Inside the Talk of the Town

Chris Baty witnesses a deranged puppet show.

I had only been in the club for ten seconds, and already I was freaked out. There it was, a quiet Sunday night on the empty streets of East Oakland, but inside the bar, some sort of carnival was going on.

The occasion — as far as I could tell — was a concert by the group Zoopy Funk. I had never heard of them, but their Web site described the ensemble as “a band of puppets whose music sounds like a combination of cartoon-funk hillbilly-rock and psychedelic-hardcore disco-trance.” With that kind of billing, you know things are going to either be transcendent or disastrous. Either way, it would be worth seeing. And my real mission had to do with the bar itself: I was there to discover the East Bay’s Great Hope for Cool Live Music, the newly reopened Talk of the Town.

Apparently, the place has already been discovered. The crowd mingling around the pool table, jukebox, and Olympic-length bar was at least thirty strong (at 10 p.m. on a Sunday! When the World Cup was on!). It was a strange sight, made even stranger by the people in attendance. The mingling masses looked like onetime Deadheads who had discovered ecstasy and motorcycles at the same time. It gave the scene a kind of Burning Man feel — a laid-back mix of black cowboy hats, dress/jean combos, wife-beater undershirts, and some more out-there accessories — bug-eye sunglasses, wigs, and those cute tie-under-the-chin furry cat hats.

Feeling like a total square in my Target button-down shirt and Gap shorts — why hadn’t I brought my clown pants? Why didn’t I have dreadlocks? — I made my way to the bar. The bartender who came to take my order flashed a reassuring smile, but her bobbing fluffy antennae, tiara, and disheveled pink slip didn’t make me feel any less conspicuous.

“Do people always get so dressed up here?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Nah,” she said. “It’s just nicer tonight.”

I grabbed my beer and went and hid, waiting for Zoopy Funk to begin.

The Talk of the Town, for those of you who haven’t made it out there yet, is kind of amazing. The proprietor, Kim Jordan, also owns the Hush Hush in San Francisco, but apart from sharing a name on the business licenses, the clubs have little in common. The Talk of the Town’s red walls, omnipresent wood, and impressive variety of taxidermized mammal heads give it the feel of a shimmery cowboy bar from the 1930s conjured into the new millennium. The jukebox is heavy on the Mexican selections, juxtaposing a Selena greatest hits CD with Radiohead’s Amnesiac. The eclectic picks on the sound system mirror Talk of the Town’s none-too-common “I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s get drunk together” race and age relations. It’s the kind of place that would make a fine set for a David Lynch movie. Or a puppet show.

The members of Zoopy Funk, scheduled to go on at 10, finally crept back behind a large black “Zoopy Funk” banner at 11:30 to begin the night’s entertainment. The first course was a dance act, featuring four vaguely Ernie-looking male puppets that the band jerked spastically to the techno on the house sound system. All the Ernies were dressed as waiters in white button-downs and black pants, but before this could be explained or elaborated on, the song ended and the puppetmasters yank- ed their wards back behind a scrim.

Then, to the applause of the crowd, the musicians took the stage. Or, more exactly, a drummer took the stage. Everyone else in the band, including a mohawked bassist/singer and a heavyset guitarist in a Chinese costume, couldn’t fit on the tiny platform. So they just played in front of it.

How were they? Pretty bad. For most of the songs, the singer sounded like he was trying to dislodge something he’d discovered in his throat that morning. And the keyboardist was sporting one of those awful crooked-just-so newsboy hats that have, against all odds, become What People Are Wearing These Days.

But Zoopy Funk had spunk, I’ll give you that. Besides, in my excited nervousness at finding so many exciting freaks, I had consumed way too much Pabst to offer any sort of critical assessment. Mostly, I was just happy. Happy to finally be at an Oakland bar where the surroundings are cinematic, the folks are weird and friendly, and the puppets dance late, even on a Sunday.

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