.Sweet Undertow: Playing the San Francisco Bay blues

On his debut album, Skeletone Machine, blues guitarist and singer Eddy Undertow brings a unique San Francisco perspective to the blues. With the help of his band, Sweet Undertow, he flavors the tunes with hints of rock, metal, psychedelia and country music.

“I grew up with the blues, jazz and the sound of the ’60s on the stereo,” Undertow said. “Then my brother’s Metallica tapes had me jumping up and down on the couch. Next it was Nirvana, grunge, Johnny Cash and Fela Kuti. When I’m arranging a tune, that all gets in there. I never meant to make a pure blues record, but I don’t wanna jinx the music by talking about it too much.”

The music on Skeletone Machine speaks for itself. There’s a hint of country in Jim Semitekol’s slide guitar fills on “Kingdom Come With Me,” an invitation to dance the blues away. Chicago meets San Francisco on “Rain Catch Flame,” with guitars suggesting Muddy Waters meeting Jerry Garcia. Undertow belts out the lyric with an insistent  growl. “Stained Glass Eyes (Bye Bye Baby)” is an R&B ballad, with a hint of gospel in the backing vocals. Undertow sings a eulogy to a fading relationship, equating the death of the relationship to his own demise, dropping a quote from Dylan Thomas into the third verse.

Although he grew up in Chicago, Undertow said he always felt like his heart belonged in San Francisco. “My dad grew up in San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s, when all that great psychedelic music stuff was happening,” Undertow said. “He moved to Chicago when Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were still playing gigs. When I came around, he was always playing records. That was the first time I heard music. I don’t remember not hearing the blues. 

“I was singing in a punk band in high school—fuck the world, fuck your parents, the standard fare. Eventually, I quit and got an electric guitar with no amp. I’d put on a blues record and try to play along. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d listen to the music and try to find a note on the guitar that sounded good with it. Then I’d find another note, and another. They say a good song is made up of three chords and the truth. For me, it was three notes and the truth, but I kept at it and it snowballed.” 

After leaving home, Undertow traveled the world, guitar in hand, busking on street corners, taking odd jobs. He meandered through North America, Europe and Asia. 

“I played the blues, but never lived anywhere. When I was in Vietnam, I started playing in The Apollo Band, a bunch of Vietnamese dudes playing rock and roll in Ho Chi Minh City. I wandered around, singing on the streets and found a club. I walked up five flights to an empty hall with a stage and two dudes sitting at a table, with a bunch of empty bottles. We started talking music. They asked if I could play, and that became my first band.

“After a while, I wound up in San Francisco and kept playing in bands. When I needed to find a quiet corner to practice, I went to North Beach and sat at the top of the stairs on Romolo Place. At night, I went to Melt and played blues, jazz and Hank Williams tunes. I met Top Cat there. He’s a sax player. He hipped me to The Convent and The Church of Eight Wheels at Fell and Fillmore. It’s an abandoned cathedral, with a convent attached. It’s now an artist’s collective. I moved in, and that was the start of my artistic life. I began writing the songs that are on my first album, Skeletone Machine.” 

As the album began taking shape, Undertow went looking for musicians and put together Sweet Undertow. He found his lead guitar player, Jim Semitekol, at a house party. After recruiting  bassist John Eckstrom and drummer Dave Tavel, they started gigging, honing the arrangements of the tunes. 

The band recorded at producer John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone Studio in Oakland. They finished laying down the basic tracks the day before the COVID lockdown started in 2020. “Jim and I had to finish it up remotely,” Undertow said. “We sent stuff back and forth, adding parts contributed by our friends, to get the final sound. It was a slow process, which ended up being a good thing. I think Americans think faster means better, but we did this album slower and slower, making it up as we went along. Ultimately, we got a lot of people to come in and collaborate on it. The record has a lot of voices, from all different walks of life, harmonizing with each other in their own way.”

Sweet Undertow will play a free show at 7pm on Saturday, Sept. 17 at Zeitgeist, 199 Valencia St., San Francisco. zeitgeistsf.com. (415) 255-7505. Silk Road Truckers will also be on the bill. 

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