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Transmission Theater, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Mark Hummel

Wednesday, Jan 5 2000
Transmission Accomplished? "You can observe a lot by watching," Yogi Berra once said. To which we'll add this corollary: You can observe a lot by watching for what's missing. Like, for example, the fact that there's no advertising for upcoming concerts at the Transmission Theater showing up anywhere, and that no advance schedule of January concerts has made its way to Riff Raff's fax machine. And, should you happen to be walking down the 11th Street strip of clubs and peer into the windows of the Transmission's front door, you'll notice that the stage -- you know, where musicians have generally performed at the Transmission -- isn't there anymore, and that some sort of remodeling is going on inside between the dust and the ladders and whatnot. Taken together, these clues are enough to make a person think the 500-capacity Transmission, which opened next to the Paradise Lounge in 1992 with a performance by the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, won't be hosting any more live music.

The past few months had been slow at the Transmission, and of late the venue has been functioning as a sort of political gathering place; it played host to a meeting of mayoral candidates in September to speak on local high-tech issues, as well as December fund-raising shows for Tom Ammiano and Terence Hallinan.

Moe Staiano, the Manteca-based raw-noise maestro who never met a blunt object he couldn't make music with, had been scheduled to perform with his Moe!kestra at the Transmission on Jan. 7. It was to be his largest performance yet -- 40 to 50 musicians, including members of Charming Hostess and ethereal soundscapist David Slusser, pounding away at God-knows-what. They were to have performed around the audience, leaving no room for escape, and the date was to have included a set-long improvisation called "Piece No. 4: Darkness, Light ... Colour Spots!" But shortly before Christmas, Staiano says that he was told by Robin Reichert, owner of the Paradise and Transmission, the show would have to be rescheduled and perhaps moved to the Paradise. "I asked Robin about it," says Staiano, "and he said that some multimedia place offered them some money to use the space, and thought it'd be good to do that."

A trusted and well-connected source who requested not to be identified corroborates the story; the source was told by a person within the Transmission offices that the Dec. 17 and 18 shows by Calobo marked the end of live music there, at least for now, and that its space has been rented to a high-tech firm, which will use the venue for office and event space.

Reichert doesn't want to go into details publicly about what's going on inside, but he did confirm that an arrangement is in the works regarding a partnership, and that live concerts would be put on hold "for the next couple of months."

Talkin' Documentary Ramblin' Jack Elliott has made a lot of acquaintances in his 68 years on this Earth. From hanging out with Woody Guthrie in Greenwich Village in the '50s to traveling with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, he 's learned a lot about folk music, and many of those same musicians have returned the favor: Dylan took him on tour in the '70s, and Elliott would often open shows with Jerry Garcia, who, even in this town, never got enough credit for his deep respect for old-timey folk and bluegrass. In 1998, admirers of Elliott gathered to record Friends of Mine, which included cast members like Nanci Griffith, Bob Weir, Tom Waits, John Prine, and Woody's kid Arlo.

All of which is just a way to start explaining that Elliott makes for a fascinating character study and personification of American folk music. Not to mention a good subject for a documentary. For the past two years, Elliott's daughter Aiyana has been working as director on The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which will premiere at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival at the end of this month. For the film, archival footage was drawn from folk scholar Alan Lomax and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (who shot the fascinating Dylan biopic Dont Look Back), and interviews were shot with fellow travelers like Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Kris Kristofferson, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie. No word yet as to Bay Area screenings of the documentary, though Elliott will perform at the Noe Valley Ministry Jan. 14.

Something for Us to Harp On Mark Hummel has been calling the East Bay home since he was a teenager in 1972, and even then he was a student of all things related to the harmonica. He was a fan of famed Chicago bluesmen like James Cotton and Sonny Boy Williamson, but quickly became immersed in the West Coast sound, forming the Blues Survivors in 1980 and playing regularly at blues festivals nationwide. And, as part of his harmonica evangelism, he'll host the ninth annual Blues Harmonica Blow Out at Yoshi's. In addition to the Blues Survivors, the fest will also showcase the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, Billy Branch, James Harman, and the typical "many more." Tickets are $24; call (510) 238-9200.

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

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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