Pub date July 2, 2008
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER "It’s like an old ship. Things break, things fall apart, and you just keep bailing water and hope you hit land someday!"

That’s Guy Carson, Café Du Nord owner and ex-Hotel Utah booker, on owning a 100-year-old club. Yes, there are the inevitable aches and pains attendant with a structure erected just two years after the great ‘quake, as well as eerie little trap doors and escape hatches from the Prohibition era. But, oh, the stories the Du Nord, House of Shields, and Hotel Utah — a troika of oases overflowing with libation and live music that have all hit the century mark in the past year — could tell. ‘Member the time PJ Harvey played a not-so-secret show at the Utah, triggering round-the-block queues? Or the first San Francisco show by rock legends the Zombies at the Du Nord? Or the rumored gunfight played out by Comstock Lode robber baron William Sharon in front of his then-men’s social club, now known as the House of Shields?

‘Course you don’t. So much has been lost in the mists of Bay Area mythology and Barbary Coast conjecture. But there’s always word of mouth — in full effect at the shambling, loving June 19 celebration of the Utah’s centennial, as Birdman Records’ David Katznelson presented witnesses like owner Damian Samuel, a ukulele sing-along by music writer Sylvie Simmons and Bart Davenport, and tributes by artists who have stomped Utah’s boards, including Paula Frazer and Greg Ashley.

Since its days as Al’s Transbay Tavern (name-checked in 1971’s Dirty Harry) through the years owned by screenwriter Paul Gaer (who brought in Robin Williams and puppet shows), the venue has not only been instrumental in establishing a beachhead for local bands — Cake was considered a resident outfit in the 1990s and Counting Crows, Jewel, and Tarnation were onetime regulars ("For a while I used to say that the Hotel Utah was Geffen’s A&R department," recalls Carson). Its communities include "open mic–ers, the regulars, and the people who live in the building," Samuel offers. "It’s a live amoeba of sorts that has its own direction." He says the UK’s Noisettes now call the Utah its home base, and past staffers include ex-booker Mike Taylor (Court and Spark), Cory McAbee (Billy Nayer Show), and Shannon Walter (16 Bitch Pile-Up). One of Samuel’s fave tell-alls: in 1997 he had to walk future Guns N’ Roses guitarist Buckethead around the block so he could make a dramatic entrance onstage. "Here I am walking him around in SoMa, a chicken bucket on his head," Samuel recalls. "He kept saying, ‘I didn’t realize this block was so long.’<0x2009>"

Uptown, a century ago, the House of Shields also threw open its doors — in a much more hush-hush way: the venue began life as a men’s social club, and the only women permitted in until the ’70s were, says owner Alexis Filipello, "working girls." These days, the venue that got its name from its ’30s owner Eddie Shields is more likely to see indie artists like Sean Smith and Beam than highly establishment swells sneaking a stiff drink, but the crowd remains raucous, gathered around the elegant bar originally meant for the Pied Piper watering hole in the Palace Hotel across New Montgomery. When artist Maxfield Parrish made his Pied Piper of Hamelin mural (1909) far too long for the piece, the bar was sent over to Palace cobuilder William Sharon’s other nightspot. After Filipello bought the watering hole in 2003, she restored the natural wood, refurbished the moldings, reupholstered the booths, and jettisoned the "funky" taxidermy. "It was just such a beautiful old location, a piece of San Francisco’s history," she recalls. "We did a lot of work to get it back up to its beauty." No plans, however, for the firmly closed underground passage that links House of Shields to the Palace. Persistent rumors have it that in 1923, President Warren Harding died, not in the Palace as officially reported, but in the Shields’ speakeasy, and was transported through the tunnel back to his suite to avoid Prohibition-period scandal.

The ground is still shaking, happily, around Café Du Nord, which hit its 100th in October. In the next year Carson hopes to create a coffeehouse/art space upstairs next to the club, where performers can show their work, then play a show upstairs at the Swedish American Hall — which has hosted performers ranging from Cat Power to Michael Hurley — or downstairs at the Du Nord. He also plans to install an elevator where the Du Nord women’s room now sits, renovating the space so he can do the unique, one-off shows he prefers.

Carson is striving to continue nurturing the creative spirit of the Utah. "The difference between then and now is that everything costs so much. Our overhead here is so high, you can’t fail," he says. Back in ’90 when Gaer hired him at the Utah, he adds, "it wasn’t a big financial nut to crack, and we ran it like a living art experiment. I really miss those days. It was fun!"



Backwoods Table of the Elements crustastic jams? The Durham, N.C., trio also joins Akron/Family at the High Sierra fest for a Mega-Akron set. Wed/2, 8:30 p.m., pay what you can. 21 Grand, 416 25th St., Oakl. www.21grand.org. Also Thurs/3, 9 p.m., $8. 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission, SF. www.12galaxies.com. Fri/4–Sat/5, check Web site for times, $30–<\d>$168. High Sierra, Quincy; www.highsierramusic.com


Kooky, crunchy spazz-tastic moves for kids? The SF band dons Baagersox guise for the first anniversary Lazerdance dance-off Thursday, then goes into seven-piece mode Saturday. Thurs/3, 10 p.m., $5. Knockout, 3223 Mission, SF. www.theknockoutsf.com. Also Sat/5, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


All-boy rock testimonials from Low’s Alan Sparhawk? Tues/8, 9 p.m., $10. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com