You heard it here first

Pub date December 17, 2008
WriterJosh Wilson
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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The first time I noticed that my city of art and innovation was getting short shrift was when The New York Times started going on about "freak folk," Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart and really, you know, getting rhapsodic about these baroquely retro space-folk flavors.

And somehow it never quite came up that these people are San Francisco people, and that their music is San Francisco music. I mean, yes, Banhart has a rep as being a bit of a drifter. Yes, Newsom is really from, you know, Nevada City … and yet, where else could they have first truly taken root, where else could they have first broken through the topsoil, drunk of the dew, and soaked up the dappled sunlight, except in the rich, loamy cultural compost heap that is San Francisco, the Bay Area, and its wooly NorCal surround?

This germination of culture, color, sound, and flavor is, in the most organic sense of it, completely cyclical. Ken Kesey’s garden parties put out roots and rhizomes and threw up spores that took hold almost immediately among music lovers in the region. The result was a distinctly American growth medium for the archetypes of Dionysus, Pan, and Astarte; for the mystic and mythic yearnings of the Victorians; and for the willful, self-starting proto-anarchism of the English Diggers. Cross-pollinate that with the intellectual and aesthetic rebellion of situationism and free jazz, borne in with the gusting, blowsy Beat generation, and you have yourself a rather fecund and folkloric little bramble — one that got even more biodiverse with all the punk rock springing up like weeds in the 1970s.

This polyglot epoch of musical discovery gave us so much. Not just the Dead’s first three records, the Airplane, or even David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic, 1971) — what about Blue Cheer, Moby Grape, Fifty Foot Hose, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Avengers, and the DKs? Rather a multifaceted mix, but relevant, because Bay Area bands like these set the pattern for divergent waves of underground music-making during the next three or four decades.

The last 15 years in particular have seen these retro sounds made new in the Bay Area and then breaking into the critical, and sometimes commercial, mainstream somewhere else. Usually New York is quickest to take all the credit. Like with that whole garage rock revival. Yeah, yeah, the Strokes, blah, blah, the latest in NYC retro-cool. It’s not that we were first, here in SF. It’s just that we’ve been playing that stuff on KUSF-FM for years, and fabulous local bands have been cranking out that sound for years, and suddenly the Big Apple is basking in the hipniz.

Or in the glorification of Williamsburg, which totally followed the Mission District in terms of exuberantly youthful, excruciatingly hip, oft-naïve, and fearlessly spasmodic creative gusto. Dang, before there was a TV on the Radio, Kyp Malone was working at the One World Cafe on McAllister and Baker streets, making music with Rocket Science and the Nigger-Loving Faggots and handing out fresh-pressed records to the community-radio DJ down the street. OK, so that’s not the Mission, but it sort of was a suburb of the Mission.

Or with the whole freak-folk thing. Back in 2004 or thereabouts The New York Times started noticing there were hairy kids playing spacey and folkoric acoustic sounds. They quickly championed the term "freak folk," and in 2006 even ran a big, lushly illustrated, front-page article in the "Sunday Arts & Leisure" section, Will Hermes’ "Summer of Love Redux," that curiously never once mentions San Francisco, despite bolting the whole thesis down with repeated references to Banhart, Newsom, Vetiver, Comets of Fire, the Six Organs of Admittance, and Jolie Holland.

Now we see, from the foggy depths, a new rising of fuzz and hair, the shambling and very organic children of Blue Cheer. Parchman Farm was an early bloomer, as was Comets on Fire, and now the Bay Area is throbbing with shaggy combos exploring the idiom. Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, Sleepy Sun, and so many of those Frisco Freakout acts — how will these vibrations resonate across the nation over the next five years? And will New York City somehow take credit for that, too? I think not. They’re just too damn cool to grow out their bangs past the uncomfortable midlength stage.

Philly, though, which gave us Bardo Pond, Brother JT, Siltbreeze Records — there’s a hairy, done-it-all scene stealer I can live with.


1. Godwaffle Noise Pancakes closing show at the former ArtSF, Nov. 8

2. William Hooker, Hemlock Tavern, July 24

3. Heavy Metal (1981) and Conan the Barbarian (1982, with James Earl Jones and some other guy) at the Castro Theater’s "Analog Adventures" showcase

4. All Tomorrow’s Parties, Monticello, NY, Sept. 19-21

5. Expo for Independent Arts moves to Dolores Park and triples in size, Sept.