Rob Ewing (trombone)/ Brandon Essex (bass)/ Michael Bello (drum)/ Ken Husbands (guitar)- photo credit: Sol Gutierrez
The Camille Mai Trio: among those who will be performing at the Subterranean Arthouse’s fifth anniversary concert in Berkeley on Saturday March 8. Photo: Alyx Henderson

Whether you call it fate, karma, or kismet, the friendship of Claire Duplantier and Nicole Rodriguez exemplifies the power of seizing an opportunity when it’s ripe. They’ve spent the past five years pouring their energy into downtown Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse, a cozy and invitingly bohemian performance space and art gallery in the historic Odd Fellows Lodge building at Fulton and Bancroft.

An essential East Bay cultural outpost particularly known for presenting singer/songwriters and South Indian classical music, the Subterranean marks its fifth anniversary Saturday with a fundraising “Benefest” featuring music by the Doppler Trio, Dirt Wire, the Camille Mai Trio, a silent auction, and a showing by East Bay visual artists Hugh D’Andrade and Daniel Lipincott.

After meeting a decade ago in Boulder, where Duplantier was studying at the Naropa Institute, the women renewed their friendship after running into each other at a party in Berkeley about five  years ago. Duplantier had just moved to San Francisco after finishing a master’s degree in performance studies at NYU “and I had a lot of momentum and excitement to get something started,” she says. “We wanted to do something together, but we didn’t know what. We were walking in downtown Berkeley when we saw an empty storefront and peaked in. What could we do here? We opened up the Arthouse two months later.”

Duplantier isn’t necessarily recommending anyone follow in their precipitous footsteps, but through savvy partnerships and allowing the space to reveal what art forms worked best within it, they quickly connected with numerous artists interested in working with them.

Run on a shoestring, the all-volunteer organization has presented more than 400 performances by local and touring artists, including Rupa and the April Fishes, the Tiptons saxophone quartet, the Real Vocal String Quartet, didjeridu expert Stephen Kent and klezmer power trio Veretski Pass.

“My background is in dance and visual arts, and Nicole is a musician and dancer,” says Duplantier, who lives in Berkeley. “When we opened we had two months to pull together a business plan and start-up money. We had no choice but to open up and be successful. We started by reaching out to our dance community and music, and it rippled out from there. Something we didn’t know at first is that the room’s acoustics are really great, so music has really taken off.”

Subterranean Arthouse with Maya Dorn sitting on chair. Photo: Claire Duplantier

The most important alliance has been with Gautam Tejas Ganeshan’s Sengati Center, which presents several events there a month, like Sunday, March 16’s performance by Carnatic vocalist T. N. Arunagiri. For Ganeshan, an inventive Carnatic vocalist himself who ran his own venue in San Francisco for several years before relocating to Berkeley, the Arthouse has allowed him to expanding his work as a presenter while not worrying about maintaining a venue.

“It’s a perfect fit,” Ganeshan says. “It’s a beautiful space and Nicole and Claire run the Arthouse  along the same principals as the Sengati Center. We’ve been in there two and a half years and I haven’t felt any constraint on the number of concerts.”

For Saturday’s performance, the headliner is Dirtwire, an acoustic side project of Oakland’s world fusion electronica combo Beats Antique. The event’s proceeds will go towards operating expenses. Longer term, Duplantier and Rodriguez are looking to turn their jobs into salaried positions (they both work other jobs that allow them to devote time to the Arthouse).

“It’s amazing what we can do for so little, and how many performances and people have come through the space,” Duplantier says. “We’re maturing as an organization as well. We’re just excited to get more recognition from the community.”

Whether or not expanded funding comes through, Duplantier has no doubt that the Arthouse has been a roaring triumph as both a creative and personal endeavor. Within the first year of opening the Subterranean’s doors, she met guitarist, songwriter, and UC Berkeley music professor Sean Burns, the guiding spirit behind Professor Burns and the Lilac Field. They’re now married and have a 15-month-old son Arlo.

“At that point, I realized that the Arthouse has been a success and will always be successful,” Duplantier says.

Melanie O’Reilly performs at the International House tonight, Thursday March 6. Photo: courtesy Melanie O’Reilly

In a celebration of International Woman’s Day, Irish-born Berkeley jazz singer Melanie O’Reilly, who has honed a ravishing synthesis of jazz and traditional Irish music, performs at the International House tonight with the redoubtable pianist Frank Martin, a supremely versatile player whose credits range from Sting and Stevie Wonder to Angela Bofill and Patti Austin. They’ll be joined  guest Irish dancer Rebecca Cisin.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events.

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....