Sunday, Oct. 14, 2013
It's becoming increasingly hard to find parties in San Francisco that focus on providing a welcoming atmosphere. In fact, it's almost exclusively the older, more established events that strive to trade on vibe and song selection rather than high-profile guests, stacked line-ups, and/or fashion. One such older party is Sweater Funk, a long-standing Sunday-night weekly that uses its soundtrack of obscure '80s funk to create one of most comfortable environments in the city. As recently as last year it was located in the basement at Li Po Lounge. Fire concerns and legal issues ended that, but the party found a new home (well, new as of quite a while ago) at the Knockout.
Honestly, not much has changed in the move. Walking up to the club, there's the same sense of impending fun, with bursts of jazzy '80s synthesizer drifting out from within. Much like Grant Street outside Li Po, the only activity on Mission was a few hipster girls smoking idly while chatting with their friends. One of them checked my ID at the entrance, reminding me to get a hand stamp so she wouldn't need to do it again. The sweet chorus and plodding bassline of Fonda Rae's "Heobah" played behind my entrance and subsequent beer order.
The Knockout is a great venue for Sweater Funk. It's a casual space with dive-bar appeal that fits the format well. The party is loose, with a unique DJ setup that feels familial in its approach. There are something like 13 resident DJs at Sweater Funk, and each party a couple of them show up to take turns behind the mixer at the front of the room. There weren't any posted set times, so the feeling was loose and natural, with selectors taking turns to allow each other time to hit the bar or grab a smoke. The back wall of the booth is covered in record bags, with loose sleeves and 7-inch boxes scattered around, creating an impressive mess that the DJs would occasionally flip through to choose the next song.
The relaxed feeling in the booth translated to the dancefloor as well, with a nicely filled room full of acrobatic dancers executing variations on a West Coast pop-lock theme. The crowd was eclectic, with an even balance between the sexes made more diverse by a mingling of the Knockout's usual crowd of Mission hipsters with Sweater Funk's more record-obsessed clientele. Nothing felt forced, and there was a sense that it didn't really matter what you did -- some people chose to glide beneath the mirror ball, others sipped beer along the walls, and still more flanked the bar as they conversed while watching muted music videos on a screen floating high above.
Musically speaking, the party is as deep as it's ever been, with its team of DJs supplying a stream of obscure '80s funk cuts that wove a narrative through jazzy rare groove, bouncy funk, and even a little bit of disco. One of the more interesting cuts played was Kenny James' "Can't Keep Holding On," an underrated Megatone record from San Francisco, whose buzzing bassline, Chic-like guitars, and sweetly soulful lyrics make it an odd record for its label (which is more readily associated with hi-nrg), but a totally appropriate record for the party. Each of its DJs has a knack for selecting tracks like this, mixing up more standard fare with unexpected cuts, played in unconventional ways. Another instance came with the original version of Candi Staton's "You Got the Love," a soulful electrofunk track from 1986 that became a rave anthem in the early '90s via a wildly different house-oriented remix.
One of the biggest differences between the Sweater Funk of the moment and its previous incarnations is the addition of KPOO radio DJ K-Maxx, who, throughout the night, acted as the party's boisterous hypeman, hopping on the microphone between intros and breaks to bust out simple riffs that got the crowd screaming. He hopped on the decks a few times too, cueing up some tracks that I was, unfortunately, unable to identify. His DJing, as well as the playing of the other residents, was on point, sliding easily from record to record (which isn't an easy feat, when you consider the often wild rhythmic variations of dance music recorded with a live drummer). Of all the DJs, I caught the most of Guillermo, who played a relatively long set characterized by a string of fantastic records -- none of which I was familiar with -- that he accented with tasteful EQing; he removed the bass, letting the vocals and highs sing in the air before being grounded in the dancers movements when he pushed the kick back in.
By the time I started to make my way out, around 1 a.m., the dancefloor was in full motion. Sweater Funk may be at a new location, but it's still the same welcoming party it's always been. As I fumbled for my keys, I heard an echo of Evelyn Champagne King's "I'm in Love" ricochet out onto Mission Street. It's nice to know some things haven't changed.