Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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UnderCover Presents Drops A Big ‘Dookie’ On the Fox Theater

Live Music Review/ UnderCover Presents: A Tribute to Green Day’s Dookie. February 19, 2016, Fox Theater, Oakland.

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Green Day’s Mike Dirnt, Tre Cool, and Billie Joe Armstrong

It was something unpredictable, but when it happened, it was right. Fittingly, Billie Joe Armstrong got off perhaps the best line of the night: “It’s like a beautiful feeling and totally awkward at the same time. I don’t know if I was late for my funeral, or early to it.” The statement made perfect sense; the Green Day frontman, along with a couple thousand of rabid, hardcore fans and admirers crammed into Oakland’s Fox Theater, had just witnessed a pretty surreal experience. It’s not hard to imagine that for Armstrong, the scene felt like something he might experience in the afterlife. Ten locally-based bands had just performed cover versions of songs from Green Day’s 1994 breakthrough album Dookie, a certified power-pop or mainstream punk classic which has sold about, oh, approximately 20 million albums to date – making it one of the biggest-selling albums ever in Bay Area music history.

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Music Director  Brian Adam McCune and UnderCover Presents’ Lyz Luke

That in and of itself wasn’t surreal. What was surreal, however, were the various interpretations and extremely creative arrangements of the by now well-worn album, which reimagined Dookie’s source material as so much more than three chords, poppy melodies, introspective yet rebellious lyrics, furious drums, wraparound basslines, and a cloud of pot smoke.

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La Plebe’s Lupe Bravo

Only one band—Love Songs—performed what came close to a “traditional” or straight-ahead version of their selection, in this case “Pulling Teeth” – which was still infused with nuanced touches, although not too far from the original. The others twisted, pulled, reshaped, mutated and otherwise transmogrified the material, turning the proverbially pop-punkish album into a many-faceted musical amoeba. “Burnout” became an emo-indie rock testament to Grrrl Power in the hands of Marston. “Having a Blast,” as envisioned by La Plebe, affixed Éspañol vocals and skanking uptempo horns to a breakneck tempo. Sal’s Greenhouse sashayed through a soulful, funky take on “Chump” which sounded absolutely nothing like the original, highlighted by vocalist/saxophonist Sally Green’s powerhouse vocal chops and staccato horn riffs.

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Sally Green of Sal’s Greenhouse

Jazz Mafia Choral Syndicate’s “Longview” proved praiseworthy with a sanctified gospel arrangement which was as transcendent as it was mind-blowing, as soloists Trance Thompson, Tym Brown, Gabriela Welch, Joe Bagale, and Felecia Walker and a 35-member chorus took the entire house to church. Vocalist Moorea Dickson of MoeTar brushed up “Welcome to Paradise”—a song about squatting in a punk house in Oakland—with layers of glossy prog-rock sheen.

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Soloist Trance Thompson performs with Jazz Mafia’s Choral Syndicate

By far the lengthiest and most twisted Dookie cover played on this night was The Fuxedo’s wonderfully insane “Basket Case,” which took an already good song and made it into punk performance art, complete with shifting tempos and musical styles, multiple costume changes from Fuxedo frontman “Diabolical” Danny Shorago, and even dueling soliloquies about the pros and cons of prescription drugs — which may or may not allow one to see through squids.

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Diabolical Danny Shorago donned a mask for “Basket Case”

“She,” as played by Goodnight, Texas, imagined the American Idiots as Punk Americana, toning down the distorted fuzztones of the original in favor of Appalachian banjo and baritone guitar. It was back to way-out land after that, as Tunisian vocalist MC Rai sang “Sassafras Roots” in Arabic, complete with a belly-dancing interlude courtesy of Aimee Zawitz and Cora Hubbert. Which led up to “When I Come Around,” one of Green Day’s most-loved songs and a sonic template for what their career blossomed into. The version featured at the Fox was a contemporary and super-urban one by live electronic beatsmiths NVO which spotlighted former E-40 collaborator Bosko on talk box.

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Goodnight, Texas perform “She”

All of that preceded the mid-show interlude, wherein Green Day were ever so lightly roasted by their first manager, and then given a proclamation by Oakland’s mic-dropping mayor Libby Schaaf – who thus decreed that February 19th is now the wonderfully-redundant-sounding “Green Day Day.” Schaaf also said, “never let it be said that Oakland doesn’t know how to rock” – to which Oakulture agrees.

The proclamation went on to note that Green Day “has a cultural impact which spans generations,” which is certainly true. Many musicians (and even UnderCover Presents maven Lyz Luke)  that night noted that Dookie was the first album they bought, yet the audience was packed with twentysomethings who might have been one or two years old in 1994, as well as grizzled, mohawked, and tattooed punk rock veterans.

