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San Francisco Bluegrass Festival, Poptopia, and Requiem for Kevin Gilbert

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
Pickin', and Even Grinnin' Like a lot of young kids, Kathy Kallick had a problem with the music her parents listened to. Growing up in Evanston, Ill., she was routinely dragged to festivals and performances of bluegrass, folk, and old-timey music. However virtuosic a banjo flat-picker might be, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers were hard for an urban teenager to relate to, what with them spinning tales of Appalachia where the men die old and lonely and the women drown young and pretty.

"And gosh-darned it, I'm playing it at 22," Kallick says. That was in the mid-'70s, after she'd made her way to the Bay Area and started the all-female bluegrass outfit Good Ol' Persons with Laurie Lewis. Paul's Saloon in the Marina was ground zero for local bluegrass. "For around 20 years, that was the scene," says Larry Carlin, who plays in the duo Keystone Crossing and books one bluegrass night a month at Mill Valley's Sweetwater. "There was bluegrass seven nights a week -- if people came to town and wanted to hear bluegrass, you could just go down to Paul's."

In 1991, after 22 years in the Marina, owner Paul Lambert closed his saloon, frustrated with the increasingly yuppified area's lack of interest in the music. Since then, seeing live bluegrass in the Bay Area has usually meant road-tripping to Grass Valley in the Sierra foothills for the California Bluegrass Association's annual fete, or attending one of the shows that made its way to Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, like icon Ralph Stanley's three-day residency there every February.

But a funny thing's been happening in the past couple of years, particularly in the Mission. The lines to get into shows at Radio Valencia and the Atlas Cafe have been getting longer, and places like Bitterroot have started hosting informal jams. Last year, the Sunset's Last Day Saloon launched its Wednesday night "Five A.R.M.S." series, dedicated to traditional roots music.

A partial reflection of that growth is a simple name change: Last year, the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society became the Northern California Bluegrass Society (NCBS). There has also been an influx of younger musicians playing in the Bay Area, including Jeff Kazor, the 35-year-old guitarist and singer in the Crooked Jades. "There are bands like us now that are a lot younger who are mainstays in the Bay Area -- people in their late 20s or early 30s," says Kazor. "There are three or four bands like us playing old-time music and bluegrass." Because? "A lot of us really had it in our history, our parents. It wasn't like we were getting tired of hip hop and grunge. It just seemed like it was always there."

"San Francisco is now a bluegrass mecca," says Michael Hall, former president of the NCBS. "The three top cities are Washington, D.C., Nashville, and San Francisco. Those three cities are head and shoulders above the rest of the country."

In an attempt to prove that point, Hall, Kazor, and others convened late last year to look into the idea of launching a festival. The first San Francisco Bluegrass Festival kicks off with a show on Feb. 5 at the Noe Valley Ministry featuring the Crooked Jades, the Kathy Kallick Band, and the Blue Flame String Band. The fest runs through the 13th at a variety of Bay Area venues; consult for more information.

Kazor confesses that it might be a bit overambitious to pack in a week of shows for the first go-around, but he's eager to present the music in some official manner. "Essentially [the music is] really precious, and Lord knows I don't see it becoming a commercial dot-com type thing," he says. "But it should have a better platform right now. It doesn't sell, but it's really beautiful music."

Pop, By Any Other Name Paul Kopf has been feeling a little bit put-upon recently. As the organizer of the San Francisco arm of Los Angeles' Poptopia festival, he'd been dealing with accusations that his fest was stepping on the toes of the long-standing local Noise Pop Festival, which gears up in March. A few weeks ago, Poptopia collapsed, canceling what was supposed to be its big kickoff show at the Great American Music Hall this week. Kopf tells us he never wanted to cause a rift with Noise Pop, he was contractually locked into the schedule by the L.A. Poptopia folks, and besides, they're two different festivals. That last claim sounds a little disingenuous to us: The line was that Noise Pop focused on the pop end of indie rock, while Poptopia focused on the rock end of indie pop.

No matter. Having divorced himself from Poptopia and eager to avoid any conflicts with Noise Pop, Kopf announced last week that he will be putting together BayPop, a weeklong fest currently slated to run Aug. 8-13 in venues throughout Northern California.

Rocker's Requiem When San Mateo songwriter Kevin Gilbert accidentally killed himself in 1996, reams of press followed with claims and accusations about his role in the making of Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club -- namely that the smarts behind that album were more his than hers. So there's a lot to read into the music and lyrics of Gilbert's The Shaming of the True, a concept album that follows a mythical singer/ songwriter through an Inferno-like downward spiral (said singer/songwriter's name is Johnny Virgil). A&R men are parodied, Hollywood is disemboweled, and hopes are dashed to pieces -- it's the bitter and beautiful anti-industry screed of a record that even Randy Newman never quite worked up the nerve to make. An official release of the album is slated for later this year, but those with healthy disposable incomes can invest in a 1,000-copy limited edition of the record, with beautiful woodcut images by John Seabury. It'll cost you $50; more info is available at

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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