The San Francisco Sound

By Damon Lewis

Living in San Francisco, one must always remain mindful of the things that are genuinely San Franciscan. Cioppinos, fortune cookies and the Irish Coffee come to mind, but also the intangible things must be recognized which give The City it’s unique flavor. Among these is The San Francisco Music Scene, once known universally as The San Francisco Sound and carried on today by very eclectic and enriched bands from all spectrums of music. San Francisco music has a long history of trend setting and ground breaking bands as its’ parents, and today as in the late 1960’s there is little room for commercialistic garbage that seems to pervade the Los Angeles and New York scene. On any given night across the fog blanketed city, musical notes can be heard drifting softly from The Bay across to The Avenues and past the beaches all the way to The Farrallon Islands, until it drifts onwards into oblivion. In San Francisco, music is not just a way of life, it is a cultural identity that many of us would be lost without. And now, as in the past, San Francisco is still laying the groundwork for the rest of the “Hip World” to someday be able to walk upon. Today, the San Francisco music scene is dominated by a broad swath of what our understanding of music has come to represent. With dozens upon dozens of outstanding local venues to experience this scene, there exists no excuse not to witness what is happening presently with San Francisco music. If one were to desire something slightly more mellow, local San Francisco music acts such as The Botticellis and French Disco fit the bill nicely. The Botticellis consist of members Alexi Glickman as singer/guitarist, drummer Zack Ehrlich, Burton Li on keyboard, Blythe Foster penning lyrics and singing and Ryan Brown on bass. This is the quintessential surfer band in the San Francisco music scene today, as their name references the gently cracking small-barreled waves which are notorious along the California coast. Their debut album “Old Home Movies” finds singers Glickman and Foster crooning great tunes such as “New Room,” “When I Call” and an interesting remake of the 1980’s Whitsnake hit “Here I Go Again On My Own.” They can be found from time to time throughout San Francisco belting these and other songs as easily as one finds a 38 Geary Bus. For something a bit more out of the box that is the San Francisco music scene, French Disco can accommodate those of us speaking English as well as the others among us who like a smidgen of French from their Singer/Songwriter. Myriam De La Jara plays this role virtuously, along with other San Francisco Musicians Jason Fessel, Randy Leasure and John Dumont. Their debut LP “Twilight Idols” is filled with gentle melodies such as “Blue Riders at Dawn,” “Avant Garde Bubblegum Factory” and fan favorite “Sugar,” all certain to accommodate anyone clueless as to what to listen to on a first date. Also worth mention is the local indie group Elephone, an homage to what local critics have referred to as “The Pixies for this generation. Frontman Ryan Lambert, a veteran of the entertainment industry from the days of his youth, is joined by Terry Ashkinos, Daniel Settle and new-comer Sierra Frost. Signed by Talking House records, their new album “Canister” certainly is worth exploration with songs like “El-Jeffe,” “70 Takes” and the album namesake “Canister.” While these three groups are by no means quintessential representatives of what embodies the San Francisco music scene today, they certainly qualify for what is uniquely San Francisco Music. For those of us who may have a little more aggressiveness in our musical appetite, the San Francisco music scene is in no way limited only to the softer side of what was mentioned above. When locals make reference to certain things which could “Only happen in San Francisco,” music is by no means exempt from this phrase. When the two punk rocking brothers Keith and Ronan Hook stepped “off the boat” from Ireland and chose San Francisco as their new home, they met up with Colin Delaney and started their punk rock trio appropriately named The Hooks. Their debut album “Irish Punk Rock Anthems” is filled with adrenaline fueled songs such as “Get Out,” “My Window” and my personal favorite “Muirshin Durkin.” They are the quintessential Irish punk group from California; which could only happen in San Francisco. Another hard riveted group of San Francisco Musicians cranking out punk rock anthems is the band known as Hank IV. They are very clear that there is no relation to the Williams Clan of the same first name, and the music clearly reflects that fact. The quartet consists of Bob McDonald, Anthony Bedard, Andy Ogelsby, Scott Jones and Chris Portfolio. Their second album titled “Third Person Shooter” is filled with “Hard charging and visceral dual guitar rock punk,” and is sure