Laura Kerry

Let it all out


VISUAL ART Dottie Guy had a difficult time in 2006. In addition to the death of her grandfather, she was recovering from surgery for an injury to her ankle and foot that she had sustained on duty in Iraq. She started taking pictures as motivation to walk around and to reclaim a sense of purpose.

This year, Guy is one of the artists participating in a one-night art exhibition presented by Shout!, an initiative to support female veterans in the Bay Area. Primary organizer Star Lara asked Guy to submit a photo to an event that, in its fifth year, will include several different media — photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, writing, and music — made by 22 vets. As a result of Lara’s outreach efforts, this year’s event has grown so much that she had to turn artists away.

Lara is the Women Veterans Coordinator at Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit that helps veterans transition back to civilian life. Leaving the military in 2007 after serving on active duty for 12 years, she knows the hardships of adapting, particularly those that affect women. As more women enlist, she explains, the gender-specific problems become increasingly defined. Female veterans now represent the fastest growing homeless population, yet they seek help through Veteran Affairs at far lower rates than men do.

Issues also stem from public perception. People understand what it means when they see a man with a military pin, but Lara often hears the question, “Is your dad in the military?” Society resists the idea of a female veteran.

And when civilians do know about a woman’s military service, another problem arises: the tendency to reduce all aspects of her persona to her veteran identity. For Guy, the exhibition provides an opportunity to showcase another side of herself. Though her life revolves around veterans — she works at the VA — she is also a photographer, and her photography does not directly address military service.

Guy snapped her Shout! photo at Bay to Breakers a couple of years ago when she stumbled across a woman in a top hat and fake moustache shouting into a bullhorn next to a man wearing a polar bear mask. It is a quirky image one could find in few places besides San Francisco. “I embrace the ridiculous stuff,” says Guy. “Being in the military, there’s not much room to celebrate that. You’d never see somebody walking around in a mask like that, unless it meant trouble.”

Another Shout! artist, JoAnn Martinez, has only recently begun to experiment with military subjects. For her second year in the show, she has submitted comics derived from dialogues she has heard within the female veteran community. By undertaking this new comedic mode of art, she hopes she can not only share a creation she’s proud of besides her family and work (she started the nonprofit Women Veterans Connect), but also communicate a digestible message to the non-veteran community. “Instead of complaining, let’s laugh about it,” she says.

Not only do Martinez’s comics convey a therapeutic levity, but they also contain an expressive subtext; they are printed on homemade paper created in response to the Combat Paper Project, in which workshops instruct veterans how to create paper pulp from their shredded military uniforms.

Extending the practice beyond Shout!, Martinez is seeking female veterans to submit stories about their uniforms for a Shotwell Paper Mill limited-edition book created using the same fabric-turned-paper method. So far, the stories range in tone, some reflecting a similar lightness to Martinez’s comics; one woman tells how after she painted her toenails, the Iraqi heat melted the polish and she had trouble removing her socks.

Lara has also participated in the project, an experience she found restorative in part because it involved breaking down and reclaiming an object laden with intense experiences, but primarily because of the work’s collectivity. After talking with fellow female veterans while their hands were busy cutting, she says, “It was no longer about the trauma that brought you to the table — it was about what you took from the table.” (The Combat Paper Project also inspired Lara’s contribution to this year’s Shout!, a piece that involved her “painting the shit out of” her last uniform.)

Though Lara does not consider herself a fine artist, Shout! presents an opportunity to share the voice of her small group within a greater context. In the Women’s Building, a hub of action in the Mission, the event will enact her idea that women veterans comprise a subset of larger existing communities and should be reached as such.

Lara says that without focusing on trauma, without involving policy, services, or outreach, Shout! offers a chance for artists like Guy and Martinez to declare, “I am a woman and a veteran, and here’s how I express myself.”


Wed/8, 6-9pm, free

San Francisco Women’s Building

3543 18th St, SF


Catching up with Young Prisms: new video, new process, and those pesky Cure comparisons


At their show at Elbo Room on Friday, Young Prisms are going to play new material that they’ve never performed in front of an audience.

“It should be interesting,” bassist and singer Gio Betteo told me last week at Mission Pie.

Vocalist Stefanie Hodapp added with a laugh, “Especially for us.”

That sort of relaxed good humor seems to define their whole attitude toward making music (past characterizations have used the word “slacker,” which doesn’t quite fit). The band, currently comprised of four members, including Jordan Silbert on drums and Matt Allen on guitar, produced albums in 2011 and ’12, and now wants to take its time creating a third.

Young Prisms have been experimenting with a new process that removes the pressure and constraints of their past songwriting. Now, they create when something comes to them. Betteo has been the primary writer of new material recently but only because he has been feeling inspired to write.

The result, they say, sounds more like genuine emotion and less like grasping at genre such as psychedelic rock or dream pop.

Not that they attempted to fit into any specific category in the past. When asked about the many comparisons that have been drawn between the band and noisy shoegazers such as My Bloody Valentine or the fuzzier Mazzy Star, Betteo and Hodapp looked at each other warily.

“I’m not dumb. I definitely hear it,” said Betteo. ”Whether it’s bands like No Joy and Weekend, that are currently doing it, or bands like Chapter House and My Bloody Valentine and stuff from 20 years ago, we like those sounds. It plays its own role in our writing and ideas, but never intentionally.”

