Bart Davenport sits inside a Telegraph Avenue Thai restaurant, bundled up and hiding from a cold, wintry rain. “When I was seven years old, my teacher asked us to draw a picture of ourselves as adults. A lot of the girls drew nurses. Most of the boys drew baseball players or astronauts –” He scratches a sideburn and grins sheepishly, “So I drew a guy playing a left-handed violin bass. I drew Paul McCartney. I wanted to be Paul McCartney — the funny thing is that to this day I still walk around with a picture of him in my wallet.”
From McCartney to Microsoft and back, Bart Davenport is now home again. An East Bay native and established local musician (the Loved Ones, the Kinetics), last year he relocated to Seattle’s Microsoft Village — with McCartney pic in tow — following the same path of many creative types during the dot-com boom. He held down the job for eleven months before joining the ranks of the newly unemployed. But his sojourn was fruitful — he returned to Berkeley with a completed solo album. He also brought back a new vision for songs that sound more like his own voice than any other Bay Area music project he’s ever planted his roots into.
“People complain about the Bay Area’s music scene and it’s because they’ve just lived here for too long and never had to reside in another place,” says Davenport. “Seattle kind of woke me up and I just immediately started writing. It was kind of refreshing to live in another world for a while in complete anonymity — to walk around as a stranger in a strange town.”
Not that he’s a celebrity or anything, but Davenport can’t really find complete anonymity down here. For nearly twenty years, he’s been involved with countless local bands and has played on virtually every stage in the Bay Area. Anyone who’s lived here for more than ten years had a good chance in the early ’90s to hear him hollering some old-school, 1960s Chicago-influenced blues-rock when he fronted the Loved Ones.
After the Loved Ones, Davenport soulfully danced and crooned to the yuppies of yesteryear at Bruno’s, singing for the retro-chic outfit known as the Kinetics. Then positioned to become one of the Bay Area’s super bands, the Kinetics had the outstanding fretboard skills of guitar player Xan McCurdy (now in Cake), which, along with Davenport’s dynamic stage presence, provided the chemistry for a post-mod version of Eddie Van and Diamond Dave. But on the way to building an honest buzz, the Kinetics somehow morphed into the ultimate young urban professionals’ party band. The hip kids who first came out to see Kinetics shows seemed to notice this and eventually tapered off until it would appear that almost everyone on the stage floor had designer eyewear and pleated pants.
“It was the constant playing for yuppies that kind of killed us,” admits Davenport. “If you play really danceable music in the City once a week, the yuppies will find you. Especially if it’s 1997 and they’re all moving to San Francisco. We also made the mistake of trying to get a major label deal right out of the box without ever having made a record under the band’s lineup. We were just trying to be the slamminest live band on the face of the earth — we actually thought we’d get a big record contract if somebody just ‘discovered’ us.”
A few record-label A&R people came out to see the Kinetics, but the band never landed a deal. One such A&R guy was Kevin Shapiro, who worked for Sony at the time. “I was into those Kinetics songs,” he says. “They were a great live band, but nobody knew what to do with them. Some people thought they were too retro for radio — but the truth is that four years ago, major labels still weren’t taking many risks on young bands.”
“The Kinetics just kind of became like a ’70s version of the Loved Ones before we broke up,” says Davenport. “But I think that we had some pretty amazing moments.” Both the Loved Ones and Kinetics brought a modern-day sensibility to an almost romantic appreciation of old R&B. But like the initial romance in other relationships, the first glowing sparks in young bands don’t always last for very long. Some people need to move on.
Now, with Davenport’s recorded solo songs, he’s shed much of the retro skin worn in the Loved Ones and the Kinetics to find his one true voice. His more electro-folk-sounding tunes go beyond predictable strum ‘n’ bass formulas by somehow managing to balance organic vibrancy with the experimental innovation of danceable rhythms not usually associated with folk music. Davenport takes listeners’ hands and walks them through West Coast-tinged vocal harmonies wrapped in delayed melodica drones and danceable, post-rock beats. He sings about coked-up hairdressers who smile uncontrollably and skip rope, mannequin brides and Miami afternoons, women with fetishes for tiny things, half-hearted art thieves, slow dancing in borrowed shoes, characters of California rock-show parties, fiancées, divorcées, and Polaroid-snapping lovers. The more electronically influenced pop ditties are perfect for stretching one’s arms out through the sunroof on a warm day, while his more purist-sounding folk numbers can be cathartic and healing.
“Dax Pierson was the first person to make me realize that I had better get off my ass and try to be more experimental and less retro,” says Davenport, who met Pierson when the two worked together at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. Pierson — who plays in the bands Winfred E. Eye, Ola Rey, and Subtle — also plays on just about every song of Davenport’s self-titled debut. “Dax’s influence on me has been huge, because he made me understand that I really needed to get out of this lazy retro bubble and listen to more modern sounds and try and be more risk-taking in what I do musically. He’s like the one guy who knows everything from old soul to new indie and hip-hop albums. I really feel like he influenced me more than most people.”
Terry Loewenthal, bass player for Oakland’s Call and Response, is excited to have her band lend backup for some of Davenport’s future recordings. Singer Carrie Clough has already laid down some slightly sultry vocal parts for two songs on Davenport’s upcoming debut. “There is a sense of satisfaction when you hear a singer like Bart actually come into their voice,” says Loewenthal. “To me it feels like their voice has been waiting for them and they kind of step into the light. And I feel that he has stepped into the light with his voice on this album. He’s sounding more beautiful than he ever has.”
His former bandmate Jon Erickson agrees. “I think that he is just starting to tie all the different pieces of his character together,” he says. “In the past Bart had to reckon with a lot of different demons: mod bullshit, blues circuits, and a desire to play like Joni Mitchell and move like Michael Jackson. I think he is finding a place for all these things in his new songs.”
Although many of his peers and colleagues agree that he’s come a long way since emulating his vintage record collection, Davenport is not about to dismiss the romantic retrospection that sometimes lingers in his world. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I don’t want to be putting down the retro thing. A lot of folks really like Nick Rossi’s band and Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days. People who stick with one genre and do it really well are still sincere. I admire that. And a lot of people think that playing retro music means that you paint yourself into one corner. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you really happen to like being in that corner and you are comfortable there and it makes you happy. I just don’t think that I’ve ever been able to do it for long because whenever I just start specifically doing only one genre of music, I get bored and sidetracked.”