PROFILE: “Scary Gary” Simmons

Surveying the East Bay Club Scene

The East Bay’s nightclub and bar scene is at times maligned and at others celebrated; the one constant, it seems, is that it’s never quite settled. Noteworthy clubs come and go every year, sometimes quietly, sometimes not without a fight. By certain accounts, 2009 was a very good year: Uptown Oakland welcomed its newest music club, The New Parish (579 18th St., 510-444-7474,, while one of Berkeley’s most revered venues, the Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison St., 510-644-2020,, completed its long-awaited move downtown. Oakland’s Fox Theater (1807 Telegraph Ave., settled into a successful first year, and Berkeley’s UC Theater (2036 University Ave.) embarked on a new path to reemerge as a music venue.

By other measures, however, 2009 posed serious challenges for bars and clubs in the East Bay. Gary “Scary Gary” Simmons, who has booked Blakes on Telegraph (2367 Telegraph Ave., 510-848-0886, for the last decade, said it was his toughest year ever. As a result of the recession, he saw a drop in ticket sales of about 20 percent and began to experiment with a wider mix of events including mini-raves and hip-hop parties in addition to his customary local rock shows. The year wasn’t easy for other music clubs, either; 33 Revolutions Café in El Cerrito, which frequently hosted live jazz, and Anna’s Jazz Island, another stalwart downtown Berkeley venue, both closed their doors.

Still, Simmons said he’s hopeful about the future — particularly in relation to the changes going on in downtown Oakland. The Bench and Bar (510 17th St., 510-444-2266, relocated to a better spot and spun off Club 21 (2111 Franklin St., 510-268-9425, in its old location. The Layover (1517 Franklin St., 510-834-1517, sprouted up on Franklin Street and has played host to weekly comedy shows and improvisational music performances alike. Meanwhile, the club-related violence that troubled downtown Oakland in previous years largely tapered off in 2009.

The New Parish, styled after the Independent in San Francisco, immediately impressed Simmons’ sensibilities. “I think it’s finally nice to get a good, adult venue with that genre downtown,” he said. But it’s the Fox, he believes, that makes for 2009’s quintessential success story: “It opened up something in the East Bay that I have not seen in twenty years.”

Back in Berkeley, he said, he continues to be impressed by both Ashkenaz (1317 San Pablo Ave., 510-525-5054, (“They have some really, really good shows”) and 924 Gilman (924 Gilman St., (“Thank God they’re still there”). Along with Blakes, he hopes they’ll survive the economic downturn through a combination of hard work, smart booking, and good business practices — after all, he said, “We stuck with it, and we’re still here.” That may be a perfect mantra for the entire East Bay club scene.


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