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Riff Raff 

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
Kickin' It Live With Harry Denton Last week, a motley array of local bands found themselves in an unlikely spot -- Harry Denton's Starlight Room, 21 stories high above Union Square at the top of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The Mr. T Experience, Grandaddy, Liar, the Hi-Fives, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and Shelly Doty -- all of whom are used to cramped, somewhat dingy spaces that don't exactly jibe with Denton's swanky affairs -- were getting their live acts taped for a new batch of episodes of Live at the Starlight Room.

You may remember the show from last summer -- it aired late on Saturday nights and featured films, sketches, and live performances that frankly made the barrel scrapings of Saturday Night Live's final half-hour look like creative genius. Fourteen shows were taped last spring; for the recent batch of episodes, says host and executive producer Marcia Kimpton, the goal was to do it better. Saying that the six shows taped last week are "light-years" better than the earlier ones, she credits the improvements with having more time to prepare: eight months, to be exact, during which she hired new variety sketch writers and retooled the focus toward something "more edgy, more entertaining, more reflective of San Francisco."

One of the people called in to help do that was Ian Brennan, musician, director of the Brain Wash acoustic music series, and all-around local music impresario, who handpicked the bands. "The reason I'm involved is to bring more of an edge to the show," says Brennan. He says that while there was an effort to bring in national acts for the taping, the final shakedown left him with the six acts who were taped over three days -- the Beth Lisick Ordeal and Imperial Teen were also slated to perform, but later canceled. In the future, Brennan says, the plan is to showcase bands that are "maybe just one step from being on Conan," Late Night With Conan O'Brien being a long-standing supporter of not-too-big-not-too-small national groups.

Everybody involved says the tapings went well -- Kimpton says she was "blown away" by Liar, Grandaddy, and Doty -- although Hi-Fives bassist Steve Imlay says the bands spent so much time sitting around the lounge waiting for their cues that they began to wonder if they were going to live at the Starlight Room. The shows are slated to begin airing late nights starting in June and July, syndicated in a handful of markets across the country, including Dallas, Madison, Des Moines, and San Diego. (Mark Athitakis)

In a Stylus Way The fusion of hip hop and jazz isn't a new thing; Gang Starr's DJ Premier started the recent trend with his Jazzmatazz series of albums in the mid-'90s, and there are Gil Scott-Heron and Last Poets records available if you want to get all archival about it. But the melding so far hasn't sounded quite as forceful as it does on trumpeter Russell Gunn's third album, Ethnomusicology Volume 1, which features former Skratch Pikl and DMC champion DJ Apollo's turntable work. The results hint at Miles Davis' fusion-era work, propelled through the blender of Apollo's scratching. "DJ Apollo Interlude" is 30 seconds of frenetic scratching, after which a mock audience exclaims, "Wow!"

Both Gunn and Apollo are alumni of Buckshot LeFonque, Branford Marsalis' jazz-funk side project. After touring with the group through 1997, Apollo was asked to contribute to Ethnomusicology, Gunn's fifth album. For the Gunn album, Apollo says the idea was "just trying to blend in with Russell's music ... bringing a scratching, hip-hop element and thinking musically." The disc was recorded last summer, and in the meantime Apollo is finishing a new album, simply titled DJ Apollo (though with no label yet), and is planning a tour later this year with DJs Vinroc and Shortkut. (M.A.)

Meet the New Boss -- Same as the Old Boss? The new Mission Rock is open for business -- and that's either a good or bad thing, depending on which side of the gentrification fence you're standing on. The original China Basin restaurant and nightclub, a rustic '50s lodge-style structure known for its lazy lunches and late-night parties, had been a favorite among locals for over 50 years. That was until a year ago, when the Port Authority terminated the lease of longtime owner Norma Wahl after she allowed the building to fall into disrepair. The new owners, an investment group headed by the former owner of Pat O'Shea's, rebuilt the place.

The upstairs deck is now an upscale restaurant, specializing in new American seafood fare, while the downstairs offers casual patio dining. Dan Touye, a part owner and full-time general manager, says he understood the affection many held for the place's previous incarnation, and tried to keep some of the old spirit alive. "We kept the original decks and relaxed atmosphere downstairs," he says. "People can still walk up and enjoy a burger on a Sunday afternoon."

Another aspect of the venue that remains intact is its live entertainment. Throughout March and April, salsa bands like the Franco Brothers will play in the upstairs bar, with the possibility of jazz in the future. But a return to the days of DJ parties might have to wait. "We've been approached by Bulletproof about having a DJ party," says Touye. "We're not opposed to the idea, but were going to take entertainment slow." (Robert Arriaga)

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.


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