to please the most discerning punk rock afficianado among us. “Crime of the Scene” and “Tonite We Ride” are amazingly produced songs which embody the spirit of punk which still lives among the San Francisco music scene. When viewed live, their raw energy and on-stage swagger is electrifying, and this quintet will no doubt be a major player on the San Francisco music scene for a long time to come. When driving over The Golden Gate Bridge there are only two kinds of music that will do for me. On my way out of The City, I can usually be seen zipping over The Bridge with a head full of Dance and Electronic sounds driving my car at top speeds ready to give every other bugger on the road with me a taste of the chrome, so to speak. And in the terms of artists who embody San Francisco music more than any others in my eyes, it is Kaskade. Kaskade was born in Chicago and his early influence of “Chicago House” is very evident in his music today. Ryan Raddon, as he is known by his “mates,” has more Number One Singles on the Billboard Hot Dance Airplay Chart than any other San Francisco DJ, and listening to such tunes as “Move for Me,” “4 A.M.” and “What I Say” make it evident why that is so. Along with his original work, as a good DJ does, he also has an impressive list of songs he has remixed to the point that they sound better after getting the “Kaskade Treatment.” Anyone who has listened to “All Good Things (Come To An End)” by Nelly Furtado side by side with the Kaskade remix knows precisely what I am referring to. Along with Kaskade as an accomplished electronic artist in the San Francisco Music Scene is the artist known as Christopher Willits. Willits uses custom built software “to morph guitar sounds into folded rhythmic textures,” and his M.B.A. in Electronic Music from Mills College is evident in the complexity of his work. Willits has been instrumental in redefining the sound of the guitar in the “digital age,” as well as redefining the idea of what San Francisco Music can and does sound like. Songs such as “Colors Shifting” and “Yellow Spring” are unlike anything you are likely to hear anywhere else on the West Coast, and I have no doubts his influence will be felt and heard for many, many years to come. If I am leaving San Francisco with an ear full of dance music, then there can only be one sound I am listening to while crossing The Bridge back home. When I think of Northern California, I think of Reggae. And no other collective of musicians in the San Francisco music scene embodies the spirit of Northern Californian Reggae like Band of Brotherz. A self described six piece underground music “kollective” forged by members of the 90’s San Francisco music scene; their influences range as far and wide as Alphabet Soup and Les Claypool to Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead, who influenced the group’s pioneering first official Grateful Dead hip-hop mix. Their brand of reggae is best described as revolutionary urban music, and they take their name from a quote from William Shakespeare’s Saint Crispen’s Day speech; “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Band of Brotherz is the embodiment of San Francisco music’s evolution as it has progressed through the years, and they are proud representatives of the burgeoning Northern California reggae revolution. While the San Francisco music scene today is too vibrant and dynamic to be able to list all of the groups involved in its’ continuous evolution, there is one group who stands out in my mind as worth mentioning if for no other reason than originality alone. If the “shock rock” group Gwar were to swallow a hand-full of ecstasy tablets and decide to become cross-dressers, they would most certainly resemble the San Francisco based group Gravy Train!!! A kind mix of electronic and pop music, this group obviously watched one too many John Water’s films in their youth. But the pure audacity of their on-stage persona makes them worth not only mentioning, but actually laying down a few “fivers” at your local venue to see for yourself what I mean. If the San Francisco music scene had a Castro District, Gravy Train!!! would be it’s supervisor. The band members Chunx, Hunx, Junx and of course, Funx are all about “promiscuous sex, womens’ sex drive and recreational sex among gay men.” If that does not drive my point home, nothing is likely to, and their third LP “All The Sweet Stuff” is anything but sugar and spice. While not collectively the most talented of groups in the San Francisco music scene today, Gravy Train!!! certainly represents the atmosphere of acceptable abnormality that makes San Francisco music exactly what it is; a collection of the World’s most talented artists’ who would get chased out of any other decent city on the Planet. And the acknowledgement of that is what makes those of us residing here uniquely San Franciscan.