Once, a fan came up to them after a show and praised the song that sounded like the Cure. Though they didn’t know which the fan meant (and suspected the fan didn’t know which he meant), the comparison was apt; they had spent the entire tour before they wrote the second album listening to the Cure. Though they don’t strive to mimic the band, they admit that they are drawn to certain musical ideas.

Over their years of playing together, these musical ideas have shifted. In the writing of their first album, Friends For Now, they didn’t care about creating relatable songs. “We just wanted to make fucked up sounds,” Betteo said. “I wanted this guitar to sound like a fucking car accident, and this drum beat to sound like a headache, a pulsing headache.”

In Between, the second album, represented a few steps toward developed structure and audience accessibility. They wanted to allow people to “find the song in it.”

Their new material, they say, will be a few steps further in that direction.

But they don’t want to lose their experimentally hazy sound, their relaxed outlook, or the sense that they’re in this to have fun. That seems unlikely.

With three out of four members of the band living together (they assured me that their home lives are too boring to merit a sitcom or reality TV show), one can imagine either the chemistry or the easygoingness required to sustain the bandmate-roommate relationship. Whatever the formula, it seems to have worked in the past and will seemingly continue to work as Young Prisms release their next album, maybe in early 2014.

Until that time, they have a new video for their song, “Runner,” a side project called Breathr that’s going to come out in the next couple of months on the label Dream, and shows around the Bay Area.

Young Prisms
With SISU, Chasms
Fri/19, 9:30pm, $12
Elbo Room
647 Valencia, SF
(415) 552-7788

Bat for Lashes brings an occult celebration to the Regency Ballroom


There’s an idea in literary theory that co-opts the philosophical notion of the concrete universal. The value of a poem, character, or story, it says, can be determined by the particular balance of how general and specific an entity it represents.

The remarkable thing about the music on the three albums of Bat For Lashes, the moniker of British musician Natasha Khan, is its melding of opposites. The songs simultaneously exist in the realm of the ancient and the new, the weird and the ordinary, and the grand and the intimate. And the even more remarkable thing is that seeing it embodied on the Regency Ballroom stage in front of an audience didn’t compromise these effects; it heightened them.

Entering a smoky stage set with lanterns in a costume of a shiny red dress and matching cape, Khan began to sing the album opener, “Lilies,” in a quiet but reverberating voice. Live as in the album, it was hard to determine how much of the otherworldly quality of her singing was due to added effects, but her magnetism, a consequence of both the force of her voice and her presence on stage, deemed that question beside the point. 

As the songs built, with drums, a cello, pulsating bass, and synthesizers entering to create a layers of ethereal noise, Bat For Lashes’ captivating movements and controlled singing provided a strong focal point for the sweeping sound. 

She never lost her audience during the journey along a spectrum of styles. In upbeat tunes such as, “Oh Yeah,” in which a surprisingly clubby backbeat motivated hip-heavy movement both onstage and in the crowd, you could picture that with a different singer and less eerie synth sounds, the music could be straight pop. 

As is, though, it wouldn’t be the soundtrack to a dance club, but an occult celebration. The performance, then, resembled theater, and a fourth wall existed between the audience and the remote but captivating spectacle on stage (which did not deter the audience’s dancing). 

On other songs like the gentle ballad, “Laura,” which Khan dedicated to her father, the wall came down. You could hear each intake of breath in a deeply personal song accompanied only by a piano. 

Most songs, though, occupied a space that combined the poles of theatrics and intimacy. “Siren Song,” which began with the singer accompanying herself on the piano and built to an explosive chorus, exemplified the extremes. In the quiet opening, she sang, “Are you my family? / Can I stay with you a while? / Can I stop off in your bed tonight? / I could make you smile.” The prosaic verse spoke from the vulnerability of a single human narrator. 

The chorus, though, which started, “Till the siren come calling, calling,” and included lofty words such as “evil,” “wickedness,” and “sin,” expanded the scope of the song to the sphere of mythology.  Like many of the others, this one spanned the realms of ancient legend and the ordinary everyday. 

In the melding together of such different scales, Bat For Lashes put on a show that was simultaneously entertaining and haunting. In the seven years that Bat For Lashes has been making music, she has developed a richness in her performance that reads like a well-rounded text. In each line of the show, the universality of myth and feeling crystallized into the concrete form of the enchanting performer. That balance is no small achievement.

Jessie Ware eats pizza at Little Star, connects with her fans at the Independent


Last Thursday, when the lights came up on the stage at the Independent, they revealed a woman who was relishing the reverential shouts of the sold-out crowd. With a dramatic bun on top of her head, large hoop earrings, and tall heels, Jessie Ware appeared to embody the fully realized pop star that the world is starting to recognize in her.

Throughout the night, though, it became clear that what makes Ware so compelling isn’t the idolizing distance of pop-stardom, but its opposite. Between each song, she charmed the audience with candid and often self-deprecating banter. To a loud response of cheers and clapping, she spoke of her boyfriend who had joined her on tour and enjoyed planting himself in the audience to gauge its mood. “If someone comes up to you being a bit pervy, it’s just ‘cause he’s really proud of me,” she said, then laughed along with the crowd.

It’s tempting to say that the best part of the night was this sort of endearingly comedic chat, but that wouldn’t be doing justice to her performance. On Ware’s album, Devotion, the music has an understated ease, and though that is part of what makes it so good – in a world of over-the-top pop, restraint is refreshing – live music requires more than subtlety. Ware and her band delivered.

