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Happy New Ear 

Give a listen to this city's wide array of authentic music.

Wednesday, Jan 20 2010

Looking for a little more of the real thing for your listening pleasure in the new year? For cultural connoisseurs in pursuit of more authentic listening experiences, the polyglot city of San Francisco can be a goldmine. With its collision of cultures, our little melting pot by the bay is one of the easier places in the country to partake of life's sonic smorgasbord. It's not everywhere you can take in Slavic lutes, traditional Irish music, and gospel versions of John Coltrane's music in a single weekend.

Establishments like the Asian Art Museum ( and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ( often host traditional music and dance from far-flung cultures. And with a little digging, you can hear some heartfelt jazz, blues, folk, world music, and beyond in higher-profile clubs and dive bars lurking on the city's periphery; the comprehensive listings at are often a good place to start.

There's certainly no shortage of honest, real-deal rock, noise, hip-hop, indie, avant-garde, classical, and more in this town. But if you're looking for some rootsier, off-the-beaten-track cultural experiences, here are a few suggestions.

Croatian Nation
Tamburitza (aka Tamburica or "Tam") refers to both the traditional music of Croatia and the long-necked lutes popular in Eastern Europe. These old-world instruments provide the focal point for the San Francisco Tam Fest on Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Croatian American Cultural Center. Pennsylvania's versatile Gypsy Stringz headline a seven-hour cavalcade of Croat-centric groups that starts at 1 p.m. The center is at 60 Onondaga (at Mission), a conveniently short stroll from the Balboa Park BART station. Other upcoming events at the center include an International Roma Day Celebration on April 2 and the annual Festival of the Mandolins on April 11. Visit for details and a full list of performers.

Keepin' it real in Bernal Heights
Step through the door at Skip's Tavern (453 Cortland at Andover, and you are transported to a parallel universe where there's never a cover, musicians play soulful blues and R&B every night, and, if you play your cards right, you might get to sit in and jam. There's King's Night — an invitational blues jam hosted by the Shadow Man, "the unofficial mayor of Bernal Heights" — regular jazz improv nights, and plenty of surreal surprises. Skip's is definitely one of San Francisco's more idiosyncratic treasures.

Get yer Irish on
Once named Best Irish Pub by SF Weekly and billed as the Home of Traditional Irish Music in the Bay Area, the Plough and Stars in the Inner Richmond (116 Clement at Second Ave., is the city's best place for genuine music from Ireland and more. This cozy venue features traditional Celtic music, bluegrass, and unusual roots rock, and charges a cover only on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays and Tuesdays, the Plough hosts traditional Irish Sessions that sometime feature up to a dozen musicians; Thursdays offer the opportunity to dance to music from the Emerald Isle.

True blues
Considering that the Boom Boom Room's motto is "San Francisco's Home to Live Roots Music," it's difficult to discuss local real-deal venues without mentioning this storied fixture (1601 Fillmore at Geary, Just drop by the bar sometime and look at the pictures of the artists who have played there. It's pretty much a given that the Boom Boom Room has plenty of world-class blues artists rolling through, but there's also no shortage of New Orleans brass, south-of-the-border funk, soul, and the like.

Tasty jazz
While out-of-towners might find it surprising that much of the Bay Area's best jazz, roots, and ethnic music is presented by a Japanese restaurant, locals have come to embrace this slightly oddball reality. This spring, the San Francisco and Oakland locations of Yoshi's have some interesting events peppering their always-world-class lineups. On Monday, Jan. 25, Quartet San Francisco, which received two Grammy nominations for QSF Plays Brubeck, will be bringing its chamber classical renditions of — what else? — the music of Dave Brubeck to the San Francisco stage (1330 Fillmore at Eddy). Brazil's Trio de Paz visits Feb. 16-17, Larry Coryell and Bombay Jazz perform a melding of jazz and Indian classical March 9-10, ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro works his Hawaiian magic March 21-23, and Mali's Habib Koité brings his pentatonic guitar to S.F. April 1-4. There's plenty of great stuff coming to the Oakland stage (510 Embarcadero West at Washington), too, including a celebration of Gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt's 100th birthday with David Grisman Jan. 21-24. Visit to see calendar listings for both venues.

The Church of John Coltrane
After moving around a bit in recent years, this San Francisco icon seems well-suited to its current jazz-district location (1286 Fillmore at Eddy, Officially known as St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, this congregation uses the music of the late saxophonist — who has been beatified in the African Orthodox faith — to celebrate masses every Sunday from noon until 3 p.m. Led by the church ensemble Ohnedaruth and the Voices of Compassion choir, it's a musically gorgeous and spiritually powerful experience, with all visitors welcome to clap, dance, and sing. You've never heard Coltrane performed quite like this before; it's "A Love Supreme," indeed.

Buona musica Italiana
What could go together better than a cappuccino and the music of Italy? Legendary North Beach coffeehouse Caffe Trieste (601 Vallejo at Grant, hosts both special Italian musical events and longstanding recurring ones. On Saturday mornings, the group Mattinata di Matteo often performs Italian folk music on multiple mandolins, accordion, and guitar. Approximately one Saturday afternoon a month, the venue hosts the Caffe Trieste Saturday Concert, billed as the longest-running show in the city. The Caffe Trieste Band and others provide an Italian musical revue, filled with music of the old country and accordions galore. Every Wednesday night, Caffe Trieste Band guitarist Ned Boynton serves up Gypsy jazz and beyond with his Café Americain trio, and the restaurant often hosts concerts on Thursday nights as well. The Caffe's sister establishment at 1667 Market (at Gough) holds live jazz, blues, and Argentine tango nights.

On the weekends of April 10-11 and 17-18, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival takes place in Japantown in the vicinity of Post and Buchanan streets. Now in its 43rd year, this springtime celebration is an ideal place to see traditional performances rooted in the cultures of Japan and other Asian nations. For starters, there's the stunning mega-drum wallop of the world-famous San Francisco Taiko Dojo, a longstanding festival mainstay. Also promised is a Grand Parade on April 18, featuring performances by Japanese classical (buyo) and folk dance (minyo) groups from across the Bay Area. Visit for more information; a detailed performer schedule should be posted in February.

Resolution Guide: Get Real! 2010

Be Social IRL: Get a real life this year — without giving up the digital one.
By Maya Kroth

Tastes Real: Support your local farmers' market for better food — and a better economy.
By Karen Macklin

Your Farmers' Market Shopping Guide
By Karen Macklin

Real Resolutions: How locals plan to make life changes in the new year.
By Tamara Palmer

About The Author

Mike Rowell


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