Haley Zaremba

Aesop Rock on Grubstake, stolen gear, and how to get in his barber chair


San Francisco resident Ian Bavitz, better known as Aesop Rock, is a hip-hop maverick with a quick tongue and sharp wit. His je ne sais quois coolness seems to increase exponentially with every move he makes, from collaborating with Atmosphere’s Slug to peppering his rhymes with obscure science fiction references to touring with alternative folk royalty Kimya Dawson to giving haircuts on stage, to writing a song about Grubstake, Polk Street’s notorious greasy spoon and late-night vomitorium.

Unfortunately, in July the rapper had to cancel his show at the Fillmore because his van was broken into. We caught up with Aesop in preparation for the rescheduled concert on September 16.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Welcome back to San Francisco! How do you feel about playing hometown shows?

Aesop Rock Thanks. Feels great playing in this town. SF has been awesome to me for a lot of years and I really like putting on a good show here.  We were crushed when we had to cancel last month after having a bunch of gear stolen – so to be able to makeup the gig in a couple weeks is awesome.  


SFBG How did you bounce back from having your gear stolen?

AR It sucked. For the whole next four to five shows we were all in a rut, trying to pull the show back together. Having that happen on literally the second show of our tour really took the wind of our sails. That night I was home on some ‘I just wanna quit…. wahhhhhh’. Once we got back into the groove, the shows picked up nicely and its started to feel OK again. I’m just happy we were able to get it re-scheduled. Canceling is such a giant bummer.

SFBG You’ve been keeping busy lately with your brand new album ‘Skelethon’ and side project Hail Mary Mallon. Do you have any other projects in the works?

AR Yeah, I have a group record with Kimya Dawson under the name the Uncluded that’s getting mixed now, should be out sometime next year. We’ll probably keep touring for Skelethon and then go into touring for the Uncluded project. Hail Mary Mallon is starting on their 2nd LP, and I plan to start writing new solo stuff very soon as well.

SFBG How often do you actually eat at Grubstake? What are some other favorite local spots?

AR If I’m around town I’ll eat at Grubstake once a week or so. I like [Taqueria] Cancun. I like Citizen’s Band for something a touch more pricey but delicious. I love Hard Knox Cafe. Mama’s. I love many places!

SFBG What does a fan have to do to get in your barber chair?

AR Just sign up at the merch table at the top of the night! We only have time to do one cut per night, so it’s a bit of a lottery, but you can’t win if you don’t enter! You can also bribe us and we will rig the act. Bam!

Aesop Rock
Sun/16, 8pm, $22.50 (tickets from the 7/15 show honored)
1805 Geary, SF

Live Shots: Braid at Slim’s


Bromance was in the air Sunday night as Braid took the stage at Slim’s. The on-again, off-again band recently reunited after a seven-year hiatus just in time to play its 600th show, and the members seemed genuinely grateful for the opportunity. On the final stop of their West Coast tour, these Illinois post-hardcore trailblazers thanked their fans by playing through their beloved and influential 1998 album Frame & Canvas in its entirety.

Awash in a sea of stripes and plaid, each step in the transformation between the emo kid of yesteryear to the hipster of today was visually represented in the crowd, from checkered Vans and studded belts to highwaters and Sperrys. Slim-fitted band tees were rampant, most touting obscure bands from the early Aughts. Aside from skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses, the only clear unifier of the group was an air of excitement and an incredible familiarity with the slurred lyrics of Braid’s back catalog.

The overwhelmingly-male audience showed their appreciation not by singing every word back to the band as expected, but by animatedly singing them to each other. I felt as if I had stepped out of a rock concert and into a boys’ club on Nostalgia Night.

Frame & Canvas, a masterpiece of early emo, was transformed by the audience from a diatribe of love lost and anguished youth into a shout-along tribute to the glory days. What the band lacked in bravado and the audience lacked in numbers was made up for in full by earnestness, wide smiles, and an overpowering sense of camaraderie.