The music, already catchy on the album, achieved greater depth on stage. In the ballad-like “Wildest Moments,” added emphasis on the reverberant drums and Ware’s responding rhythmic changes gave the audience more to sink its teeth into, while the simplification of quieter tunes such as “Sweet Talk” emphasized the intimacy of Ware’s largely romantic repertoire.

The strength of Ware’s singing also came through more in a live venue than in the album, where the rule of restraint controls her voice, too. On Thursday, commercial but expressive vocals added the right amount of embellishment and variation to soulful tunes such as “What You Won’t Do For Love” (despite the four slices of Little Star Pizza and strawberry ice cream that she admitted to eating before the concert). She is a more talented singer than her recordings suggest.

Because of this, occasionally I wanted her voice to come through even more. On some songs, including that opener, “Devotion,” a jangly guitar and swirling synth that aspired to match their recorded versions obscured Ware and diminished the force of the singer.

This, however, is one complaint in a performance that was otherwise flawless – though “flawless” suggests a show more sterile, glossy, and lifeless than what happened that night. The best moments felt unpracticed and organic, enjoyable because of their imperfections. Ware reacted to the dance moves of the front row, rambled occasionally, and when she plugged her album, which comes out in the US on Tuesday, she gave a bashful look when caught herself clapping along with the audience. Flawlessness would imply that Ware has completely filled her newfound role as a pop-star, but instead, she seems both amused and humbled by it.

Maybe it isn’t enough to equate the quality of a show with how endearing the performer is, but I think it’s significant that the 500 people at the Indy had fun because Ware was so obviously having fun.
One sign of a successful show is its ability to evoke the sensation of a personal stake in the performer. Last Thursday, Ware’s audience became invested in her future career, which, with all of her talent and charm, will inevitably thrive.

British singer Jessie Ware on summer plans, being herself on stage, and flowers in SF


I first heard Jessie Ware’s “If You’re Never Gonna Move” on the road from the East Coast. After that, the song averaged about five plays per state. Ware’s understated and soulful dance pop has the rare ability to adapt to any situation. It eases the tension in a car full of two people with almost irreconcilable taste in music; it works equally well as the soundtrack to a lazy afternoon, and a night out. And it feels good.

The formula, which has earned her recognition in her native UK, is gaining a following in the US. Though the breakthrough album Devotion won’t be released stateside until April 16, many of her concerts, including Thursday’s at the Independent, have sold out to audiences that sing along with every word. (Not to worry, she also has an in-store at Amoeba that day.)

Ware has transformed into a full-fledged pop star. But on the phone, she didn’t fit the stereotype. Pop-stardom doesn’t come naturally to the down-to-earth 28-year-old who was going to go to law school if the whole singing career thing didn’t work out. So far it has, though, and she spoke a bit about how delighted she is about it all:

SFBG How has the North America tour been so far?

Jessie Ware Really good. We started in New York, and I was doing lots of promos, doing gigs. The crowds were just amazing. We did the last show in New York and it was quite full on because MTV was live-streaming it. It was only my third proper gig in New York and I’m getting it streamed to whoever wants to watch it online. That was scary but also lovely.

SFBG Your show at the Independent is sold out, so I take it that it went well the last time you were here a couple months ago.

JW I had the best show ever in San Francisco in that Rickshaw Stop. It was crazy — I got four bunches of flowers at that gig! I I loved it and I love San Francisco. We did a recording for Yours Truly, and we did it in this beautiful flower shop. I can’t wait to wander around again and see San Francisco. I’m told I’m to go to the Mission for good Mexican food.

SFBG Does performing come naturally to you?

JW No, it does not come naturally to me at all. I feel like I’m just starting to really give a performance now. At the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know whether I was entitled to be a bit over the top. I didn’t feel that comfortable on stage, and I just had to learn. I guess it gets easier when you’re playing to people who have bought tickets to see you. That’s already a bit reassuring, you know?  

I want to kind of tap into the kind of person I play in my videos ever so slightly, but also be myself and really get to know the audience, have a nice conversation whenever I can. Usually, I ask a question and loads of people shout things back at me and I can’t hear what the bloody hell they’re saying. I get myself into trouble because I’ve asked a question and then I have to say, “Whoa!”

SFBG Do you think of genre when you write?

JW I don’t think of genre, I think more of a feel, whether it be upbeat or moody or a bit dramatic. I want the album to feel complete as a whole; all of the songs have to make sense together…I don’t know if the album’s telling a complete story, but I guess it’s quite a lot of romance. Really, it was me experimenting with how to be a songwriter, but thematically they make sense together.

SFBG What is next for you?

I just hope I can keep on playing, really. I’m going to try to be as creative as possible and then play festivals this summer — have a really fun summer and just celebrate that I’m getting to go around the world and perform and play at wonderful festivals that I’ve always wanted to go to anyways.

Jessie Ware
With MS MR, DJ Harry Duncan
Thu/11, 8pm, $18
628 Divisadero, SF
(415) 771-1421

Thu/11, 6:30pm, free
Amoeba Music
1855 Haight, SF
(415) 831-1200

Oakland’s first outdoor sculpture park opens tonight!


Last Tuesday, in the parcel of land off of Telegraph Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets in Oakland, Randy Colosky discussed the orientation of his wooden sculpture, The Pressure to Hold Together That Which Held Things Back Part 2. Three assistants and two arts commissioners weighed in. The word of the hour, it seemed, was “dialogue.” 

