Mission Creek Oakland curator Kiyomi Tanouye is easily as stylish as any of the artists she books to play the annual music and arts festival, an annual celebration of Bay Area indie bands, now in its fourth year. Known on the Internet as “Invisible Pony,” Tanouye cuts a striking figure despite her petite frame. She has pink-streaked hair, green-rimmed glasses, and a flower garland tattooed on her right arm; her hot-pink lipstick leaves perfect half-circle smudges on a glass of water. Now 27, she started volunteering at the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival six years ago when it was still based exclusively in San Francisco. With her hard-work ethic and natural ebullience, Tanouye easily endeared herself to the festival’s founding artistic director, Jeff Ray. She became an intern, then a volunteer coordinator, then a producer in her own right. As such, she was deputized to expand the festival to Oakland, where it quickly mushroomed, eventually supplanting its San Francisco forebear. In a city still struggling to consolidate its reputation as an arts destination, Mission Creek Oakland is a noteworthy success story.
Really, that’s not an understatement. This year’s festival — which, full disclosure, is co-produced by the East Bay Express — includes sixteen venues and dozens of band performances spread out over the month of September, along with film screenings, a graffiti exhibit, stand-up comedy, a video game premiere, and a bingo night. It’s bigger than in previous years, thanks in part to a slew of local business sponsorships, but mostly owing to the producers’ ability to navigate between Oakland’s downtown venues and its burgeoning underground warehouse scene. Tanouye added that a change in curatorial approach had also helped enhance the programming this year. Rather than merely cherry-pick the performers, she and the other producers put out a call for bands to submit their demos. They wound up choosing thirty new acts out of one hundred that applied.
Among the applicants was Rin Tin Tiger, a folksy trio from San Francisco with an old-fashioned sensibility — the band just recorded its first album on two-inch tape. Over its three-year career (formerly under the moniker Westwood & Willow) the band has ensconced itself in San Francisco’s nightclub scene, but it has yet to crack the East Bay, said bassist Sean Sullivan. That was the main impetus for trying to get into Mission Creek Oakland, he explained. “It’s really close, but separated by a bridge.” That psychological barrier of the bridge is enough to delineate two distinct markets, he added, broaching a topic that’s become extremely contentious in the Bay Area music scene, as East Bay venues try to buttress against their West Bay competitors. The Holy Grail, for a band like Rin Tin Tiger, is to have robust audiences in both Oakland and San Francisco. Taking part in a well promoted, relatively high-profile music festival certainly helps.
But even a more firmly rooted East Bay band can benefit from the Mission Creek Oakland imprimatur. Avant-pop balladeer Taara Tati of the band Metal Mother is elated to open for indie band The Velvet Teen at The Uptown Nightclub. Tati’s music doesn’t really follow the typical rubric for a pop band — it’s larded with brooding melodies and slow, plodding, trance rhythms — but extravagant costumes and an arresting performance style have helped solidify her place in the local festival circuit. A couple weeks ago she performed at Oakland’s annual Art & Soul Festival; she’ll also grace the Rock Make Street Festival in San Francisco’s Mission district, two weeks before Mission Creek Oakland.
Neither Metal Mother nor Rin Tin Tiger was a particularly risky billing for Tanouye, who could easily recognize the musical qualities of both acts. (Not to mention she’s known the keyboardist from Metal Mother for several years.) In other instances, though, she purposefully went out on a limb. Several events at Mission Creek, including the official kickoff, feature only experimental music. Others spotlight local DJs or rappers from Trill Team 6, an underground hip-hop crew whose members loosely coalesced around a West Oakland recording studio. Still others feature stand-up comedy, a recent addition to the Mission Creek Oakland portfolio. Tanouye said she was inspired by a show at The New Parish, in which the producers wedged a comedian into a lineup of rock bands. That’s actually become an increasingly common practice in Bay Area nightlife — and in the festival circuit at large.
Indeed, many festival producers feel mounting pressure to expand beyond the realm of music, if only to better their position in the festival arms race. Big events like Bonnaroo, South by Southwest, Coachella, and Outside Lands all have comedy stages, some of which have led to major partnerships, like Outside Lands’ collaboration with Adult Swim Network. It’s become incumbent on any curator — even a small indie flag-waver, like Tanouye — to adopt that “boutique” sensibility if she wants to be noticed. For Mission Creek Oakland, that meant choosing a wide variety of venues — not just nightclubs but also bars, cafes, pop-ups, a bookstore, a city park, and a three-story abandoned warehouse to double as a graffiti canvas. It also meant outsourcing some of the work to outside promoters like George Chen and Alison Stevenson, who both handled the comedy. The point was to keep things interesting, but also stay in lockstep with the times.
Ray says that diverse programming has always been a core tenet of the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival, even if he hasn’t always been successful implementing it. (Ray admits he could do a better job of reaching out to the soul scene, for example.) “Our original mission statement was to fulfill a cultural void,” he said, explaining that when the original Mission Creek launched in 1996, very few band showcases made a point of featuring local acts. Though he roughly coincided with Noise Pop, which launched in 1993, Ray insists that that festival’s sensibility has always been “more pop-oriented.” Mission Creek, in contrast, is resolutely grassroots and extremely committed to highlighting emerging bands. That kind of artist-booster mentality is even more important to Ray than the tangential effects of the festival, like bolstering the local economy. Still, he thinks those things are intertwined: “I’d love to see Mission Creek become a destination,” he mused.
That small, local, handcrafted ethos partly explains why Ray ultimately expanded the festival to Oakland. “The scene in Oakland today is a lot more like the scene in San Francisco when Mission Creek started,” he said. The main factor driving that, of course, is San Francisco’s second tech boom, which has led to rent price inflation and a mass exodus of artists to cheaper real estate across the bay. (Ray was one of them — he still works at Rainbow Grocery in the Mission, but owns a house in Oakland.) But it’s also clear that a nascent arts scene will eventually beget a larger arts scene. Even over the four years that Mission Creek has been in Oakland, the city’s gallery and nightlife corridors have grown substantially, dwarfed only by the warehouse scene a few blocks away. Tanouye has found ways to access both of them, creating what may be the most promising arts event that the city has seen this year. If she sticks with it, Mission Creek Oakland will only keep growing.