The Circle Unbroken

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A very important family function will keep me away from Saturday’s opening night at The Back Room, a new, intimate, acoustic-oriented performance space in Berkeley. The space has been developed by Sam Rudin, who has had a long career in the Bay Area as a solo pianist, band member (Hurricane Sam & the Hotshots), and piano teacher.

Fittingly, the first artist to play the Back Room (1984 Bonita St. at University) will be Laurie Lewis. Quoting the room’s Facebook page, “Instead of playing with her regular band, Laurie is inviting collaborators from her past and present for an informal evening of musical surprises.”
Rudin seems to have answered many local musicians’ prayers for a good listening room that will hold about 100 people. You can check the web site at www.backroommusic.com, but acts that stand out for me in the current schedule include the Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally Band (electric, classic country) on April 30, Thompsonia (Eric, Suzy and Allegra Thompson) on June 4, the Kathy Kallick Band on June 11, High Country July 16, and Wendy Burch Steel & Redwood on August 21.
If these acts remind you of the schedule of either Freight and Salvage No. 1 on San Pablo Avenue or Freight No. 2 on lower Addison Street, that’s no accident. Things have gone sour for local musicians since the Freight relocated to its spiffy new headquarters on the Shattuck Avenue end of Addison St. The new Freight holds 420 people and the current management has not been kind to the musicians whose talents nurtured the place in its earlier incarnations.
I’m not BFFs with the local musicians who have felt frozen out at the Freight, but I did get admitted to a Yahoo discussion group that was enlightening. I’m going to steal a post that was put up last December by Kathy Kallick. Kathy has an amazing band, she’s a tremendous singer and songwriter, her CDs regularly place on the Bluegrass Hit Parade. She’s apparently made the cut as an artist that can still get booked at the Freight (April 22) but she, too, is eager to have a smaller venue in Berkeley.
This is what she wrote as the idea of finding a new home for traditional music was being floated:
“When I first started playing music in the Bay Area, we were lucky enough to have a venue that presented bluegrass 7 nights a week. One of those nights was a jam night, and many visiting luminaries fell by when they were in town. It was a cool thing, and bands played a regular spot, sometimes for many years running. My band had a standingSaturday night at Paul’s Saloon for many years, and when we had other gigs or were out of town, we could get other bands to fill in.
“During that time, the Freight and Salvage was an intimate listening room we played 3 or 4 times a year. It was a very different environment from that noisy, busy bar in San Francisco. We always worked up new, and special, songs to debut at the Freight, and made a point of keeping the show tight and fresh.
“At the same time there was the big, elegant, special event room: The Great American Music Hall. That venue was THE place to have a special record release event, or go see headliners in a fancy but comfortable space, and occasionally have the opportunity to open for those headliners. Opening for Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley or big acts of the time was a big deal. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was prestigious, and a chance to play for everybody in the area who would come out for a cool show. It also was a chance to meet and get acquainted with those traveling musicians. This was a premier listening room with fabulous sound, and Lee Brenkman was the hottest sound man. Several acts made live records in that place.
There were other places to play, small or one-off opportunities, but these 3 venues were the main choices for many years.
In the late ‘80s, when the Freight and Salvage moved to 1111 Addison, it became the premier listening room in the Bay Area. The Music Hall was less and less available to acoustic music, and the bar in the city was never the same after the quake of ’89. And the Freight began an era of highly adventuresome and cool bookings. Spearheaded by Allison Fisher, and then perpetuated by Randy Pitts, the Freight became THE place to play in the area. The audience could rely on the shows to be varied, diverse, ground-breaking, and wonderful. Sometimes there was a complete unknown act, and the small audience would be treated to a spectacular new sound. Sometimes a musician who’d only been known from recordings was able to tour the west coast anchored by a good booking at the Freight. Sometimes an act would be booked in advance as a relative unknown, and be incredibly popular by the time their show at the Freight rolled around. Sometimes the special event was a band like mine throwing a party to release a new recording. This was the way I introduced most new recordings throughout those years — with a cake! From 1988 until the move to the new venue in 2009, the Freight and Salvage was the home for acoustic music, roots music, Americana, all kinds of folk music, etc.
“When the conversations about the new venue began, every single local musician felt a ripple of dread, as they wondered how they would continue to have a place in this new grandiose scheme. Some were assuaged by promises of continued bookings, some were resigned, and some were seeing the writing on the wall. When it came to pass that, indeed, there was no longer a place for local musicians, or fabulous traveling musicians, or highly renowned musicians with a small but loyal following, or any number of other folks, it was bitter, but not entirely unexpected.
“While Steve Baker was at the helm, he faithfully preserved a spot for me and my band, as well as other local musicians, to play at least once a year. When he left 2 years ago, I got kicked to the curb, along with many other acts of many different styles. It was painful, and it took a while to discover that it wasn’t just me who was deemed lacking and unworthy, but a huge group of musicians who had been the mainstay of the Freight and Salvage roster. As we began to share our stories, and retell our experiences of having been told we didn’t draw enough people, didn’t make enough money, weren’t well known, couldn’t expect a weekend, maybe we could open for a bigger act, maybe we could do a double bill with somebody from an unrelated genre on a Wednesday night, maybe we could get a last minute booking if something fell through, we got the message: We are no longer part of the plan for the Freight and Salvage.
“For months, I was wounded, angry, outraged, grieving, and disappointed.
“But, here’s what I think now: the Freight and Salvage is what the Great American Music Hall used to be. A beautiful special event performance space. Some place I’ll go occasionally to see music in a comfortable, good listening room. And sometimes I’ll get to play there, as part of a double bill, or a special collaboration, or as a guest. The actual Music Hall has devolved into a noisy bar I never want to go to, and there are a few much worse bars where folks can play for tips, but, but, but, … BUT there is no home for our music.
“So, it’s time to put all those feelings and energy and experience and time into creating a new home for acoustic music. A place to debut new songs, new bands, interesting double bills that support each other, a place for amazing traveling musicians to play to an audience who cares, a place for collaboration, invention, and creativity. A PLACE TO HAVE A FRIGGIN’ CD RELEASE EVENT! WITH A CAKE!!
Let’s do this thing.”
And now, it appears to have been done. I hope it is a huge success.

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