“It’s about starting a dialogue,” Steven Huss, the city’s Cultural Arts Manager, said on the phone earlier that day. He reiterated the same on site as he moved a portable chain-link fence aside to enter the Uptown ArtPark, a large-scale temporary sculpture garden that will open to the public tonight during Art Murmur. His favorite part of the park’s construction, he told me, was talking to people who stopped to ask questions.

Huss is experienced in the art of dialogue. Over the past three years, he has witnessed and participated in the many that have transpired between the community, the city, and developers during the planning of the space’s use.

As a part of a redevelopment effort to enliven Oakland’s uptown area, the city bought the parcel in 2005 and began to lay out plans for an apartment complex and Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park, which now hosts the monument, Remember Them: Champions for Humanity, which honors a wide array of humanitarians such as Frederick Douglass, Elie Wiesel, and Harvey Milk. The piece of land adjacent to Telegraph, known as Parcel 4, was slated to become a parking lot, but members of the community objected.

After an blogging effort, an exhaustive campaign at city council, and a plan that aligned with an initiative to promote public art in Oakland, a proposal began to crystallize in the summer of 2009. In October 2010, after searching for funding, Huss earned a Creative Placemaking grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which the city agreed to match. Other sponsors stepped in, including Burning Man offshoot Black Rock Arts Foundation, which was eager to exhibit work in an urban setting.

On the phone and in the park, though, Huss’s tone flattened as he discussed the years of bureaucratic coordination and lightened as he talked about the art and the space that had almost reached completion. For the time-being, the logistics had been settled and he was relieved and excited that he could look forward to filling the space. In the empty back-alley of the three-sided lot perimeter that comprises the ArtPark, Huss enthusiastically described the potential dance and theater events that could enliven the space. In what he called “immersive theater,” the audience would participate in the production.

Programming will focus on “dialogue, not didacticism,” added Kristen Zaremba, Senior Public Art Manager for Oakland, as Huss went to talk through the fence to a passerby who had shouted a question about how long the project had been underway.

As they talked, Zaremba spoke to a woman who was drilling into the concrete pad at the base of Karen Cusolito’s Dandelion, then pointed out the steel wool tufts that the artist recently added to compose the anther of the giant flower.

The 20-foot tall sculpture, the final in the row along 19th Street, complements the other nine works in the park in the play between the organic and the industrial that adheres to the exhibition’s theme, “repurposed.” In ascending height order from Telegraph back along 19th, the pieces form an oversized garden of welded steel, recycled bicycle parts, and in the case of Colosky’s second piece, Barbican, engineered ceramic honeycomb, a material found in the catalytic combustor of a car. The effect is both whimsical and striking.

When we returned to the plot along Telegraph, Colosky’s piece had assumed its arch-like form that he envisioned. Though a completed version of Pressure had already been exhibited before it came to the Art Park (all except one by Eric Powell were finished work), the artist enjoyed the process of revising the reclaimed redwood retaining wall pieces to fit the circular base. “In remaking things, you get to explore all the possibilities,” he said. He and his assistants agreed that the new configuration worked well, and they bolted it down then cheered. “That ain’t going nowhere,” Colosky proclaimed with a grin.

As the group sat down to lunch, a man on the sidewalk shouted, “Making our city look good! Welcome.”

On Friday, the chain-link fence will depart and the Uptown ArtPark will receive its official welcome in a ceremony that will include speeches by Mayor Jean Quan and city council members, an organized bike ride, and because above all, Huss wants to celebrate the artists of Oakland and the vibrant scene they have created, it will also include conversations with the artists, most of whom will be on site.

At a certain point, though, serious dialogue will end. “Friday will be fun,” Huss said. After years of planning, Parcel 4 will open as a community gathering place. “It’s a party.”

Fri/5, 6:30-8:30pm, free
Telegraph and 19th St., Oakl.

Foxygen works its uncanny magic at Brick and Mortar Music Hall


I experienced a strange phenomenon in the few days leading up to Tuesday’s sold out concert at Brick and Mortar Music Hall. The first in a series of strange events occurred in a coffee shop. I overheard one barista say to another, “Put on that Foxygen song.”

“Who?” she asked.

“It’s like ‘oxygen’ but with an ‘F.’”

The next day, one of my favorite websites listed Foxygen’s “Shuggie” as the “Song of the Day,” and later that evening, a friend mentioned the band in a conversation that had very little to do with music.

These coincidences probably mean nothing other than the fact that the band, whose second album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, came out in January, are taking off. But I found something strange in the repetitions, maybe a reflection of the fact that there seems to be a certain uncanniness to Foxygen in the first place.

At first listen, the band struck me as an almost unsettling echo of classic psychedelic rock. Even the album title bears striking resemblance to the names of 45-year-old concept albums such as The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the parallels to the Kinks and the Beatles do not stop there. “San Francisco,” with its sparkling circus instrumentals and soft tinny vocals sounds like any song off of Village Green, and a line about introductions in the album opener “In The Darkness” feels like a direct nod to the album opener of Sgt. Pepper’s.

And while this makes for a pleasant listening experience – who doesn’t want more of the Kinks and the Beatles? – I found the derivativeness slightly problematic.