Mosh pits turned into group hugs, and group hugs turned into a giant circle of fans with arms draped around each other’s shoulders. The heartwarming spectacle caused singer Bob Nanna to pause and declare, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen” before jumping offstage and into the circle, where he took his time hugging audience members before jumping back onstage to finish side two of Frame & Canvas.

The feelgood mood of the night endured through Braid’s entire set without falter. Even when guitarist Chris Broach was extremely unsuccessful in his attempt to crowdsurf, his failure seemed not pathetic, but endearing. If Braid hadn’t stolen our hearts already, Broach certainly sealed the deal when he later declared with a smile, “you guys kicked LA’s ass!”

Fountains of Wayne thanks fans for not going to see Ray Davies


Fountains of Wayne was exhausted, its effects pedals weren’t working, and the crowd was only half full at the Great American Music Hall last Thursday night. But for some reason, despite the band’s jet lag and the shortcomings of its borrowed equipment, the show sounded good. In fact, it sounded fantastic.

The smallish crowd had the excited energy of a sold-out show – it sang/shouted along to every word of every song the band played from its massive catalog, even the newest additions. Though the audience varied greatly in age – most were going gray, but the boys in front of me didn’t have two armpit hairs to rub together – they were unified by their enthusiasm and apparent passion for a great pop hook.  “Thank you for not going to see Ray Davies at the Fillmore tonight,” joked bassist Adam Schlesinger. “He’s very talented.”

Fountains of Wayne has been churning out catchy riffs and hilariously poignant lyrics for 16 years. Despite a somewhat confusing Grammy win (the band won best new artist in 2007, seven years into its career) and the international popularity of MILF-honoring single “Stacey’s Mom,” the band never managed to break through to lasting mainstream success.

Apparently undaunted by this continued obscurity, FOW has managed to avoid a painful fadeout. After so many years together, the band members don’t seem to carry any tension – they exude an air of casual confidence on stage.

Fountains of Wayne’s tight songwriting and humble persistence has earned it a devoted core of fans, from people who have been listening to them from their first album to tweens who were born after the band was started.

And there we stood, beers in hand on a weeknight. Everywhere I looked people were smiling, hugging, dancing, laughing. Before the band had even come onstage, onlookers were singing along with the instrumental introduction to the first song, and they didn’t quiet down until after the house lights came on.

The many lives of Baby Dee


Ohio bred singer-songwriter Baby Dee’s biography reads like a collage of about five people’s lives — five very different people. In her 59 years, she has been, among other things: a street musician, Coney Island sideshow act, tree surgeon, church organist, Gregorian chant enthusiast, and touring harpist for fellow transgender musician Antony Heggarty of the Bay Area’s Antony and the Johnsons. Now Baby Dee is living back in Cleveland and has significantly slowed her job-turnover rate, but not to worry — her big personality and sharp wit haven’t suffered for it.

In preparation for her show at Brick and Mortar Music Hall with Carletta Sue Kay this Friday, I caught up with Baby Dee to chat about her favorite SF tourist spots, Tony Bennett, and her upcoming projects:

San Francisco Bay Guardian
Happy Pride Month! Have you done anything to celebrate?
Baby Dee Hooray! Well, lets see… I’ve been playing the harp all dolled up in a fluffy red dress and big hair and make-up and singing songs about kinky grizzly bears in Mormon underwear. How’s that for a start?
SFBG Will you be doing any tourist activities while you’re in town?
BD I’ve always wanted to go to Alcatraz. Do they still do that?

