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Welcome to the Atrocity Exhibition; Musical Theater

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
Welcome to the Atrocity Exhibition Noe Venable talks like a rocker, sings like a jazz crooner, and tells stories like an old folkie -- which gets you into a hell of a mess trying to nail down exactly where her records ought to be filed. "Categories are just a way of using fewer words," she says, brushing off the question. "And while I'm really into using fewer words, sometimes I prefer to use no words at all." Fine, then -- call her a singer/songwriter, though that doesn't quite capture the unique toughness of the music she's created in the past five years. Across her two most recent records, No Curses Here and the new live album Down Easy, the 24-year-old Point Richmond-based singer/songwriter has amassed a stockpile of songs that, like spot-news photographs, catch her subjects at the precise moment their lives are about to take a turn, usually for the worse. There's the man who falls "through the street at Leavenworth and Eddy," the 3 a.m. phone call that no good can come from, the factory worker with "hands like chew toys," the reflection in the mirror that says "you look like hell." Like the barflies and stumblebums who populate Tom Waits' worst urban nightmares, Venable plays the underclass hermit singing sinister waltzes -- except Venable has a honeyed voice Waits can't even bother to pray for.

Growing up in San Francisco, Venable toyed with musicals and writing plays, studied off and on at New England's infamously grade-free Bennington College, and at 19, decided she wanted to be a musician. "I didn't know anything about music, so all of my intellect was not functioning -- I was reduced to the state of being a kid again," she says. "I didn't know how to play guitar. I just put my fingers down and made something that sounded, to me, pretty. Or ugly, depending. I had no expectations, no burdens, or idea about why I was doing it. I just did it." By her own admission, the results were confusing to a lot of listeners. "The kind of attention I received was very divided," she says. "Imagine watching a person who is very young -- because I looked very young -- saying horrible things. Like saying the word 'fuck,' for example. It's kind of disturbing to watch that. You don't want to think that someone you're looking at who looks that way knows about fucking. Or you kind of do want to, but there's something kind of sick about the whole thing."

After a small release of her first album with the Ruiners, You Talkin' to Me, in 1997, she was approached by producer Lee Townsend to record the disarming No Curses Here, an album that willfully skirted the boundaries of jazz and folk, though Venable isn't quite thrilled about that latter category. "I thought of folk music as being pussy music," she says. "I'd go to open mikes and there'd be people rehashing these ideas over and over. It all just seemed like things get to a point where nobody remembers what it was really about in the first place." The new Down Easy doesn't make the definitions any clearer. Recorded earlier this year at Mo's Melody Mansion with her Noe Venable Trio -- bassist Todd Sickafoose and violinist Alan Lin -- it's a cycle of spare, jazz-inflected tunes that still find their heart in Venable's literary approach. Which makes sense, since talking to her about Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits means talking with her about Hermann Hesse and Jean Genet as well. Until last summer, Sickafoose was living in Los Angeles and wound up on the same bill with her. "She knocked me off my feet," he says. "The melodies, the imagery, the fantastic songwriting, and her voice -- everything about it." While the Trio isn't quite an improv affair, its performances are rooted in the psychic interplay among the musicians, and there's an elastic, open-spaced quality to the songs.

"When I met Todd in L.A., he was the missing piece," Venable says. "This thing feels really good as a unit. One thing all these musicians have in common is that they have a really keen sense of where the life is in a song." Somewhat notoriously, Venable has something like 500 songs saved up to work with, and she talks fervently about the projects she has planned, as if the songs are coming too quickly for her to find a way to use them. "I'm just running down this road, throwing stuff off the highway," she says. "I can't go back to that old stuff very often. It all feels very much like souvenirs from some place I traveled to. I don't want to be some boring aunt showing my vacation pictures."

Musical Theater The 24th annual San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is boasting a wider array of music-driven offerings than usual this year, starting with a pair of strong coming-of-age films: James Bolton's Eban and Charley, with a soundtrack by the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, and Esther Bell's Godass, the story of a young woman making her way in the New York punk scene in the late '80s, with Fred Schneider of the B-52's doing a great turn as her father's boyfriend. On the documentary end, Peter Sempel's disjointed Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory does little to clear the mysteries surrounding the German punk princess, which actually works just fine. More soberly, the BBC's lengthy The Brian Epstein Story teases out the internal tale of the Beatles' infamous manager, with much time devoted to the question of whether his 1967 death was a suicide. Answer: maybe. See the festival's Web site at for more information, or check out Gary Morris' coverage of the fest in our Pride 2000 guide.

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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