As soon as the band came onto the small stage at Brick and Mortar, though, that didn’t matter. Wearing embroidered frocks, suede coats, and ruffled blouses, costumes to complement the sound, the band played through a long set that, for all of its performative aspects, never felt forced. Each tune, from the feverishly noisy title track to the wistful “No Destruction,” poured out of the five-member band with ease.

Sam France, the diminutive frontperson, is a rockstar from a bygone era. Within the first few songs he had descended into the audience, shed his fur-lined coat to reveal a jean jumpsuit, and invited us all bowling. With beady eyes that shifted their focus in a manner reminiscent of the quietly plotting villain in any psychological thriller and fingers that moved as if he was casting a spell, he exhibited an oddly magnetic breed of charisma. And he had done all this while showing expert vocal range and control. He had the unique ability to sound both like Lou Reed to Nico.

And although the band’s music and style would seemingly make them untouchable, the venue and the familiarity on stage gave the performance an air of intimacy. While France’s swagger commanded the show, Jonathan Rado, with whom France formed the first incarnation of the band at age 15 (seven years ago – these guys are young), played a quietly endearing counterpart. Their interactions, including Rado muttering “asshole” into his mic, reminded us that though they perform like rock stars, they’re also kids that want to have a good time. And that kind of fun is contagious.

At the end of the night, Rado thanked the audience. “We have so many friends here,” he said and then corrected himself. “I mean, you’re all our friends.” And, with the help of that uncanny magic that seems to characterize the group, that felt true; for reasons that go beyond its restitching of classic rock, Foxygen feels like a band you’ve known and loved for a long time.

I survived the “Real World: San Francisco” marathon


 The 28th season of The Real World premieres tonight, and the trailer features some crying bros and a lot of slapping in Portland, Ore. To remind us of the show’s less … well, shitty origins, MTV ran a “retro marathon” of its first three seasons last weekend.

Before the Teen Mom franchise, before Jersey Shore (and its ever-multiplying spin-offs), and before something called Buckwild that I don’t feel like researching, there were true stories of seven strangers picked to live in houses in New York and Los Angeles. And then in 1994, some strangers came to the wonderful city of San Francisco. The third season, last weekend’s grand finale, often gets credited with sparking the show’s popularity and indirectly launching the reality TV craze. It almost lives up to its reputation.

Usually, watching a reality television show after it’s finished airing presents a predicament; the knowledge that the cast has returned to the world outside the screen takes away the precept — flimsy as it is to begin with — that we are seeing reality unfold. Watching the San Francisco season is a different experience. The 19 years of distance, a huge cultural gap (OMG, no smartphones!), makes the show a historical document.

The Real World: San Francisco is a fascinating record of 20-something life in the mid-90s (OMG, no texting!). And because at that time, the channel dealt with issues besides teen pregnancy, it’s also a depiction of an earlier era of gay rights, of a different political climate, and of a time when an AIDS educator had to reassure his peers that they did not need to fear sharing a bathroom with someone HIV-positive.

Pedro Zamora, one of the first openly gay and HIV-positive men on TV, has been tasked with the responsibility of giving a face to history (the use of B-roll that supplements parts of his story, such as his emigration from Cuba, adds to the sense of his role in the show as documentary). Bill Clinton, who took up the cause of honoring Zamora, believed his stint on The Real World made giant strides in the effort to humanize the struggle with HIV/AIDS and that lends great historical weight to the show.

So, counter to the typical experience of re-watching reality TV, our awareness of events after San Francisco heightens the drama. Knowledge of Pedro’s death right after the season’s premier gives his plotline — for lack of a better term — an eery poignancy. On a happier note, Pam Ling and Judd Winick’s marriage in 2001 their season makes us look for clues in their innocent beginnings as friends during taping. The show becomes primary source material for their romance. Less pleasant is the tale of Puck (David Rainey), the roommate kicked out of the house, whose life after the show comes as no surprise at all. (Don’t worry, he got out of jail in time to film this interview before the marathon.)

How can any reality show claim to show an authentic view of history, though? It probably can’t, but It’s worth noting that The Real World‘s claim to be a social experiment had some legitimacy back then; people didn’t sign up for reality TV to achieve the same fame that they do today because the cult of the reality TV star had not yet exploded (in 1994, Kim Kardashian was still in the early stages of puberty). As a result, most of the cast was intelligent and had real goals that made them compelling and seemingly genuine. (We do, however, find a proto-reality TV star in Rachel Campos, the pretty girl who gave up dreams of academia when she met her husband on Road Rules: All Stars. For a while, she occasionally guest-hosted The View, and her Wikipedia page lists her occupation as “television personality.”)

Much of what makes The Real World: San Francisco entertaining nearly two decades later, though, are the things that make all ‘90s artifacts entertaining. It is a history of those fun outdated cultural signs that make “Buzzfeed Rewind” slide shows so heartwarming for millennials. Look at the low resolution! Note the light wash high-waisted jeans worn by men and women alike! Everyone’s rollerblading! Remember pagers?

And don’t worry, there are the requisite black-and-white confessionals, a comically suggestive musical score, and some drama, too — yelling, making out (and subsequent regret), and name-calling. But a word of warning for fans of Bad Girls Club and Tila Tequila: the name-calling doesn’t get much worse than “brat.”