SFBG It’s been more than a year since your last album was released. Do you have anything new in the works?
BD I just did an album with Little Annie that comes out in October.
Also, I’ve started a band called The Big Bumble Bees. Remember the name. The Big Bumble Bees are going to be bigger than the Beatles. We’ve got big plans. We’re hoping to get Tony Bennett to roadie for us. We’ve already started composing a letter to him. We’ve got a good beginning but first impressions are everything and we want to win him over to the idea so we’re taking our time to make the letter perfect. It’s going to start like this.
“Dear Mr Bennett,
You don’t know us but..”
Pretty cool, huh? So far so good. We thought we might tell him that we got Barry Manilow lined up for the job  as well and that if he wants to do it he’ll have to compete with Barry in a fight to the death with Bowie knives. Can you imagine the publicity this would generate? I think it would be a real shot in the arm for both of them.
Our only worry is that while having Barry or Tony for our roady would greatly enhance our own prestige, we don’t want them to think it will diminish theirs. That’s why we haven’t finished the letter to Tony yet. We want to put it to him in the very best light. Perhaps your readership could help us with suggestions about how to win him over to the idea.
San Francisco is so close to Tony’s heart.
SFBG If there’s one thing readers should know before going to your show on Friday, what is it?
BD Lots of love songs.
SFBG Have you given up street performance for good or can we expect to run into you in a park sometime soon?
BD Well, it’s not like I didn’t have heaps of fun out there. The streets of San Francisco were really good to me. But I’m a big girl now and I’ve put away the things of childhood — no more Shirley Temple dresses and 12-foot-tall tricycles for me. Besides, I couldn’t take the hills anymore.

Baby Dee
With Carletta Sue Kay
Fri/29, 8pm, $15
Brick and Mortar Music Hall
1710 Mission, SF
(415) 800-8782

Mic Check: Everyone is listening at Sacred Grounds


“It’s about writing. We should start the interview with that.” Todd Tholke leans forward across the greasy café table. “The whole reason I came all the way over here today to meet with you is to tell you about this thing that we do that has to do with free speech.”

Tholke emcees open mics, which is something he’s been doing in San Francisco for over 15 years to showcase the works of local artists in a free venue. At present, Tholke is hosting acoustic nights every Thursday at Sacred Grounds Café, which lies north of the Panhandle.

One of the city’s oldest coffee shops, Sacred Grounds has been hosting musicians almost every week since 1967. This pioneering open mic has a legacy that boasts artists such as Joan Baez and Tracey Chapman.

Tholke has been emceeing this event, which he refers to as the Songwriters’ Guild, for eight years, but he has no interest in discussing the event’s venerable past. He lays his ring-laden hands on the table. “I’m a person that’s into the present and the future,” he says with a smile.

In addition to his extensive history in the SF open mic scene, Todd works as a street musician on Haight and has a day job down at the docks. “I work on the docks and I’ve been living aboard my sailboat for fifteen years” says Tholke. “That’s how I supplement my lifestyle as a songwriter and musician in San Francisco. I live on a boat.”

As a known musician and vibrant personality in Upper Haight, Tholke was asked to emcee his first open mic at the now-defunct Coffee Zone. “The way that you become the host is by being asked to do it. I’ve been asked to do it at many different venues in Haight-Ashbury that I’ve been haunting for 25 years.” Tholke’s devotion to the district is emblazoned on his necklace, a metal disc that bears the image of the Haight and Ashbury street signs.

Though he doesn’t get paid to host the Songwriters’ Guild at Sacred Grounds, Tholke has been here once a week for nearly a decade because he believes that what happens there on Thursday night is important. “There’s an element of magic,” he says, “an element of the unknown and of possibility.”

He runs a tight ship in which no acts are favored, no one is barred, and politeness is key. “Sometimes people will come up and they’ll be vulgar or rude,” Tholke explains.

“We have something called clapping someone offstage. We’ll politely clap you right off the stage, and if you don’t get it we’ll give you a standing ovation.”

Unlike most open mics in the city, Sacred Grounds has no PA system. The unplugged aspect of the event forces people be to be quiet and listen, otherwise their chatter would drown out the musician in the small café.

“Everyone here is listening. At the end of the night there’s a camaraderie of people that don’t know each other. They shared two things: they shared their music and they shared the respect,” Tholke says. “At other open mics, everyone is like, ‘blah blah blah I don’t care who else plays and by the time I leave I’m going to be drunk.’” Tholke makes sure that the experience at Sacred Grounds is different.
“People come from all walks of life and it doesn’t matter how old you are, what your gender is, none of those things matter. All that matters is that you have your name on the list.”
It’s showtime

When I slip in to Sacred Grounds on a Thursday night mid-June, a man named Rainbow is just finishing his set. I count only 12 other people in the room, but it doesn’t feel like a small crowd with the dark paneling and low ceiling in the café.
Like the first time I met him, Todd is dressed in all black. This time his long hair is tied up under a beret. In between performers, he whispers to me, “You came on a really good night.”