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Bosko’s talk box vocals were a highlight of “When I Come Around”

The three Green Day dudes (vocalist/guitarist Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool) looked out at the audience, often in what seemed like stunned amazement, mixed with churlish in-joke humor. Which was understandable. After all, they’ve played festivals for hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, yet been branded sellouts in their own home region, banished from their veritable point of origin — legendary East Bay punk mecca 924 Gilman – until very recently, when they played a secret show which eclipsed the venue’s no-major-label-artists ban enacted in 1994 in response to the release of Dookie.

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El Duque

Throughout that episode, one thing was clear: Armstrong and the boys had come full circle. They seemed to be into letting the moment sink in, not saying too much, showing no obvious signs of outward emotion (or unsobriety), yet evidently deeply touched by the outpouring of pure Dookie love. Armstrong then hung around for a minute to introduce the next band, Skank Bank, a young, energetic ska outfit who tackled the confessional “Coming Clean.” The Awesome Orchestra then set up for the next three songs: “Emenius Sleepus,” featuring Casey Crescendo, “In the End,” featuring Martin Luther, and “F.O.D.” featuring Tilt.

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MoeTar performed “Welcome to Paradise”

Can we just pause for a minute here to consider the implications of Green Day songs being played by an actual orchestra?  On a sociocultural level, it elevates punk way past a basic black leather aesthetic, and places it—almost—in the pocket of “high art.” Or at least conceptualized art. Yet the songs themselves remain in the punk canon, no matter how much eyeshadow or window dressing is applied to them. That is to say, Green Day’s music is still quite subversive when applied in this context.

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The show was a fund-raiser for 924 Gilman 

I’m sure other tributes could have been more by-the-numbers. But this was not that. This was a pop culture production which treated Dookie with the same reverence as the alien monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” if somewhat more humorously. An iconic piece of music worthy of reflection, yes, but also a template for further evolution. It’s hard to imagine anything more frivolous than more than 2,000 people singing along to the masturbation anthem “All By Myself” which closed the show, yet the Dookie tribute wasn’t strictly played for laughs and chortles.

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MC Rai sang “Sassafras Roots” in Arabic

On a more serious note, the event feted one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and groundbreaking bands, welcoming them as conquering heroes of the pop culture wars, while spotlighting local acts soon to garnish your personal affirmation of Bay Area bad-assery. The Dookie-fest may have been the most “official” thing to happen thus far for the East Bay punk scene, an underground factor since the mid-80s. Yet its reverberations went far beyond the sonic and cultural limitations of punk. What other recent Oakland event has resulted in a mic-dropping mayor? Or a LED-lit piece of poo (identified as “El Duque”) playing the mascot role to the hilt? Can we mention the freakin’ belly dancers again? Or the orchestra and choirs?

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Cora Hubbert performed with MC Rai

At the end of the day, the care, attention, and love UnderCover Presents put into the show – a benefit for 924 Gilman, who are attempting to buy their space and stave off the scythe of the gentrification reaper—was its silver lining and saving grace. There may never again be a local punk group honored at the Fox in this way.

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Tre Cool holds up the Mayor’s Proclamation of “Green Day Day”

But that matters little, in the wake of all the hoopla. The point was that this happened, on a scale equally as grand as 2015’s UnderCover Presents’ tribute to Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” It will go down in history as a night neither Green Day nor the audience will ever forget, as well as a show which could propel some deserving local acts to wider and greater recognition. If you missed the show, or just want to relive it, the studio recordings are available in CD and MP3 format, so you can get your Dookie on forever more, and perhaps even more importantly, support local artists and Bay Area music.

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Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong

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Leo’s and Birdland Expand Oakland’s Live Music Scene Past Uptown

It’s perhaps no surprise that ground zero for Oakland’s much-ballyhooed cultural renaissance has been the Uptown area, a region centered around the Fox Theater. After all, the city poured in upwards of $90 million to renovate the art deco auditorium, so it makes sense that much of the emerging nightlife, not to mention the monthly First Friday street festival, has been within a half-mile-to-one-mile radius of the Fox.

Zigaboo Modelliste plays with the New Ahkestra at Leo's

Zigaboo Modeliste plays with the New Aahkesstra at Leo’s

But for Oakland to truly be an arts city and cultural destination, it’s in everyone’s best interest to cultivate other sectors of the Town. That’s why it’s gratifying for longtime Oakland arts enthusiasts to see the beginnings of arts districts in areas other than Uptown, and the development of new venues for music and arts. Two recent additions to the nightlife scene in Temescal and nearby North Oakland have done just that: Leo’s Music Club and Birdland Jazzista Social Club.