Which brings me to a final point that, yes, the show mostly lives up to its reputation; The Real World: San Francisco is compelling as a historical record and nostalgia machine, but I have to admit that overall, I found it a little bland. The cast has a good time together, argues about house cleanliness over the dinner table, and learns from each other, but the fact that one of the few drunken escapades happens as a ladies’ night in floral pajamas made the whole day-to-day feel a little too charming.

It’s official: today’s television has ruined me. I don’t want to see interesting people with ambitious goals or downtrodden youth with the passion to make society more tolerant. I don’t want a document of reality at all, but an absurd heightening of it.

Even so, I think I’ll probably skip The Real World: Portland.

Oh, and if you want your own fix of retro reality, you can stream the complete San Francisco season here.

VOWS’ Luke Sweeney on marinating songs, foot prayers, and the gospel of Al Green


San Francisco’s VOWS has come a long way from its beginning in 2007. As with many creative enterprises, the band — which plays the Rickshaw Stop Wed/13 — formed out of the ashes of some good old-fashioned turmoil.

Guitarist Luke Sweeney and drummer Scott Tomio Noda, pals since high school, had just broken up with their band, and bassist Jitsun Sandoval, a friend with whom they sometimes played music, had just split with his wife. The three formed a band whose name signaled the start of restored commitment.

Arriving at a cafe on a bike whose tires had deflated with disuse, Sweeney reminisces about the old days of the band. The early period included near-weekly bike collisions and other kinds of upheavals. He recalled sleeping just feet away from Noda in the one bedroom apartment that they shared, as well as the “hippy circus speakeasy space” where Sandoval lived. “That was the first couple years of VOWS,” he tells me. “We were either homeless or living in squalor.”

Since ’07, the trio moved on from the squalor. Sweeney has a seven-month-old baby at home and several musical endeavors underway throughout the Bay Area; Noda and Sandoval have settled down in Los Angeles. But VOWS continues to develop.

When we meet a week before both a VOWS show at the Rickshaw Stop and the band beginning to record its third full-length album (due to drop some time next fall), Sweeney projects an easy confidence as he describes his band.

VOWS has no need to grasp at a formula or a manifesto; its members’ chemistry and experience produce a breed of rock that feels effortless. Part California psych-rock, part pop, and with a bit of something reminiscent of country, its tunes invite head-nodding and that strange sensation of beginning to sing along until you realize you don’t know the words.

Get a better sense of VOWS before its Rickshaw show as Sweeney discusses the band’s development, VOWS’  principles of genre, and the gospel of Al Green:

San Francisco Bay Guardian How have you changed as a band over the past six years?

Luke Sweeney We’ve honed our sound and we’re very comfortable playing with each other. We’ve always been a band that will take a song and play with the arrangement of it. We like to do that a lot for live shows – change things around, keep things exciting. But more than as a band musically, I think it’s about growing as people….I think we’re a little more mature, and I think it’s reflected in our songs.

SFBG What are you working on for the third album?

LS We have a constant problem of having way more music than we could possibly record or keep track of or realistically promote and share with everybody, so we’re actually trying to play catch-up right now. The songs that we’re going to be recording next week are mostly two years old….I mean, it’s a delightful dilemma. With the first two albums, as soon as they were ready, we popped them in the oven  – or maybe we took them out of the oven too fast; they weren’t as developed. These ones have been sitting around for a little while marinating. They’ll be more developed.

SFBG The band is often described as having a “California sound.” Does this fit?
LS I feel like our sound is not just Californian; it’s almost aesthetic-less in a way. In terms of what’s going on now with a lot of music, you have two ends of the spectrum – either this whole  retro-folk scene…or you have this ’80s-referencing chillwave, synth, future-wave. We don’t really have any of that. Our music is based more on packing in as much  melody and lyrics and instrumentation, the three basic colors of music. We try to apply those with a simple palette and don’t try to wash over them with any aesthetic. Although we do dress up ridiculously at our shows.

SFBG Do you have costumes planned for the Rickshaw Stop show?

LS Scott is often our wardrobe coordinator. I don’t know what he’s got in mind yet but he’ll definitely have something special and surprising. It’s all ages, though, so it’ll be tasteful.

SFBG How do you break up responsibility with writing? How does that process look?

LS It’s very collaborative. It’s mostly Jitsun or myself writing a song or a few pieces of a song and then all of us coming together on it….We don’t force anything. I never sit down and say, I have to finish a song. They all come from real moments of feeling, whether that feeling is agony or ecstasy, or just hungover. Everything’s pretty natural as it comes together. I can’t recall any time where we’ve had problems bringing a song into fruition. There might be a couple times where a song is super simple starting out, and it just takes some time to sit with the song and develop melodies. I don’t think I would be able to spend so much time on music if it wasn’t a natural thing.

SFBG Where does the new music video for ‘Temptation?’ come from?

LS At the end of the video are a couple of pictures that Scott took from that same tour. Earlier in that tour, we happened to be playing in Memphis on a Sunday night. It was serendipitous because a couple of days before, we were in Lawrence, Kansas, and a really cool musician we met figured out we were going [to Memphis] on a Sunday and said, ‘get there early so you can go attend Al Green’s Sunday gospel church. ‘ And so we did.

We drove all night from St. Louis. Our first stop in Memphis was at the hospital because I had to get a shot and get my foot cleaned up from a shoe that cut me up [and from not being able to shower for a couple days]. And then right after the hospital we prayed for my foot’s healing and sang along with all the incredible music that was at Al Green’s gospel. It‘s probably the greatest show I’ve ever seen. 

