the members traded off lead vocal talents. The pedal steel player for both bands — being A) hellza cute and B) amazingly talented — provided the perfect backdrop for tipsy she-wimmins in the audience. Thanks for the memories.

Finally Loretta Lynch came on, a solid row of fine females whose country was more sedated than the previous band’s, with weaker melodies and bridges and even some flat singing, yet a pleasingly folky cohesion overall. They also made pie for everyone … Awww. This night was what bEASTfest was supposed to be all about.

The next night at Rooster’s Roadhouse in Alameda had its problems. Apparently none of the bands arrived on time, so the order had to be changed. Arriving at ten, we were treated to Da Hawnay Troof, a total spazz from the cult of Gravy Train who boinged up and down to some jenky-ass Biz beats, howling “Who likes to fuck?! We like to fuck!” while his posse of ’20s-style-newspaper-boy-hat-‘n-scarf-wearin’ homies joined in from the audience. It was awesome, right down to the Troof’s tube socks, tank top, and tight lil’ shorts. (Has anyone noticed that the new hipster look is ’70s gym coach meets Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?) The only thing wrong was that he only did two songs.

Strangely enough, that was one song longer than the next band’s set. Clarendon Hills played one long ‘n’ lame bass intro and then quit entirely. Apparently, they all got into a fight and said fuck it.

That was okay, though, because next up was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Adventure Kids, who aren’t exactly reinventing the form but certainly offer it an after-dinner mint. The guitars went “chucka chucka” and the vocals went “heck yeah heck yeah,” and overall it rocked.

The final stop was Saturday night at Oakland’s Black Box for the hip-hop showcase. For those of you who haven’t been there yet, this nonprofit venue at the end of Telegraph Avenue is large and has a great sound system, yet still manages to feel cozy. There are couches everywhere, and the main performance room features a beautiful wood floor with tables and chairs in the back. It’s not often that you can go to a show alone and make about five new friends, but this joint fosters such interaction. First up was CatFive, a four-person combo on this night, all working off one another behind laptops, fronting a backdrop of images as disparate as Dame Edna and a three-headed Japanese monster. The music was a steady beat of funky beebles and glirks that eeked over their computers and glazed the room with a funky warmth.

Paris King performed next, sampling beats and clutching an acoustic guitar that he held like a Brazilian folk singer, with the neck up high and his fingers crooked delicately over the strings. At first, it was a bit shocking; who melds loose, folksy songwriting with dance beats? Was it awful, or was he a genius? Yet the music had such a strong afterglow that by the end of each song you anxiously awaited the next. King is an acquired taste that will grow on you.

By this point in the night the venue was near-full, and when James Eksel began performing his peculiar blend of vogueing and rapping, everyone went nuts. Eksel stood on stage with his sampler and a microphone, dressed like a Broadway star in suit and hat, turning his body this way and that like a smooth robot. Like King, he’s definitely not going to get lumped in any gangsta or backpack scene anytime soon, preferring to meld his disparate influences into a strange but well-received one-man show.

The organizers of bEASTfest have a lot to be proud of, especially for taking on such a Herculean task. But without some more recognized bands, attendance is going to remain low no matter how talented the bands or dedicated the promoters are. There were rumors this year that the organizers of bEASTfest tried to work out some East Bay label showcases, but for whatever reason there weren’t any. Let’s hope that next year this actually happens. East Bay labels such as Adeline, Lookout, Hightone, Ipecac, ABB, Anticon, and Tigerbeat6 would’ve been a welcome addition to this fledgling festival. And they also could have helped make sure that all the bands played an entire set.

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