After more than a year of hibernation, the City’s independent music venues have begun to stir.
Every modern metropolis boasts corporate concert venues for mega-touring acts, but it’s the neighborhood indie venues that set San Francisco apart. And while booms and busts are nothing new in this cool gray city of love, during the citywide lockdown, clubs were among the first businesses to close — and now, some of the last to reopen. Yet rent, mortgage, payroll, utilities, insurance and tax bills kept rolling in, compounding the pain for the small clubs that were already struggling prepandemic.
Our legendary live entertainment scene has historically been a key ingredient in defining San Francisco’s magic — and a key economic driver. According to a prepandemic City Controller’s Office report, San Francisco’s nightlife annually raked in $7.2 billion and provided more than 63,000 jobs, which combined, generated approximately $80 million in payroll and sales taxes for City coffers.
For generations, our evocative clubs have nurtured the roots of the City’s music ecosystem, providing a home base for musicians to hone their chops, start bands and then, perhaps, score a lucrative road gig with a legend like native son Boz Scaggs or Bob Weir or a touring career as a headliner in their own right. In the mid- ’80s — as I was making my bones as a fledgling jazz singer — San Francisco was peppered with small clubs. An industrious talent could work eight days a week and a hardy fan could nightly hit four different venues. I’ve since graduated to concert stages, but like so many of my peers, harbor a tender longing for the intimacy and intensity of a classic jazz nightspot.
Despite our state’s reopening last month, many small-club owners are worried about the rocky road ahead — even with assistance finally rolling in from the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grants and local SF Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery Fund grants.
Only time, and devoted patrons, will determine whether a postpandemic renaissance buoys our treasured venues. For each tale herein, there are a dozen untold: Mr. Tipples, the Boom Boom Room, the Royal Cuckoo, Club Deluxe, the Riptide, El Rio, the Chapel.
With the arrival of summer and a majority of residents vaccinated, we’re now cautiously crawling out of our caves, eager to quench a pent-up thirst to commune over cocktails and bask in the balm of live music. There’s nothing like the circle of energy between a band and an audience in an intimate club. When it’s happening, it’s the best feeling in the world. So turn off Spotify and head to your favorite neighborhood clubs for some sonic camaraderie. You’ll have a blast and, as importantly, play a role in saving the City’s soul.
Bird & Beckett
In the charming enclave of Glen Park, Bird & Beckett Books & Records owner Eric Whittington serves books by day and topdrawer jazz and poetry by night. It’s a compelling mix that’s earned the devotion of listeners seeking an intimate chatter-free environment. Dedicated to maintaining fair pay for musicians, Whittington has developed a savvy hybrid to support his mission, combining dollars at the door with the nonprofit Bird & Beckett Cultural Legacy Project, plus small institutional grants and substantial operating support from Grants for the Arts.
When the music stopped during the pandemic, book sales boomed. His challenge was keeping the music alive. Within a week of shutdown, Whittington was livestreaming concerts from his iPhone to a growing Facebook following. But Whittington fears sustainability is uncertain. “We’re trying to figure out how to continue paying our musicians their current guarantee. The City’s indoor capacity limit significantly reduces the size of our live audience.” Whittington is working with a group that includes Jazz in the Neighborhood activist Mario Guarneri and pianist Simon Rowe on a proposal for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, seeking subsidies for musicians and venues. “It’s a delicate balancing act. Without a patron or public subsidy, it’s going to be nearly impossible. We could lower our musician guarantees. But that’s an anathema to me — the musicians haven’t been working for a year. I’d like to see them get good paydays when there are finally gigs to play,” says Whittington. “I hope other venues will stretch to provide respectable guarantees. It’s not a feel-good story unless the City steps up with subsidies or some wealthy individuals step in. I’d prefer the former, funded by some significant taxes on the latter.”
The Plough and Stars
“You must be looking for a gig,” cracked Plough and Stars proprietor Séan Heaney, breaking the interview ice. He’s clearly a natural. “I left school when I was 13 to work in a bar. Now I’ve been involved in bars and Irish music pretty much all of my life.”
A native of Newry in County Down, Ireland, Heaney came to San Francisco in 1981 on a tip that the Clement Street bar was for sale. Ever since, the cozy room has become the City’s unofficial Celtic music embassy, drawing players and fans from around the globe to gather over a proper pint of Guinness and enjoy the pub’s traditional jam seisiúns and concerts. Under the purview of his son Eoin Malone, they’ve expanded to bluegrass and Americana.
“I wanted to create what I had experienced at home in the pubs. We started with local music. Later, I used my contacts to connect with famous Irish musicians. It took off and we built a great reputation. I was lucky in lots of ways,” shares Heaney. “The big Irish artists — Mary Black or Van Morrison — would play the Great American Music Hall, then drop by the Plough to jam.”
The pandemic forced him to forgo the last two St. Patrick’s Days. But he’s managed — thanks to a sympathetic landlord and a GoFundMe launched by devoted local musicians. “I don’t know that we would’ve survived without it. I was a little reluctant, I suppose, embarrassed at first. I never dreamt so many of our supporters would donate that kind of money,” he says. The Plough’s Facebook page has become a concert in itself, featuring video love letters and performances from adoring international musicians who’ve played the bar over the past four decades.