SFBG Did your foot heal?

LS It was healed up enough within the next 48 hours for me to jump off a roof into a swimming pool when we got to Denton, Texas. [Al Green] performs miracles.

With Standard Poodle, Goldenhearts
Wed/13, 8pm, $10
Rickshaw Stop
155 Fell, SF
(415) 861-2011

Small space, big ideas: New City Company debuts


Ten years ago, Kim Jiang-Dubaniewicz sat outside the Chinatown gates nursing an existential crisis; she had serious doubts about pursuing her longtime dream of a career in acting. Just then, she looked up and saw a familiar face drinking coffee next to her. It was Sean Penn, and she asked him for a cigarette even though she didn’t smoke. He told her to stick with acting.

Apparently one doesn’t ignore the advice of Sean Penn.

After several years of acting, the discovery of a store that sold 25-cent paperbacks (including the works of playwrights William Saroyan and Eugene O’Neill), and a move to San Francisco, Jiang-Dubaniewicz wanted to try something new. Last October, she embarked on her first production as a director. The resulting work, The Saroyan O’Neill Project, just finished a twoweekend run at the Postage Stamp Theater in the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.

In a room that hosts senior lunches by day in a building that has served as a community gathering place for a almost a century, her New City Company staged an energetic piece that worked best in the narrowly focused and understated moments when the play made no attempts to disguise the modesty of the production (the simplicity of the set in the second of two one-acts, a panel of bars in the center of the stage, was probably a reflection both of artistic choice and of the fact that practicing for free in the community room of a police station tends to impose some limits). Hello Out There, the starker of the plays with two characters continuing a mostly linear dialogue that builds into romance, came across beautifully. Gift Harris gave a tight and compelling performance as Photo-Finish, taking us with him through the varying shades of desperation, loneliness, and hope in the repeated cry, “Hello out there!” from which the play earns its name. 

The director cast the play well. In the script of Hello Out There, Saroyan describes Photo-Finish simply as “A Young Man,” a phrase that certainly contained an internal set of assumptions about race and ethnicity in 1941 when the play was written. Jiang-Dubaniewicz chose Harris, an African American man who has performed a number of roles on television and stage, because he just seemed to fit. Similarly, she decided to cast The Long Voyage Home, an Irish play from 1917, without regards to race or other qualities that typically account for typecasting in theater.

Discussing what she refers to as “inclusive casting,” the director cites her own experiences struggling with the scarcity of roles for Asian American actors. The same is true with other racial minorities, she says. Many of the African American actors in her cast have opted not to join Actor’s Equity because the number of available roles doesn’t justify the union fee. Not only does Jiang-Dubaniewicz view this as an injustice, but she also sees it as a failure to mirror the reality of the world around us, an aim of theater. “This is our city,” she says. “This is what we look like.”

The “we” implicates the audience, merging the play and the community. The direction of the show emphasized this. Little separated the two rows of guests and the stage, and while this was sometimes unsettling —  the larger cast and chaotic drunken merriment of A Long Voyage Home at times felt too big for the space and distanced the audience — it mostly added to the feeling of intimacy. In the quieter, more finely tuned Hello Out There, the characters spoke facing outward toward the audience, inviting us into the burgeoning love between outcasts.

And the audience participation did not end with the bows. At the end of the performance, Lewis Campbell, the indispensable executive producer, addressed the audience with a half-joking plea for help transforming the space back to its daytime function. In 30 minutes, it would become a senior lunch room once again. 

Will the senior lunch room ever transform back into The Postage Stamp Theater? Jiang-Dubaniewicz is considering a number of future projects for the New City Company, including more of the rich anti-hero tales of Saroyan and O’Neill. After the success of this first project, hopefully she won’t need a fortuitous Sean Penn run-in to make it happen.

SFAI’s Gutai exhibit opens with a dirty good time


The crowd cheers as a man decked out in stars and stripes makes his way through a packed staircase. He pauses at the landing and raises his arms over head in a salute of glory to the whooping and clapping masses below him.

“San Francisco, we give you the death match of the century,” a voice booms from speakers.

The costumed figure presses through to the opening in the center of the room and circles the white platform where his foe awaits. He slaps the hands of a few children sitting in front before disrobing until he wears only blue knee-length tights and a bushy brown beard. He enters the square and stands above his opponent.

The announcer continues: “Mud versus the man himself, Jeremiah Jenkins.” The man dives into a brown mass that resembles a giant pile of feces.

This was the scene at the San Francisco Institute of Art last Friday, where the Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response exhibition opened with a bang — or rather with the revving of the dirt bike that Guy Overfelt blasted through four paper screens later in the evening. The event, which included the two theatrical pieces by local artists Jenkins and Overfelt, brought the Japanese avant-garde movement to life by recreating the sense of revelation upon which Gutai formed in 1954.
Jiro Yoshihara, the founder of the post-war movement, challenged his followers to “do something no one’s ever done before.” For the members in the Gutai Art Association, originality emerged in the form of a dress comprised of electric lights, earth-toned compositions created by scraping fingernails across the surface of paint, and large-scale records of feet spreading thick paint around canvas. Gutai means “concrete,” or “embodiment,” and the artists physically (and sometimes literally) threw themselves into their work. A range of the resulting pieces hung on walls at SFAI.

