On a sunny day, Berkeley offers few better venues than the corner of Fourth Street in front of Peet’s Coffee. Prime real estate for buskers, the unregulated spot seems to attract an unusually accomplished array of performers, from Berkeley High jazz combos and string bands to soul outfits and lone fingerstyle guitarists.
Hanging out there last year with my toddling daughter led to my first encounter with Foxtails Brigade, a captivating chamber pop band created by Oakland guitarist/vocalist Laura Weinbach. While she launched Foxtails in 2006 with violinist Sivan Sadeh, by the time I caught up with her she had recreated the duo with violinist Anton Patzner, a highly sympathetic accompanist who’s also a founding member of the East Bay string metal trio Judgment Day.
Foxtails Brigade heads indoors Friday at Starry Plough as part of a triple bill with Tucson-based The Missing Parts (an acoustic quartet featuring violin, lap-steel guitar, cello, and guitar), and pianist Rosie Steffy’s La Dee Da, a quintet that features cellist Lewis Patzner (who founded Judgment Day with his brother, Anton). Foxtails also kicks off the free Fillmore Jazz Festival on Saturday morning.
With her dark eyes, dramatic bangs, and crystalline voice, Weinbach makes a striking first impression. On Fourth Street she tends to alternate between standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “Ma Vie En Rose” and her intricate originals, songs she recorded on Foxtails’ striking 2011 debut “The Bread and the Bait” (Antenna Farm Records). She doesn’t work the crowd with much between-song patter, but Weinbach takes busking seriously. Playing on the street has served as a major source of income since she launched Foxtails, though the group is increasingly focusing on higher profile gigs in clubs and theaters (performances that usually feature the full band with bassist Joe Lewis and percussionist Josh Pollock).
“Fourth Street right by Peet’s is my go-to place, but I’m trying not to busk as much these days,” Weinbach says. “I’ve gotten as much as I can out of it. There are definitely times when I was resenting the whole thing. What is my life coming to, being out in the freezing cold, trying to make money. It can be heart-wrenching sometimes. But I still do it once every three weeks or so. It’s good for promoting shows. Fourth Street has been great for that. It’s always a small victory when people who saw us on the street come to the shows.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Weinbach grew up in an extravagantly creative family in the Hollywood Hills in a house designed by her father, the cult filmmaker Robert D. Weinbach (“The Mutations” and “Sons & Lovers”). Her mother is a classical pianist and her brother is the offbeat standup comic Brent Weinbach (a Cal grad who won the 2007 Andy Kaufman Award). She devoted herself to classical guitar, graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2006 with a double major in music and literature. She never really thought about writing her own songs until a jazz improvisation course in her senior year led her to set a poem she had written at 18, “Foxtails Brigade,” to music.
“It was definitely an epiphany,” Weinbach says. “Something clicked and I realized I could attempt to write a song. I’d been trained classically, so all I knew was to play other people’s music and try to perfect that. It opened up a door to not take it that seriously, just try new things, not worry about following the rules. I took that poem and came up with some not very clear form and made it work, and I thought it sounded cool.”
It’s too simple to say that Weinbach is a glass half-empty kind of gal, but her songs do return again and again to themes of death and decay, disorientation and disappointment. (Weinbach’s signature holiday song is “I’m Not Really In the Mood for Christmas This Year.”) Despite the melancholy cast, there’s something exhilarating about her music. With her cool delivery, even at her most ironic her lyrics feel observational rather than confessional.
In expanding Foxtails to a quartet with percussion, she’s engaging more with grooves and rhythms, adding textures to the already lapidary sound of Patnzer threading his lines through her mesh of guitar chords. The new direction is apparent on the recently released EP “The Farmhouse Sessions,” featuring four songs drawn from a beautifully conceived video shoot produced by Pomplamoose’s Jack Conte. One of the new pieces is the typically unsettling “We Are Not Ourselves,” an incantatory song inspired by a torturous bout of insomnia.
“I do tend to get inspiration more from darker times than from happiness or being content,” Weinbach says. “It’s not that I think, I want to make this song sound ironic or sarcastic. It just comes out. You can call me a little cynical or dark. I also see and appreciate beauty and magic in the world, but seems like there is more unhappiness and cruelty.”
La Peña presents a weekend of Afro-Peruvian music starting on Friday with Afro-Peruvian guitar master Coco Linares and guest artists Julio Bravo, Braulio Barrera, Pedro Rosales, Rosa Lo Santos, and Gabriela Shiroma’s De Rompe y Raja, a dance company dedicated to preserving the culture of coastal Peru. On Saturday, Proyecto Lando celebrates the release of its second CD, “La Hemorragia Del Sabor, Afro-Peruvian Explosion” with an Afro-Peruvian dance party. Founded in 2009, Proyecto Lando brings together Peruvian arrangers such as Felipe Pumarada, Mariano Liy, Coco Linares, David Pinto and Oscar Huaranga.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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