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The best new club in S.F., Madrone Lounge, is a -- gasp! -- collective art space

Wednesday, Apr 13 2005
Good intentions are usually the kiss of death for a club.

"Yeah, man," says the hypothetical art gallery/modern dance studio/bar owner, "we want to create a space where artists and musicians and community members can all gather and, like, share each other's visions, and, like, you know, keep it positive." But what you usually end up with is a long, shabby room painted deep purple in a gnarly part of town. A lone DJ -- the owner's roommate -- is at one end, and at the other his three friends are drinking tall boys to the strains of Blueprint. The walls are hung with someone's hip hop Basquiat rip-offs, and the owner's girlfriend's vegan banana bread just ain't movin' like she'd hoped. Goddamn hippies. It was bad enough that they kept the Grateful Dead on life support for decades (where were those "activist judges" when we needed them?), but now they've moved into urban culture as well.

The first mistake these places make is the idea of all-inclusion. "We'll have punk one night, bluegrass the next!" Democracy is overrated enough without throwing music into the fore. Call me a fascist, but for anything to be good it has to have one vision. This is not to say that liberal ideas are impossible to carry over into a viable club business. It's just that most of these "Let's put on a show!" youngsters who start up their own collectives have no unified theory. They are so corporate-phobic that they form their businesses into a decidedly boring kind of chaos. I am biased against such endeavors, having lived many years in art-funky Oakland, where at least one poorly conceived, overly idealistic art space gets shut down each week.

That's why I am overjoyed to say that the best new club in S.F., Madrone Lounge, happens to be a collective art space intent on bettering its neighborhood and allowing different creative people to interact and share their work. I can't believe I just wrote that with a straight face, but thump a cow and make it meow, when something works, it works. The reason it works is not because it is a great art space, but because it is a kick-ass bar in its own right -- something none of the other kumbayas have figured out how to pull off.

Madrone sits at the corner of Fell and Divisadero, looking on the outside like a realty firm or a bed-and-breakfast. It's art-collective funky when you first walk in, with potted houseplants and fliers for upcoming shows in the foyer, a foreboding choice suggesting rave-y club-y lameness inside. But no, from there you emerge into a large, beautiful room with amber lighting from old chandeliers, rich dark wood, eclectic old sofas, and pockets of people from the neighborhood having giggly nightcaps.

The place opened last October, after owner Leila Fakouri spent more than two years begging her neighbors, the city, and the powers that be to let her start up a bar in the Western Addition. This would be different, she said, this would be a place that would support the community and be a gallery for artists, fashion designers, and musicians to showcase their work. "Yeah, right," was the collective reply, even from yours truly. But Fakouri proved everyone wrong by actually creating a cohesive, beautiful spot that does just that. Go figger.

I think this place works because it has the same thing good art has: that, er, certain boombah. For example, why is it that Jackson Pollock could spatter paint on a canvas and make a masterpiece, while little Jacob on Trading Spaces: Family does likewise and it looks as conflicted and sloppy as that show's host/designer Frank Bielec's sexuality? The answer: boombah. Well, Madrone's got so much boombah -- an awesome DJ, great artists, lovely surroundings -- that, well, kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya ...

A hipster's boozing my Lord, kumbaya ...

He's had a whole Chambourd, kumbaya ....

There are some similarities that this place has to other "lounges" that have cropped up in the city lately (note to new bar owners: Lose the "lounge" name; it is already stale). For starters, it has the same dark, muted walls of other "chill" spaces, but Fakouri chose the perfect blue: sort of a mystic blue-gray. Madrone also has the token Asian influence here and there, but instead of Japanese touches its designers have incorporated Thai woodcarving. The bar has infused vodka, which other joints have, too, but here the stuff is included in the design scheme, with several tall glass containers of various colors and ingredients backlit for effect like some neon biology lab. And there's a projection screen on one end that was playing Tommy on the night I was there, an old idea that seemed almost novel in the inspired atmosphere.

As stated above, the MO at Madrone is to blend art with nightlife. When I was there the art exhibit was a series of photos from several talented photographers. It featured head shots of peeps looking thoughtful or sitting in their rooms pensively. The series was called "Persona," and, perhaps because I slept through "Art Appreciation," I didn't quite see how the theme came through: "'Persona' considers the role that one assumes or displays in public or society, one's public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self." It just looked like pictures of people doing nothing, but what do I know.

Then there was the music. The DJ hadn't come on yet (there are DJ nights here just about every day of the week), so a mix was being played, and it was fantastic: cerebral but not didactic hip hop blended into a bit of weird indie-rock noise and then back to a remix of some obscure '60s soul number. Now, many places do this stuff and it sounds generic, like they're trying to be hip. But this music truly was exceptional, obviously culled from an open-minded crate-digger's collection and not some Buddha Bar comp. The crowd was hip but down to earth, like NYU grad students or something.

Fakouri has already set her sights on saving an old theater down the street, part of that "community" thing she promised. But mostly she is reinventing the Western Addition by making it a cool destination with the help of the Independent a block away. Now that's what I call the boombah-kumbaya.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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