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Monday, January 19, 2015

Music Heroes: Lyz Luke

Posted By on Mon, Jan 19, 2015 at 7:50 AM

click to enlarge Lyz Luke - FLETCHER OAKES
  • Fletcher Oakes
  • Lyz Luke
Paying out 10 bands in a single night is awesome. It's also incredibly hard, according to Lyz Luke, who knows what she's talking about — she hands musicians money fairly often. Over a glass of cheap wine, she confides that putting together one of her enormous shows takes a lot longer than people might think, and the organizers are hardly raking it in, although it might appear that way to someone who attends one of this indie producer's many sold-out shows.

Luke is the brains (and a lot of the brawn) behind UnderCover Presents, a nonprofit dedicated to one specific kind of show: Local bands cover a classic album, one song per band. It's a great idea for artists and fans alike, as borne out by their hyperactive popularity. Do we want to see our favorite Bay Area bands cover Kid A, or The Velvet Underground and Nico, or Sly and the Family Stone's Stand!? Yes we do. A lot. We will stand in a very long line to get in, and once inside we will dance our faces off.

She loves it, she says, without a trace of regret, but among the unseen elements of putting these shenanigans together are writing grants at the rate of 40 hours for $5000; long nights of spreadsheeting; having less time to go see music ("I find out about new music from my own project!") and maintaining her day job as program director for the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra ("It's about getting kids into college through music.") She doesn't mention email, but I wonder what kind of volume she deals with.

Although I've personally known Luke since before she started UnderCover in 2010, and although I know her well enough to know about her past as a young fencing champion, as we sit and talk about what motivates her, I find there's an awful lot I don't know. Two of her stories haunt me for weeks — one heartbreaking but inspiring, and the other a jubilant picture of exactly what the San Francisco music scene can do in its best moments. With the calm focus that probably allows her to survive the chaos of most of her shows, she first tackles the main question here: Why do you do independent music stuff, in spite of the fact that it doesn't pay, and in your scene, it's never going to? (Luke, with her degree in Economics, is maybe more on the hook for this one than other people. She has, for example, never been a musician. Just a fencer.)
"My parents passed away, my dad when I was 18, my mom when I was 22. It wasn't anything all of a sudden; they were sick for a while, and they were older. But my dad was a workaholic, he worked his whole life, and he had a really great successful real estate company. Then towards the end, I saw his company totally collapse because of some poor business decisions. His health collapsed at the same time, and he just couldn't build his company back up again. My mom was really struggling to take care of him, and I saw everything they worked for just go to hell.

"I've always been really independent; it wasn't like I was banking on anything. But I was like, 'Wow, they worked that hard, and there's nothing to show for it at the end of the day.' They neglected spending time with people they loved and doing what they cared about.

"So I made a personal pledge to do what I love with my time, with the people I care about. As long as I make enough money to pay for my basic bills, I'm happy. I mean, sometimes I go get a burrito and I have to think twice about whether to make it super or not. But on the other hand, I get into every concert for free! There are trade-offs."

I'll admit, I'm a little shaken. In a weird attempt to lighten the mood, I ask about the people Luke admires in the music world, who it is she thinks might be overlooked or unsung. I expect her to to name producers, or recording engineers, or whomever helps her with the spreadsheets. The last people I think she's going to mention are musicians.

"The Kafana Balkan scene," she says to my surprise. "It's one of the highlights of my year whenever they do a show. Fanfare Zambaleta has taken over the scene (from the much-missed Brass Menazeri). The music is incredible and powerful and I don't understand most of what they're saying, but I completely understand what they're saying."

I've tried to re-tell the story she tells next, the way writers are supposed to. Large chunks of quote are usually said to put readers off. Still, I think you're going to want to hear this in her voice, so I've left it almost exactly as told:

"When I first moved to the Bay Area, one of my favorite music moments was when Aaron Kierbel from Rupa and the April Fishes invited me to a Fat Tuesday concert at the Make-Out Room. I came from work (with the AIDS Walk) and he didn't give me any heads up as to what it was we were going to. I had like black slacks on and a button-down collared shirt. And it was a Balkan show. (Brass Menazeri itself, I later find out.) The musicians entered playing instruments, doing that marching-band kind of a thing. And they exited out the exact same way — and took the audience with them. It was a Tuesday night, and they were starting a spontaneous Balkan brass band parade.

It went down past Revolution Cafe, down Guerrero, and and I was like 'The cops are going to shut this down immediately, there's no way this can keep going.' I saw old couples throwing open their windows, in their nightgowns, and I thought 'Oh, they're going to yell at us and complain about the noise.' But they were just dancing out their windows. And we cut off a car in traffic and I thought 'Oh, they're going to start honking at us.' And they got out of the car and started dancing with us. Then I saw a police car pull up, and I though 'OK, this has got to be it.' But they were just making sure everyone got across safely.

And I thought, this could only happen in San Francisco. If this happened in Los Angeles, people would have been ticketed immediately, the fray would have been moved onto the sidewalk, at the very least. So it was just — OK, these are my people. This is what I want to be a part of.

And still, in the Kafana Balkan scene — there's just such a sense of community that I haven't found in too many circles. It's not about being seen as much as it is connecting with other people and celebrating life."

I'm not sure what I thought was motivating Lyz Luke to swoop in to organize the disorganized and PR the un-PR-able, let alone to spend five years now presenting massive, complicated, really great one-off concerts. Now I guess I know, although something tells me I'll never quite know everything about this fencing champ.

UnderCover & Faultline Studios Present: A Tribute to Sly & The Family Stone's STAND!
8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015 at The Fox Theatre in Oakland. $35, thefoxoakland.com

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Hiya Swanhuyser

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