Legendary Drummer Zigaboo Modeliste

Legendary drummer Zigaboo Modeliste

Leo’s takes its name from the former pro audio shop located there, which was the place to buy musical equipment in the days before Guitar Center. This lends it some unique character and history, as well as a particularly advantageous facet: the place has excellent acoustics and is what you’d call a “loud” room. The dimensions are such that the sound bounces quite easily from the stage area to the slightly tilted ceiling, which should make it especially attractive for acoustic acts. It also makes for better views for the audience, whether you’re in the front or the back. It’s a small but cozy room, with a capacity for 200 or so folks, although it only takes a quarter of that to make it sound full. Operated by the Parish Entertainment Group, who also own the New Parish and Brick and Mortar, Leo’s plugs a needed hole—that of a smallish, professional venue outside of Uptown’s nightlife nexus.

Guest emcee CB jams with Zigaboo Modeliste

Guest emcee CB jams with Zigaboo Modeliste

Thusfar I’ve seen two shows at Leo’s: STRFKR and Zigaboo Modeliste and the New Aahkesstra. For the former, an indie/alternative rock act, the background lights were set to full disco illumination. Glam on. But for the latter, the lighting changed up and was much softer overall. That suggests Leo’s is a chameleon, a venue which can adapt according to who’s inside on any given night.

members of the New Aahkesstra

Members of the New Aahkesstra

A quick word about Zigaboo: do Temescal residents know how lucky they are to have a legend like him play in their neighborhood club? Modeliste is, of course, the original drummer of the Meters, “the” NOLA swamp funk band, and one of the most-sampled drummers in history. As a skinsman, he’s still top-notch, and the opportunity to play authentic New Orleans-style funk explains why he was surrounded by young sidemen with chops. Modeliste also supplied a fair amount of lead vocals, and most of the band’s originals were party-oriented jams with lots of call-and-response chants.

This cat can blow!

This cat can blow!

What makes a music club special is the feeling that anything can happen, and that expectation was totally vindicated by a cameo by CB of jazz-hop veterans Alphabet Soup, who rocked an energetic freestyle rhyme that got the crowd into it. Another special moment happened when a guest trumpeter–i didn’t catch his name–sat in and added some brassy punch to the Aahkesstra’s vibe. Though it’s technically a “new” venue, Leo’s has a bit of an old-timey feel to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a go-to spot for bands with enough of a following to sell out a small-to-medium venue. And it’s a no-brainer as a drop-in place to catch a show and check out the crowd for Temescalians, who have long lacked a neighborhood live music club.

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Moving right along, how does one even explain Birdland to someone who’s never been there? Let’s try: jazz space, blues space, salsa space, flamenco space, comfy feel, great ambience, low-key vibe. That’s for starters. Oh yeah, the walls are lined with birdhouses everywhere, and there’s a hookah lounge in the back. A former speakeasy gone legit, the Birdland Jazzista Social Club is probably the best new live venue in Oakland, in spite of itself.

Remember those special moments I talked about, awhile back? In just a few weeks, I’ve seen jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer, the debut of the monthly Oakland Flamenco Sessions with guest cantor MC Rai, and Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux with her live band. That’s a lot of heat for just one venue.  Every weekend, the venue hosts two full programs of live entertainment, and they’ve just added a Salsa program (“Salssista”) on Sundays. There are also classes and workshops, with more TBA.

Jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer at Birdland

Jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer at Birdland

But the best part of Birdland is the effect it’s had on the neighborhood. Jazzista #1 “Birdman” Mike Parayno, aka “Kuya Meng” and his team of volunteers have helped to organize several other venues in the neighborhood — including Marcus Books and the MLK Cafe — to create a pop-up arts district, with plans to hold a monthly festival. That’s creative placemaking at its best. Since the venue is at present a private club and BYOB spot, holding a BJSC membership card even gets you a discount at the two local liquor stores – that’s called going the extra mile.

"Birdman Mike" Parayno

“Birdman Mike” Parayno

Having said that, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also note that I am the official Birdland photographer and have known the Birdman for fifteen years; also, my girlfriend is the promoter of the Oakland Flamenco Sessions. But BJSC clearly stands on its own merits: its move to its new nest accumulated an armful of positive press without Oakulture stoking the fire, and positive press around the cultural arts is exactly what Oakland needs more of, especially in parts of town which are not Uptown.

Birdland Marquee

Birdland marquee

It wasn’t that long ago that nighttime robberies were common a few blocks down at the legendary Eli’s Mile High Club, which happens to be in “Ghosttown,” and has turned into primarily a punk/indie rock spot (with an in-house tattoo parlor) under current ownership. While MLK Ave can still be sketchy late at night, Birdland—which is just north of the Ghosttown “border”—has brought authentic blues and jazz back into the area, and even has a tuk tuk-style shuttle for patrons using BART (just two blocks away). With every week that passes, it seems to become more a part of the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, and a good example of organic development fueled by culture-keepers – as opposed to inorganic gentrification fueled by developers.

Leo’s upcoming shows are here; BSJC upcoming shows are here. If I were you, I wouldn’t miss LoCura at Leo’s 11/8 or the next OFS at Birdland 11/15.