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Drop the Ball, Already 

Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
The Embarcadero
Tuesday, Dec. 31

It was the anniversary of our engagement. I'd popped the question to my then-girlfriend last New Year's Eve, just a few short seconds after midnight. At home, in pajamas. With the object of my affection struggling to stay awake, wondering why it was imperative for us to do so.

None of this matters to you, the reader, except to provide a little context for what follows: a review, ostensibly, of this year's SFNYE, the city's biggest, gaudiest, most self-congratulatory display of calendrical revelry. Given the setting (circus tents and hotel function rooms) and the weather (foul), among other things, it may seem needless to say: This year's New Year's celebration was for my beautiful bride and me considerably less memorable than last year's.

Oh, the big event had its share of amusements -- people of all stripes behaving with a bare minimum of inhibition, near-fights, funny hats, and a wealth of talented entertainers gamely shucking and jiving to keep their audiences from trickling into competing tents.

We went because several of the scheduled acts held particular meaning for us. Monica rarely goes to shows with me -- numskull rock doesn't clench her abdomen like it does mine, and even the most spacious of nightclubs make her claustrophobic. (Not to mention that Dusty Springfield hasn't been touring much lately.) But when we lived in New Orleans, we'd seen her favorite country Cyrano, Lyle Lovett, play an acoustic set during a night on the town celebrating Monica's birthday. We've also been partial to Dr. John's second-line psychedelia since the release of his 1992 album Goin' Back to New Orleans, which came out just as we were concocting plans to move to his city. She likes Los Lobos, too, and I think it's safe to say that women in general like Chris Isaak.

So: Raindrops big as coffee rolls were coming down hard as we collected our tickets and hustled into the entry tent, under which DJ Cheb i Sabbah was spinning a nice mix of ethno-techno. We spent our first hour scouting out various sound stages, losing ourselves along with dozens of other partygoers in the bowels of the Hyatt Regency before spilling into the hotel's atrium, site of the Tequila Sauza Disco platform. A crush of shameless participants boogied down to hackneyed dance hits and eyeballed the Jock Jams go-go girls gyrating high above on scaffolding. Outside, at the end of Market Street, the primary stages were hopping with gowned and tuxed high-lifers, fist-waving 49er fans, and post-collegiate chuggers giving each other gasping, staggering piggybacks. In the main-event Pacific Bell Pavilion, East L.A. tunesmiths Los Lobos were playing their most wedding-ish music -- the sax-honkin' "Evangeline," the roots-rockin' "Will the Wolf Survive?," and a medley of Spanish-language corridas and nortenos.

Across the way, past a surreal sculpture of a melting pocket watch, the "Night Tripper" Dr. John led his technically proficient band through a spacey extended jam on the title track to the aforementioned album. That dissonance soon gave way to the familiar N'Awlins shuffle "Big Chief," to which a woman in a red party dress shed her heels and splashed around in stockinged feet in her portion of the puddle.

Back inside the Hyatt, Pete Escovedo and his Latin-jazz big band held a vigil against the witching hour before giving way to one of the night's more glorious sights: a multiculti percussion troupe in a conga line, dressed in Sgt. Pepper sateen and skimpy showgirl attire.

And then came the moment we'd all been waiting for, presumably. With the rain holding as if on cue, most of the revelers filtered out into the open to get a load of the visual mayhem promised for the countdown. Always ready to bless the rabble with his presence at the castle window, Willie Brown suddenly appeared atop a raised platform, barking some unintelligible guff even as another guy with a microphone was trying to officially count down the seconds. A laser show ensued; no one got hurt.

Five minutes later, the headliners took their respective places under the lights, Lovett and his band launching into "I've Been to Memphis" and homeboy Chris Isaak launching into something of his own, we guessed, not being within earshot.

Lovett's second number was a somber version of "Friend of the Devil" -- "One of my favorite songs," he mumbled -- adding to a predictable spate of Grateful Dead memorials at this Bill Graham-presented affair. Los Lobos had offered their take on "Bertha" earlier; and whether or not the grizzled Dr. John did his cover of "Deal," he's had plenty in common with the Dead in his lifetime.

Isaak certainly was dressed for the occasion, done up in a blue Vegas suit drenched in rhinestones. When we caught him, he was groaning his way through "Wicked Game." Not exactly a festive no-brainer, but then, neither are his most upbeat songs. For some unexplained reason, the giant balloons suspended overhead, still containing confetti that should've dropped at midnight, suddenly blew up, at 12:35, on the dot.

Tucked away in the third-string Blues Tent, R&B stalwart and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bobby "Blue" Bland led his band through a pleasant, if pedestrian, revue-style set. When the players quieted down to seduction level, they had to contend with the muffled thump of Lovett's group sawing away in the tent next door, though they forged on like pros.

And so on. In fact, all the performers acted like pros -- workmanlike, not especially inspired, pros. Lovett did "If I Had a Boat" and "L.A. County" from his second album and "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" from his latest, cracking that lopsided smile of his; Isaak kept yodeling bluely, at one point making a comical aside about the "heathenists" in attendance. They're both earnest entertainers -- a weird quality for performers on the cusp of 1997. Back out in the welcome tent, the hirsute tribute band Super Diamond was sauntering somewhat contemptuously through its version of its namesake Neil's "Kentucky Woman." Everybody gets the joke, right? So what's the point in repeating it endlessly? Except that we go through this New Year's thing ad nauseam.

About The Author

James Sullivan


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