After Rainbow, the next performer opens his set by asking the audience, “Anybody think they’re on Obama’s kill list?” Despite the eccentricities and left slant of most of the performers, the music is simple, never offensive, and some is just downright beautiful.

Featured musicians Maria Quiles and Rory Cloud play Nickel Creek-inspired folk lullabies that leave the Songwriters’ Guild literally begging for more. The audience is incredibly involved and tight-knit, addressing one another by name, borrowing instruments, and asking each other how they can buy their music and when their next gigs are.

As Quiles and Cloud leave the stage — more like a designated corner — Quiles calls out, “we met at an open mic! It could happen to you!” She smiles, “Maybe it already has.”
Reservations and revelations

After eight years at Sacred Grounds, Tholke isn’t sure he can keep it up. “Every single week I think it’s gonna be the last one and every single week I’m glad that I didn’t quit that week,” he says.  Tholke was paid to host open mics in San Francisco for many years, but the gig at Sacred Grounds is an act of charity. “My win is them winning, but I feel like a loser because I am poor,” says Tholke.  “I’m the most poor person I know. I don’t know anyone that has less than me because I’m not on any programs.”

Despite his reservations, Tholke keeps coming back every Thursday. The open mic got shut down in 2007 because of the musicians’ use of copyrighted materials, but Tholke brought it back.

He struggles with the time commitment, but ultimately he loves the Songwriters’ Guild. Tholke values very little above free speech, and the fact that the open mic is available to everyone for free is something that he thinks is immensely important for San Francisco’s culture.

 “Free speech and freedom and liberty. You can actually have it,” says Tholke, sipping his coffee. “That’s the thing that keeps me coming back.”

Live Shots: The Temper Trap at Warfield


Australian indie rock band the Temper Trap played to a nearly-full Warfield theater on Saturday night, where devoted fans screamed every word along with singer Dougy Mandagi.

The sparsely decorated stage — the flashiest set piece was a boomerang taped to the mic stand — left all the attention on the band, giving a feeling of stripped-down intimacy usually reserved for smaller shows.

Live Shots: Patrick Watson at Great American Music Hall


The Great American Music Hall was at about half capacity for Patrick Watson’s Sunday night performance, but what the audience lacked in numbers they made up in energy. Before the Montreal-based singer even walked onto the stage, there was a buzz of excitement in the small crowd.

At first, the eagerness of the audience seemed at odds with the band’s quiet, dreamy folk songs. But with every song it played, the band picked up energy and volume, at times building from its lullaby-like melodies into cymbal crashing jam sessions with backing gang vocals reminiscent of Arcade Fire.

The beginning of the set focused on Watson’s airy vocals paired with simple piano riffs. As the night continued, the songs became more and more eclectic, oscillating between genres too fast to even identify the Latin roots of one chorus before they had already played a bluesy bridge into a folk refrain.

Even more varied than the band’s influences was the multitude of instruments used in each song. Odd-looking percussion tools were scattered around the stage. The drummer played not just the standard drum kit, but also many obscure and homemade instruments that I simply could not identify. He held a bow to nearly anything that could have noise conjured out of it, including a saw and, at one point, what appeared to be a soccer trophy.

Watson interspersed the patchwork of tunes with anecdotes relating to the origins of the songs, most pertaining to transient adventures or quiet, bucolic moments. His tone with the audience was charmingly conversational. At points he upheld dialogues with fans that shouted out to him, telling stories about his two children and his small house in Quebec.

Much of the band’s charm lies in the air of camaraderie that hangs heavily around them. A self-described “big traveling family” Patrick Watson and his band radiate affection for each other and for their music. Even in the moments that the style-switches were not seamless and the energy dipped, the sincerity of Watson’s smile outshone it all.