Before their temporary plastic coverings heralded flying mud, though, the paintings spoke for themselves; even without the context of their unique creative process, the works convey a sense of kinetic vitality. In one of the most compelling pieces, a 1960 oil painting by Kazuo Shiraga, Chisonsei Isshika, a red mass of paint on the right meets blue-black on the left and both spread outward over a white base in three-dimensional sweeps and splatters that testify to the physical gestures of their creation.

Though some of the works reflect the more whimsical side of the quest for novelty (the side that the performance pieces expanded on to a comic degree), Shiraga’s painting captures something coarser, more intense. The physicality of the paint seemed to manifest raw expression.

Gutai, however, is not the only artistic movement to employ a doctrine of bodily expression. Both the principles and the pieces they produced recall Action Painting of Abstract Expressionism, practiced by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The connection has a historical basis. Though Gutai did not intersect with the New York-based movement, Gutai aligned itself with Abstract Expressionism’s European counterpart, Tachisme, after a French critic visited the Japanese school.

The American school’s rejection of Tachisme partially accounts for why Gutai has largely remained under the radar. Upstairs in the gallery, a display of Gutai books and posters of past exhibitions — taking place in Japan only — demonstrate the lack of awareness in the United States. But the exhibition also shows a shift. Shozo Shimamoto, the Gutai artist who used his bald head as a canvas, died in January, and in order to pay tribute to the man and his “mail art” associations, curator John Held, Jr. sent out a call for mail responses. The many captivating pieces of DIY art Held received show both Shimamoto’s legacy and the expanding legacy of Gutai in America. Last year, an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art featured Gutai, and a Gutai retrospective opens this week at the Guggenheim in New York.

(SFAI’s “Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun,” whose name borrows from a 1955 Gutai Art Association exhibition, is the only one to include a mud pit and a dirt bike.)

For all of the spectators who experienced the mud pit and dirt bike, who not only saw art but also witnessed Overfelt crash through the panels and Jenkins fight vigorously against a pile of mud, Gutai is more than static paint and the facts on the labels beside the pieces. It is an art of playfulness, of energy, and of innovation. Undertaking the directive to do something that’s never been done before is a greater challenge 41 years after its initial presentation, but by experimenting in the space between parody and earnestness, the exhibition succeeded.

The farcical wrestling match between man and mud yielded more than absurd and gimmicky entertainment. After the artist left through a side door (it was unclear whether in triumph or defeat), several people approached the stage and began photographing the sludge that Jenkins had moved with his body. It had scattered around the square platform, piling up in some places and spreading thinly in others. Then the gallery lights came on and the plastic came off the paintings, revealing that the mud on the stage mirrored the large all-red Shiraga with roughly textured paint behind it. All of a sudden, the mud became more of a work of art and the art became more of a physical work. Only after the comedic performance could we see that we had witnessed an act of creation. A WWE-style act of creation.

“Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response”

Through March 30

San Francisco Art Institute

800 Chestnut, SF

Reflections on last Friday’s Oakland Art Murmur


I pictured writing a different sort of response to last Friday’s Oakland Art Murmur and accompanying street festival. The fatal shooting of an 18-year-old, however, taints the memory of the evening and retroactively adds a hint of menace to the crowded streets.

In OAM’s responding statement, what begins as condolence, transitions into a reaffirmation of the monthly festival’s aims: “The Oakland Art Murmur and the First Friday Street Festival are the products of communities coming together to showcase the best of what people create together.” As questions surround the future of the event — most pressingly, can it continue as before? — it is important to remember this.

The mood on the streets before the shooting was celebratory. In the stretch of street closed to traffic, random pockets of activity testified to the joyful and creative possibilities contained within a diverse crowd of thousands.

On Telegraph Avenue, I saw an eclectic group dancing in front of a DJ booth; a block later, a man banged on his bike with drumsticks to accompany a small drum circle (whose members found it as strange as the onlookers did); and a pint-sized child rapped along to music on the back of truck that had been converted into a stage. Another wonderful surprise came in the form of the best pork bun I’ve ever tasted from the food truck, The Chairman (apparently I’m behind on food truck culture). The music, food, and general merriment on the streets occupied much of my time. And it was a great time.

But before I stray too far from the event’s original purpose seven years ago, I should mention that I also saw some compelling art and visited some intriguing spaces. My favorite stop of the evening was the antithesis to the raucousness between 19th and 27th Streets, the store and gallery Umami Mart on Broadway and 8th. Started by high school friends from Cupertino, Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabari, the pop-up shop (and hopefully soon-to-be mainstay) exhibits art and sells kitchen-themed goods that all reflect the stark elegance of the Japanese aesthetic.

Brother-sister duo Aya and Sylvan Brackett added to the warmth of the space. Raised in Nevada City, Calif. in a traditional Japanese home, the siblings each filter elements of their background into different arts in the Bay Area — Sylvan through food and his catering business, Peko-Peko, and Aya through her photography. Umami Mart showcased samples of both arts with udon noodles meticulously prepared from scratch at a stand in the corner, and striking photos on the wall surrounding the heading, “Home is Oakland; Home is Japan.”

The familial atmosphere in a store whose every surface revealed a delightful intersection of California and Japanese culture amounted to an excellent example of “the best of people create together.” So did the food trucks, the spontaneous dancing, and the different music flooding the street every half block. After last week’s event, the future of the Oakland Art Murmur raises complicated concerns. But I hope that it will continue to allow more positive examples to arise in the future.