January can be an interesting month for live music in San Francisco. With many large tours still in holiday hiatus mode, the local weirdos get to take over the city's venues and conduct all sorts of unusual musical experiments in them. One of this year's most notable midwinter trials is the Family Folk Explosion residency -- a free series led by Mission folk-rocker Mark Matos that's been packing the mellow insides of Amnesia full every Tuesday night in January. (It continues tonight and concludes next Tuesday.)
Matos is a known quantity around town -- he's collaborated with seemingly everyone in the Misson's sprawling scene, and his band Os Beaches was on Porto Franco until the label's demise -- but the Family Folk Explosion is a different kind of project. "It's my rock 'n' roll roadshow," Matos explains. "It's my Buffalo Bill fantasy -- I call it my rock 'n' roll community center of the spirit."
Essentially, Matos has gathered a large, loose group of musicians to play his songs, their songs, and covers on Amnesia's tiny stage in a kind of Last Waltz-like showcase. The music wanders between blazing guitar blues, classic country tunes (the group does an excellent "Long Black Veil"), and straight-up rock, although most of it has strong flavors of psychedelic Americana. It's like the last 60 years of American music seen through the mushroom-hazed eyes of a bunch of West Coast misfits.
But the charm of the Family Folk Explosion shows is less in the songs themselves -- which can vary from excellent to humdrum -- than in the atmosphere that these performers bring to the stage. Matos, wearing a huge black beard, an acoustic guitar, and white facepaint, supplies the vision for the ensemble and some of its songs, but he cedes singing and frontman duties to a rotating crew of performers. (Guest players have included Tyson Vogel of local blues-folk duo Two Gallants; tonight's will be Danny Pearson of American Music Club and Steve Taylor from Rogue Wave.) There's an electric unpredictability this motley crew brings to the tiny Amnesia stage, a sense that the music could leap into something incredible at any moment, and it often does.
The Family Folk Explosion is also a showcase for some talented younger performers: Annie Girl, a singer and guitarist whom Matos discovered while playing at last year's Harmony Festival; Matthew "Wild Hawk" Welde, a fiery guitar player and singer; and Matt Szmela, a blistering violinist who didn't even have room to stand onstage the last time we saw Family Folk Explosion. Matos is working on Annie Girl's debut recording now, and Szmela, according to Matos, has quickly become a hot commodity among local groups looking for a violinist. The Folk Explosion's rhythm section also includes Dave Mihaly on drums and Joe Lewis on bass -- both skilled regulars on the local scene and recording artists in their own right.
Matos sees the Folk Explosion's January residency as a success -- the free shows have been quite full -- but he's hoping to eventually take the project farther, fulfilling his dream of a loose gathering of musicians playing in a Buffalo Bill-style roadshow. It won't exclude Matos from working with his regular band, Os Beaches, but instead serve as a compliment to it. "It it a band? It's not really a band," he says of the Family Folk Explosion. "It's more like a band in the American Indian way. It's a troupe. And I hope that we can come in and out of it in these different ways."
The Family Folk Explosion plays tonight and next Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Amnesia. The free shows start around 9:30 p.m.