No Way back Presents ESG
Saturday, March 3
"It's perfect, they play it all perfect. Now everyone'll get to go and say they saw them and you can file it away and tell people 'I was there, maaaan.'" This was the warning given to me by a friend when I told him I was headed to ESG's farewell show last Saturday at the Mezzanine. Granted, he has a point: There's something questionable about old bands that reform and tour for the sake of profiting off nostalgia. Yet, in this case, I'm not sure if it's such an issue: ESG has been going strong since its re-incarnation in the early '00s, and in the 34 years since the ladies started, they've never given way to the bloated excesses that often comes with commercial success. In fact, listen to their latest material, and you'll find that it sounds strikingly similar to the music they've always made. Also important is that ESG is calling it quits, rather than trying to restart a career.
Fittingly, last Saturday saw the group do what it has always done best, as the members played a much-anticipated show in San Francisco on the final tour before the end of their run.
Legendary New York nightlife entrepreneur Rudolf Piper allegedly once said that "a dash of grit is an essential ingredient for any happening scene." If that's true -- and I suspect it is -- Mezzanine is one of the best clubs in San Francisco. Located on Jessie Street, just off Sixth Street, the club is situated next to one of the city's most blighted areas. If you don't have the fortune of a taxi or car, getting to the Mezzanine involves navigating an obstacle course of a neighborhood that, depending on the evening, might include: stumbling drunks, passed out drunks, drunks in cars, discarded syringes, lost clubbers, red-eyed dealers pushing a product called "zoom," pissed-off cabbies, juiced-up looking cops, and/or the rest of Sixth Street's fallout. Of course, you can always take the easy route and walk up to Mint Plaza from Mission, but where's the challenge in that?
Avalon and I managed to make our way to the club safely enough, and at 11 p.m. we found ourselves inside its cavernous interior. An unpretentious and welcoming two-level space, if you look hard enough you can almost imagine the industrial warehouse it must have been in a previous life.
The room was packed wall-to-wall with an impressive mixture of people that seemed to ignore the arbitrary borders that tend to divide nightlife. It was the sort of place where an older man in a checkerboard-patterned belly shirt could rub elbows with a girl dressed like Cyndi Lauper, or any number of people reliving the glory days of the early-'00s 1980s revival.
When we arrived, No Way Back DJs Conor and Solar were taking turns on an all-vinyl set that moved through classics and rarities alike. Their selections matched the mood perfectly and served to gently warm up the crowd. Tracks like Rockers Revenge's "Walking on Sunshine" collided with Cage's cover of T-Connection's "Do What You Wanna Do" to create a feeling worthy of ESG's relationship to the Paradise Garage. Their music was fantastic, but on Saturday everything was taken to the next level by the visual spectacle provided by lighting guru Donovan Drummond. A curator of content on a Facebook group called "The Psychedelic Light Show Preservation Society," he used a whole arsenal of gear to project multiple layers of gels, videos, and slides on the walls behind the DJ booth. Looking like a mad scientist, he seemed to be constantly in motion, playing off the rhythms in the room to create a stunning and totally immersive environment.
ESG took the stage at 12:30 a.m. to massive fanfare. Performing as a lean five-piece with three of the group's original sisters in attendance, they tore through a set of tightly executed crowd favorites. Starting off with "You're No Good," they quickly had the whole room jumping and singing along. They took their time and played with the basic structure of their songs to allow for extended segments and mind-blowing, Wayne's World-worthy solos courtesy of drummer Valerie Scroggins. "UFO," "Dance," "Tiny Sticks" -- with each new song, the energy in the room seemed to grow stronger. During "The Beat," it was so intense that a girl up front jumped on stage and danced around with her skirt lifted precariously above her waist. I'm not sure if she knew, but regardless, the crowd gave her so much applause that it would have been a standing ovation in any other context. Feeding off the spirit of the instant, the band dropped into the conga-madness of "Moody," and for a moment it felt as though we were all stuck in that club scene from Vampire's Kiss.
Finally, the group ended its set with the relatively new "My Street" before waving and leaving the stage. People clapped, cheered, and held their ground as they tried to coax the group into coming out for one last song. After a short eternity, Nicole Scroggins came out and got the crowd chanting "E-S-G!" It almost reached roar, but the band's return to the stage quieted things down. "That's what our momma named us" quipped lead vocalist Renee Scroggins as they took the stage. Thanking the crowd for 34 years of support, they finished off an excellent set with "You Make No Sense" as the last song. Here again they teased things out into a longer extended version, with enough time to throw CDs at the audience and even call people up onto the stage for one last dance-off.
Some stragglers held out hope for a second encore, but the music on the PA quickly put such desires to rest. Trying to beat the rush, we slipped past the coat check and out the door to grab our taxi home.