SF Weekly's All Shook Down Fest: Battlehooch, Richie Cunning, and Con Brio
August 6, 2011
[See Part II of our ASD Fest roundup, featuring Crystal Castles, Mistah F.A.B., and more]
Better than: A company picnic.
Saturday night was technically our party, and we did reserve the right to cry if we so desired. Luckily, SF Weekly's All Shook Down Music Fest at the Regency Ballroom didn't have much in common with our ill-fated birthday party at the zoo 12 years ago, so no tears were shed.
The evening started with Con Brio on the main stage, with Xandra Corpora's soulful voice making a small but enthusiastic and growing crowd feel wise for having shown up on the early side.
The band played in a surprisingly wide range of styles, an expanded musical palette compared to its 2010 debut album, From the Hip. One song, for example, hopped back and forth between the group's signature soul-funk and a Latin groove. And "You Fuckers," a decent track from From the Hip, took on unexpected intensity and confidence, with a new, ear-catching burst of dissonance at the start and end.
As the first group of the evening, the band suffered from the typical but still unfortunate woe of openers: crappy sound mixing. Corpora's vocals -- one of the group's strongest selling points -- were a bit buried in the cloudy mix of guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, and horns.
After Con Brio came Battlehooch, a delightfully kooky, genre-bending group that describes itself as a shape-shifting orchestral rock band. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but, then again, we probably would have been wrong anyway.
The set kicked into high gear with "Somersaults," a strange song that somehow happened to rock extraordinarily hard while also having some klezmer-ish influences in the main melody. All six band members pranced around the stage with infectious enthusiasm and wide-eyed craziness that endeared them to an increasingly smitten audience.
The set's high point came with "The Game Song," which was (allegedly) improvised in front of the crowd. Vocalist Pat Smith played rock conductor, commanding his band mates to create melodies, change tempos, or switch styles on the spot. The result was impressive -- guitarist A.J. McKinley started the song with a catchy riff (perhaps too good to have been improvised), and the song developed as the screen behind the stage gave audience members their own set of instructions (like "JAZZ HANDS"). At one point, Smith turned his back to the crowd and emulated a conductor, speeding up or slowing down his fellow musicians. Smith's bizarre instructions to McKinley: "AJ, rub your guitar on the mic stand."
Much to its credit, the band reminded us what concerts are supposed to be like -- impossibly fun. "Everybody please snap. Snap snap snap. Keep snapping," Smith said. "We can see you if you're not snapping." Or, before launching into the bouncy song "Joke," "Let me see your fingers -- you got fingers?" Before another song: "I think it's time to hop on one foot" (in response to which all band members played their instruments while hopping on one foot).
From Battlehooch, we went downstairs to the Sutter Stage to see local rapper Richie Cunning, a talented lyricist and relentless lover of San Francisco. He began his half-hour set on a funky note with "Work It Out," the second track from his 2010 album, Night Train.
"How many people here know who I am?" he asked. "Two -- that's twice as many as the last time," he said, somewhere between a joke and a jab. The crowd was thin -- most were probably upstairs watching Maus Haus -- but enthusiastic, especially after a noteworthy freestyle about the Bay Area. Throughout the set, he paced back and forth across the stage, filling up the small space in a white T-shirt and a Giants hat.
He closed with "Pure Imagination," a gorgeous track about the tantalizing but frustrating dream of making it as a rapper. The track samples the theme song from 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. For some reason (maybe the treble was way down?), the live song seemed to be missing the string section from the recorded version, leaving the performance a little underwhelming.
Still, his overall delivery was strong. Keep an eye on Cunning -- you might be hearing about him soon if you haven't already.
Personal bias: I left before Crystal Castles' set and was glad to be out of the building by the time they started.
Best outfit: Pink fishnets and SF Weekly's red hipster glasses (with the lenses popped out, of course).
Best swag: The aforementioned hipster glasses (better with lenses, though).
Best dancer: The guy in the crowd who busted out the Bollywood moves during J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science's set.
Commands given during Battlehooch's "The Game Song":
More: Our take on sets from Crystal Castles, Mistah F.A.B., Maus Haus and more at All Shook Down.