Soundtrack for the Shut-Ins

Three months. Ten bands. Thousands of pasty-skinned hipsters. A summer guide to the East Bay music racket.

Hmmm. Judging from your pale skin, your beer belly, and your insistence on wearing corduroy pants in eighty-degree heat, we here at the Express can only assume you’re up to your old tricks again this summer. Namely, avoiding the beach, A’s games, swimming pools, and BBQs in favor of staying out late, getting drunk, and checking out what this place is really famous for: the music scene. With that in mind, we give you a list of ten bands you’d be foolish not to include in your “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” report in September.


How cool would it have been if you’d caught Will Smith, the Fresh Prince, like, two decades ago, before he was an actor, a producer and, God forbid, a director? Well, if you make an effort to get you some Cex, you may well know the feeling. As evidenced on his most recent release, Being Ridden (an album of sterilized beats and bland, conversational cadences), 21-year-old Rjyan Kidwell is not an exemplary musician, and his abilities as an MC are about average. Why, then, should you spend your hard-earned cash to see this dude play? Because he’s one of Oakland’s most engaging guilty pleasures, the Jerry Springer of hip-hop. Cex’ insights and anecdotes are so deranged and personal that he quickly establishes a sort of patient-doctor relationship with his audience. It’s for this reason that you should forgive his lackluster musical abilities and simply indulge him.


It’s summer, a Sunday, partly cloudy. You are not in a good mood. You are feeling meditative and lonely, although not totally despondent. You have hope that this mood will pass, that the sun will come out (to-mor-row!). The soundtrack for this phase, my friend, is Continental. Formed in 1999, the band has been gigging around the Bay Area more or less incessantly for the past four years; you might’ve already heard of these guys. But if you haven’t heard Continental’s latest record, Four-Letter Words, then you haven’t heard squat. While it’s not much of a departure, it’s proof that this instrumental quintet has really got its shit together. Over nine tracks of pensive post-rock bliss, the band takes its jazz-inflected, Tortoise-inspired jams to entirely new heights. Perfect Sunday afternoon music.


J Lesser and Bevin Blectum are among the most respected experimental electronica practitioners in the universe. As a solo artist, Lesser created abusively complex beats that helped to define, redefine and, finally, debase that stupid genre distinction known as IDM. As one half of Blectum from Blechdom, Blectum turned potty humor into award-winning glitch-stitch. Together, along with video manipulator and projectionist Ryan Junell, they’ve formed Sagan. While this trio still falls into the category of experimental electronica, its live shows are easy to enjoy. Here’s how: Show up, shut up, relax, and let all of it simply wash over you. You don’t have to be familiar with those strange beats and warbles, and you don’t need to make out Junell’s visuals. (Is that a puppy? Human feces? Is that a cockatiel I hear chirping?) Doesn’t matter. In the complex world of sights and sounds created by Sagan, it’s all just ether. Swim through it. You’ll have fun.


Okay, okay, Hella is not East Bay, but these guys play here so damn much they might as well be. And besides, it’d be a shame not to include them on this list simply because they live in a different area code (916, for Sacramento). Consisting of merely two dudes (guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill), Hella makes more noise than the entire San Francisco Philharmonic thrown down a garbage disposal; it’s a kind of schizophrenic, lightning-fast, incomprehensibly complicated prog-rock. Seim blazes through riff after epic riff as Hill pummels away so frantically that he makes the drummer for the Donnas look like Animal from the Muppets. It makes no sense that two guys can make this much noise without overheating, breaking a limb, or having that white stuff from the BeastMaster movie ooze out their ears. Catch ’em now before they explode — literally.


Every now and then, it’s nice to have a band from the East Bay actually make it — you know, get songs on the radio, on MTV, perhaps in a car commercial. Now, most of you are like, “Dude, fuck that shit,” but think about it: If Oakland doesn’t sacrifice at least a couple of bands to the mainstream every year, then that fire-breathing dragon may come after you and your children and your children’s experimental noise troupe. In other words, you can thank Communiqué in advance for braving the waters of pop culture with good looks, good hooks, and a penchant for Roxy Music and the Smiths. If you’re looking for fuzz-filled pop-rock this summer, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this five-piece, which is quite possibly Oakland’s answer to Interpol. And while the band’s page on is currently empty, at least it actually has a page on Judging from the quality of Communiqué’s music, that page is likely to be filled quite soon.


