There was a time when the Bay Area was bloated with dot-com launches that treated the tech business like show business. In those golden years of Web 1.0, flush companies traded on the reputations of the hip acts they hired to headline giant parties. It wasn't difficult to get a free glimpse of the White Stripes or Beck on the Internet's (and alcohol sponsor's) dollar, so long as you were willing to stare at oversized corporate ad banners at some cheeseball venue.
Of course, that all went bust years ago. But in this broke economy, a new breed of pop-culture–savvy company is presenting fun, free events in San Francisco. This time, it's an ad agency. Its parties are becoming increasingly popular among advertising-adverse types, too, in part because the proprietor leaves the hard sell behind and focuses on quality performances in an intimate clubhouse.
At a tall brick building called the Barrel House, in a nondescript SOMA alley, a group of art and music fans who double as contemporary Mad Men have been throwing 300-capacity shows with big acts (Wyclef Jean, Martha Wainwright) and lesser-known indie bands (Birdmonster, We Are Scientists). The host for these gigs is year-old ad agency Pereira O'Dell, which has spent the recession getting rich, thanks to such wealthy clients as the University of Phoenix and Yahoo. In turn, it has created twice-monthly word-of-mouth arts gatherings in the spacious old wine cask warehouse that used to be its office. The gigs are worth popping into for the no-cost entry, but also for the unusual combo of eclectic bookings — there are comedy nights as well as music ones — and casually cool atmosphere. The place still feels like an old speakeasy, which it apparently was during Prohibition.
Technically, the Barrel House shows are private. But the owners have allowed their invites to be passed around the city, so anyone can come so long as you e-mail your RSVP and the guest list isn't full. (The latest info is available at www.barrelhousesf.com.) Barrel House's bars are stocked with free drinks and snacks sponsored by Pereira O'Dell's clients.
Colin Spooner, director of business development, says the performances double as benefits for various causes; the idea is to "do good for the community." The artists donate their time and choose a charity where all that evening's individual donations and tips from the bar will go, with patrons encouraged to give generously that night or later through a special online portal. Spooner says most evenings raise $2,000 to $6,000 for specific nonprofits: Wyclef Jean's appearance earned $10,000 for the singer's Yele Haiti foundation. Of course, Pereira O'Dell benefits the most, gaining cred — and business — by curating gatherings ripe for grassroots marketing with the prime demographic of artsy music lovers.
Last week I hit Barrel House's most recent concert, a gig for Ann Arbor's Mayer Hawthorne, a buzzed-about blue-eyed soul man who has the ear of superproducer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse). The singer's debut record isn't out until September, so we were getting a special sneak peek.
By 8 p.m., the place was packed, San Francisco's fashionable young creative class chatting under neon beer signs and a big stained-glass window. The complimentary drinks and beauty product samples triggered some dot-com launch flashbacks, but the corporate presence remained comparatively subtle. In the main room, the biggest wall hanging wasn't a business logo, but a breast cancer awareness mural. It was painted by local artists Ferris Plock, Jay Howell, and Cody Cochran, and features grinning pink women holding flags and the slogan "Prevention is the cure." Most of the small talk around the room seemed to center on the performance and the design of the impressive three-story space. One confused attendee asked his friend whether we were in someone's home, as the building, with its spiral staircase and second-floor loft with antler candle holders, carried a strong live-work vibe.
Free admission gets folks through the doors, but it doesn't always make them pay attention. Barrel House's seated comedy nights have apparently gone off without much background chatter, but at Hawthorne's show the conversations grew increasingly louder as his performance wore on. By the end, the band was in competition with the audience's post-happy hour complacency. The singer — decked out in black and white, like the rest of his swankily suited band — seemed to take the crowd volume in stride. His music isn't well known, so he attempted to charm people by throwing his head back wildly during the more impassioned, Curtis Mayfield–inspired choruses. He also sprinkled charismatic banter between songs. "I like shopping for records, and long walks on the beach," he quipped. "Follow me on Twitter — I be Tweetin'."
Hawthorne set a playful mood, which was enhanced when two men strolled up to the stage carrying giant bouquets of red heart balloons, which they released into the exposed ceiling beams midset.
You'd never get that extra touch of atmosphere at a standardized rock club. In combination with the retro-leaning music, the helium spectacle made it feel like we were suddenly at some bizarro-world prom. Instead, we were at a bizarro-world ad agency party, one that had turned the art of the quiet sale into an underground, arts-friendly event. It's a tradition Pereira O'Dell plans to continue cultivating, with plans for future events in the works. They can't confirm any names just yet, but Spooner's wish list is on par with Outside Lands' headliners. Even if he doesn't get Eddie Vedder on a Barrel House bill, though, these free gigs promise to soon be the worst-kept secret in the city.