Electric folkie, indie-rock goddess, and baseball nut Barbara Manning must have been in the witness protection program. Or maybe she was farming alpacas in New Zealand. In any case, she's been largely absent from the S.F. live music scene for almost a decade. (It turns out she was getting a bachelor's in biology at Cal State Chico.) But you'd never know it, based on her rip-roaring set at the Hemlock with her new band the Sleaze Tax (formerly Sleestack).
Manning has played under many names throughout her long career. After stints in 28th Day and World of Pooh, she formed the SF Seals in 1992 (named for the long-defunct baseball team) and recorded the baseball-themed EP One Perfect Green Blanket. Lazier critics have compared her voice to Liz Phair's, but Manning can actually sing, unlike Phair's lower-register tunelessness. After several solo albums and guest spots with the likes of the 6ths, Stuart Moxham, and various Flying Nun stalwarts (David Kilgour and Chris Knox played on 1999's Live in New Zealand), she recorded two albums as the Go-Luckys with Flavio and Fabrizio Sternbach at the start of the decade before going on musical hiatus.
The Hemlock audience was a solid cadre of loyal fans, including one guy who was a dead ringer for The Onion's Jim Anchower in what looked to be an all-tabby-cat remake of the recently viral Three Wolf Moon t-shirt. Another wore a shirt declaring "Damn the Rules," while several tattooed princess brides, one in a tiara, were in evidence.
After several albums that showcased her folky, underproduced and acoustic side, Manning has decided to rock -- which was much appreciated by the crowd. The smiling singer took the stage in a geometric-print red, black, and white frock and proceeded to blow the audience's ears off with the help of Jason Wooten (guitar), Ginny (bass), and Mike Erpino (pounding the hell out of his drums). "We picked the Hemlock because we know how to make a small audience look big!" she declared.
"I Mean Nothing," a Go-Luckys song about the number zero, had an irresistible "doo doo doo" singalong chorus. The catchy but creepy "Ipecac" (an SF Seals song, from 1995's Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows) was followed by a couple of Sleaze Tax originals on which Manning channeled her inner Courtney love, hollering "YOWWWWWWW! Get her out of the way!" During "Deep Sea Diver" (another Go-Luckys song), Erpino thumped his drums so frenziedly that one of his sticks flew out into the crowd.
The set was brutally short and fast. After Manning's announcement that the band had only two more songs was met with groans from the crowd, she relented. "That's the way they want 'em in Chico!" she teased. "But just 'cause you're so nice, we're gonna add one more song." Then the band played "Pulp," also from Truth Walks ("Kiss me where it doesn't show").
At the end, Manning sweetly thanked the audience. "Don't forget to take the bus home if you've had too much to drink," she warned.