“Get a little lower!” shouted the singer for XBXRX at the band’s April reunion gig (returning from a year-long hiatus) at Bottom of the Hill. As the band vamped some tweaky skronk in the background, the singer continued: “Loooooowwwweeeeeer. Real low now. Lower.” And continued: “Low! Get lower!!! La-la-la-loooww.” Indeed, it was tedious, but ultimately pretty damn funny, especially when the crowd started lying down on the dirty floor. After about five minutes of this, the singer finally released us as the band exploded into a frenzied assault that sounded like two alley cats fighting to their death in a distorted, amplified trash can. Newly re-formed and relocated to Oakland, XBXRX join a cast that includes Coachwhips and Numbers in what could easily be called Irreverence: The Not-So-Musical. Look for shows to begin in late June when the group returns from a national tour.

Noe Venable

Last month, San Francisco Chronicle scribe Joel Selvin reported that the Bay Area music scene was more or less dead. Granted, not all of us remember, as Selvin does, the heydays of John Fogerty and Journey — “Centerfield” and “Any Way You Want It” being such high-water marks — but some of us are nevertheless convinced that he’s dead wrong. That includes Noe Venable, who took the time to write Selvin a lengthy retort to his postulate. And she would know. After three albums, a tour with Ani DiFranco, and a working knowledge of nearly every grassroots venue on both sides of the bay, this young troubadour has done the rounds. Despite playing for crowds of thousands with DiFranco, she still plays small venues and living rooms around town, either solo or with a violinist and bassist that comprise the Noe Venable Trio. Armed with dozens of evocative, mostly acoustic folk songs, Venable is one of the most original and striking voices in town, not to mention proof herself that the scene is alive and well.


In a recent conversation with Caesura vocalist and guitarist Evan Rehill, the skinny ruffian declared that his band’s goal was to “take over the entire East Bay.” Believe it or not, the guys seem poised to do just that. Comprised of Rehill, Brad Purvis (bass), and Mike Shoun (drums), this trio has been around since 1998, leisurely developing what’s recently evolved into a threateningly tight brand of art-noise-rock. Driving jagged guitar crunch though a rhythm section tougher than the Raiders defense and twice as smart, the band’s nervous sound is seasoned with its collective sense of humor; unlike many a math-metal band, these guys never take themselves too seriously. Name-dropping acts such as the Pixies, Mission of Burma, and Devo may help to triangulate Caesura’s sound, but ultimately the only way to understand is to actually see them live. So go do that. Now.

Joanna Newsom

It’s no secret. We here at the Express simply love this gal. Button-cute and armed with only her giant harp and her dainty voice, Newsom travels out into the night almost weekly to delight an ever-growing throng of lucky witnesses with her tickling tunes. While she’s a virtuoso harpist capable of composing and navigating some harrowing arrangements, Newsom’s real charm is in her captivating lyrics — which read like a children’s book written by Emily Dickinson — and the cranky-kid phrasing of her delicate voice, which sounds like Björk at her most childlike. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again (and again, if we have to): Newsom is one of the Bay Area music scene’s unique pleasures.

The Mass

In a scene as varied as this one, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what you’re in the mood for. Blistering metal? Unhinged jazz? Blood-bathed rock? How about some John Tesh? Here’s an idea: Why not check out a band that has all that and more! Formed in Oakland just over a year ago, the Mass has been tearing up venues far and wide with its very own take on “shock and awe.” Four guys outfitted with guitars, drums, bass, synths, a saxophone, and some apocalyptic voices, this band plays music that’s the sporting equivalent of ice hockey played by figure skaters: loud, complicated, and dangerous, yet undeniably elegant. To get a better idea of how they sound, turn up your stereo and put on Tesh’s Music in the Key of Love. Now grab a metal fork and stick it in the nearest light socket.

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