Lost in the Night: Relax, Relate, Release and Lights Down Low
Friday, Dec. 23, 2011
Better than: Watching a Yule log burn on TV.
There's something eerie about San Francisco on Christmas weekend. Walk around during the daytime and you'll find yourself in a Twilight Zone version of the city. The streets are mostly empty, the stores are all shut down, and an almost terrifying silence cuts through the air. If it's like that during the day, you can only imagine the dead calm at night. But not everyone had emptied out for this past holiday weekend, and my itinerary for the evening had me bound toward Monarch, one of the city's newest nightspots.
I hopped a cab near my house and was rushed down Market towards the blighted urban core of Sixth and Mission. With vague recollections of a misspent hipster youth flashing through my head, I stepped onto the curb in front of the club's facade. The well-lit Monarch exterior stands in stark contrast to the street's drab and illicit happenings. A porno video store across the street provides the perfect backdrop for a flow of the city's dispossessed.
Inside, the space is compartmentalized. A cocktail bar reminiscent of an ultra lounge dominates the upstairs area. Behind it, a small seating area is serviced by a DJ booth connected to a modest soundsystem. The two times I've been to the club, this room has featured more laid-back forms of music: lounge, '60s soul (played on 7-inch), and downtempo. Friday saw a well-heeled crowd mingling in the eaves and corners of the room.
Upstairs is a fairly run-of-the-mill situation for Sixth street. On its own, this part of Monarch would be on equal footing with its immediate neighbors of Showdown and the (now closed) Anu. What sets the new club apart, however, is its basement. Walk down a steep industrial stairwell to a cave below, and you'll find yourself in a unique setting.
I arrived in the basement at Monarch around midnight. It's a large concrete box with details of leather paneling and wood throughout. The front of the room is dominated by a huge bar that's flanked on one side by a sizable DJ booth. Across the room are two generously sized bottle service areas and a large stage blocked off by curtains. The lighting of the room is dark, with only a disco ball providing visual accompaniment. This minimal lighting allows the sound of the room to take center stage. Circling the room are four cartoon-like horn arrays for the club's Void Acoustics soundsystem.
A large crowd had gathered on the dancefloor in spite of the holiday weekend. Well dressed and young, it was hard to tell if the draw was the venue or the party. I got there in time to catch the tail end of a back-to-back set by Relax, Relate, Release DJs Vin Sol and Richie Panic. The two of them worked the eager crowd with a schizophrenic set that touched on hyped-up bass sounds and classics played on wax. Vinyl pumped through the club's system sounded absolutely amazing; tracks like Blackman's "Beat that Bitch With a Bat," Hashim's "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)," and Loose Joints' "Tell You (Today)" came out of the speakers with a richness and clarity that I can't say I've heard anywhere else. This is undoubtedly due to the speaker system itself, but also because of the club's policy of judiciously enforcing the levels on the mixer. I'm not kidding: Every time the sound seemed too loud, one of the club's owners seemed to appear in the booth and bring everything back down to an acceptable level. This seems like it would be annoying, but in practice it effectively made sure the sound remained optimal throughout the entire night. Hopefully this practice will teach more DJs to be mindful of their sound levels.
Finally, Jim-E Stack closed out the party. With clean-cut hair and a black T-shirt, he projected a calm and reserved demeanor. He played entirely on CDs and followed a similar tack as Richie Panic and Vin Sol. It was a liberal mixture of classics and newer, more jumpy material. Songs like Tronco Traxx's "Walk For Me" and Circle Children's "Zulu" kept the room moving even after the lights in the room turned on around 2 a.m.