The Riptide's signature brick fireplace was veiled behind red velvet curtains on a recent Sunday night, but the Outer Sunset dive still carried the strong scent of burning embers from the night before. Most days the Taraval Street bar is the stamping ground for surfers, punks, and working-class stiffs, but on this particular evening it was dominated by urban cowboys.
They'd been corralled by bandleader Joe Goldmark, a Riptide regular and partner in Amoeba Music, who was clad in a beige cowboy hat and a two-toned Western shirt embroidered with pink tulips. He sat on a small bench before his pedal steel guitar, the instrument that has defined him as an underground San Francisco legend. From that perch, Goldmark cast special countrified magic on entire canons of hits, making his monthly Riptide residency an event no twang fan should miss.
Visually, the pedal steel has very little in common with its acoustic and electric guitar relatives. It looks almost like a metal organ with strings stretched across it horizontally and pedals down below. Goldmark worked a bar with his left hand, while his right fingers fidgeted above the strings like jumpy insects. His feet pivoted along the pedals and his knees hit a network of levers that bent the strings up and down. His graceful full-body effort added an eccentric melodic edge to an array of musical styles — but the pedal steel's unmistakable twang framed every genre Goldmark tackled in a honky-tonk state of mind.
Goldmark was stationed below a mounted moosehead on an old rug demarcating the performance area from the end of the bar stools. Around him, his band, the Seducers, played through amps stacked on boxes of Pabst and Budweiser. There was the single-earringed bassist Chris Kee, silvery-ponytailed Henry Salvia on a Fender Rhodes, Ken Owens backed into a corner by his drum kit, and Hank Maninger looking like a rockabilly pinup on guitar and vocals.
The Seducers have held a Riptide residency for six months, but this was their first performance with Maninger. The vibe was more basement rehearsal than Saturday night at the Great American. Sheet music and setlists were strewn about, and the musicians conferred about the key the songs should be played in. Then again, they weren't earning marquee wages here. At the edge of the bar, a black "tip boot" wrapped in silver electric tape held the evening's wages for these San Francisco country-rock vets, who have played in such acts as Jim Campilongo and the 10-Gallon Cats, the Hacienda Brothers, and the Dave Gleason Band.
Their attitude may have been beachcomber casual, but the playing was excellent. The Seducers lived up to their name, their energy contagious as these friends, who have worked together in various combinations for 20 years, repeatedly joked with one another. Even more enticing was the unique mix of covers and originals that comprised their three-hour, three-set stint. They moved effortlessly among Little Feat's "Willin'," Elton John's "Country Comfort," Booker T. & the MGs' "Soul Dressing," Dave and Ansel Collins' reggae tune "Double Barrel," instrumental lounge numbers, and classic country from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (Maninger's wife, Lynn, played a lively June Carter to Hank's Johnny on "Jackson."). One other highlight: "Highway Patrol," with Goldmark conjuring funky siren sounds from his pedal steel while a real-life officer, who came in to deliver a noise complaint, sat at the bar.
Goldmark claims the police are generally friendly toward the Riptide — mostly because owner Les James, drummer for local roots band Red Meat, has turned the place from a former crank den into a mellow surf and country hangout. For his part, Goldmark is a big Riptide fan, too. "We wouldn't even have a band if it wasn't for that bar," he says, adding that live performances are a challenge when you play only for fun. "We don't want to have to compete with all the kid bands, the four and five bands that play in one night somewhere."
The Seducers have built up a loyal following playing in unpretentious confines, making you feel you're in on a city secret. A good two or three dozen people came out for the last performance, stuffing multiple bills in the boot. Goldmark, an Arizona native who started playing pedal steel in the late '60s, says country rock's hold has faded in the Bay Area over the decades. "San Francisco never really supported country music," he says. "We've always been too cosmopolitan for that. But there's also always been a hard-core scene that likes it. There's a crowd that comes out to the Riptide just because it's so hard to find this kind of music."
Goldmark is indeed a lone ranger, both in his instrument of choice and in the breadth of tunes he uses it for. He has released six records that run the gamut from Beatles singles to R&B, '60s rock, Zappa tunes, and Latin and highlife songs, and he has played on a handful of records, including David Byrne's True Stories.
A musician whose advice is "Don't quit your day job," Goldmark has been part owner of Amoeba since 1997 and founded Escape from New York Pizza in 1987. But his biggest accomplishment among music fans has been keeping the pedal steel alive in this town. It's an expensive hobby: Beginner models start at $600, while pro versions are at least $2,000. And then there's the complicated technique, which involves complex string combinations and pedal positions. "It's not as user-friendly as a guitar is," he says. "You can't take it to the beach." He adds that lap-steel guitars, which have six strings and no pedals, are increasingly popular, although "you don't get the country twang from them. They're more bluesy."
Goldmark was for years a dedicated archivist for his instrument, documenting every pedal steel player and every pedal steel record made. For now, he's content spending one Sunday evening a month on the Riptide rug, bringing his passion for twang out of the margins of the music scene.