Heaney is finally open again with a park let and capacity-capped indoor service. When it makes economic sense, he’s eager to bring back the fiddles, concertinas and uilleann pipes.
One of the City’s last remaining blues venues, the Saloon is, in lyrical patois, “a solid sender.” Every night before shutdown, the sound of Muddy Waters-style shouters, stinging Stratocasters and honking horns ricocheted off Fresno Alley at the corner of Upper Grant. Echoing Barbary Coast times, when ordinary social codes did not apply, it’s a place where bikers, bachelorettes, barflies, conventioneers and blues brothers amiably commingle. The joint’s beer-soaked patina dates to 1861. And along with Specs’, Vesuvio and Gino & Carlo, it’s a requisite pit stop for North Beach bar-hoppers.
Saloon owner Myron Mu is a North Beach native who grew up blocks from the club. His affinity for live music and musicians derives from his tenure as a professional French horn player in orchestra pits at the Curran, Golden Gate and Orpheum theaters. Over the years, a who’s who of blues royalty has graced the stage, including Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield and John Cipollina. Mu feels fortunate the family-owned Saloon building derives income from the apartments above, affording him a rent break. Playing it by ear, he says, “I’ve been telling people, of course I’ll reopen. But I prefer to wait until I can have 100 percent occupancy. There’s a huge hunger out there for live music.”
A retro-edgy film noir boîte harking back to the Tenderloin’s storied jazz era, the Black Cat straddles a fine line between serious old-school listening joint and jukin’ supper club, attracting a diverse crowd of post-bop cognoscenti and jazz virgins to the gritty ’hood. The brainchild of New York restaurateur Fritz Quattlebaum, the Cat sprang to life five years ago at the corner of Leavenworth and Eddy streets. While the tab may be steeper than a downhome club, audiences enjoy a “ jazz and cocktails” scene straight out of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, spotlighting rising stars like Keyon Harrold and Theo Croker and fabled veterans Ernie Watts and Johnny O’Neal. After his doors closed last year, Quattlebaum went soul searching on a 10-week mountaineering expedition. His renewed vision for the Cat’s next chapter includes new general manager Olu Gartin, formerly of Manhattan’s Blue Note. And in a world of one-nighters, Quattlebaum says he will extend his multinight residency program, giving artists the chance to “feel the freedom to create and experiment, not just perform a set — but pull out all the stops.”
Bottom of the Hill
Since 1991, Lynn Schwarz and partners have welcomed fans to hear rock and alternative bands at their Edwardian Potrero Hill outpost, Bottom of the Hill. And many of those acts — including Arcade Fire, Green Day, Alanis Morissette — have graduated to festival stages. A proud person, Schwarz thought she could handle anything — but this past year humbled her. “My entire staff got sick in February. Everyone is convinced they had COVID.” During the shutdown, she kept her spirits up by making mosaics and practicing Chopin on piano. In December, she rebooted her running regimen and lost 27 pandemic pounds. Schwarz is also a passionate activist, co-founding the Independent Venue Alliance, a consortium of 33 local venues that banded together during the pandemic. “We’re lobbying on how it’s hard to be a small venue in the City. The fees are extraordinary for tour bus parking and permitting, so much time-consuming red tape.” Still, she’s optimistic. “I feel like things might finally change. It’s become obvious we’re on the verge of collapse; there’s no life raft for us. Even in the best of years, small clubs barely break even.” For the time being, she says, “We’re so in the red, I’m not putting down fee guarantees with music agencies anymore, but offering higher percentages of the cover charge collected instead. That’s not ideal for artists. But the agencies think we’re going to see the rise of independent venues and boutique agencies. It feels like the resurgence of the little guy.”
The Lion’s Den
Optimism explodes like a cherry bomb on picturesque Wentworth Place at the brand-new Lion’s Den, the first full-fledged performance venue to open in Chinatown in 40 years. Rising phoenixlike on the site of a former midcentury nightclub with the same name, Lion’s Den sports a stylish mauve interior of velvet banquettes and amber light fixtures, courtesy of interior designer Anna Lee Jew. Below street level is a secret basement club with cases housing top-shelf bottles for VIP members, who pay $3K a year for the privilege, guaranteeing the club’s rent.
Co-Founder Steven Lee visualizes rekindling the neighborhood’s soigné past, when clubs like Forbidden City featured glamorous Asian American performers entertaining A-list celebrity patrons. A Vacaville native who frequently visited his grandparents on Russian Hill as a child, Lee previously ran SoMa’s Glas Kat Supper Club. He was also appointed by the Board of Supervisors as the first Asian American club owner on the City’s Entertainment Commission.
With a freshly minted entertainment license and a house band reunited from J-Town’s Kanzaki Lounge, Lee plans diverse musical offerings: dim sum jazz brunch, karaoke and top 40 nights. Gesturing proudly toward his vintage photo collection, Lee enthuses, “I’m all about the music, community and legacy. These people on the walls are our grandparents. I want our guests to appreciate and pay tribute to those who came before us.”