Even given Berkeley’s reputation for hijinks, Rebecca Roudman is thrilled to be performing at the Back Room Saturday afternoon for an audience she expects will consist mostly of fully-clothed human beings.
For the cellist, fiddler, vocalist and leader of the San Francisco combo Dirty Cello, getting through the pandemic has meant working in situations where that’s not always the case. Like many musicians over the past year, Dirty Cello has played a number of virtual concerts, live streaming via Facebook, YouTube and Zoom. But when it comes to finding gigs the band is as versatile as its repertoire, which ranges from turbo-charged bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll anthems to gritty blues and power pop.
They’ve played at buffalo ranches for audiences seated on socially distanced hay bales and found some particularly attentive listeners at the Oakland Zoo. With precious little work last May, Roudman reached out when she read that the animals “were so used to people that they were missing the entertainment,” she said.
“I don’t know if they wanted us necessarily for the animals or if the keepers wanted some entertainment as well, but they had us come down there and they took us all over the zoo. Now, some of the animals were definitely more interested in food than our playing, but when they brought us over to the parrots there was a little green parrot named Broc who started singing along.”
And then there was the nudist resort in Los Gatos where the guests were all wearing their masks “and nothing else,” Roudman said. “Our clothes were firmly on. But you know how they say if you’re nervous before a show you’re supposed to picture the audience naked. That didn’t work. But they bought the most t-shirts we’ve ever sold at a show.”
Berkeley shut down The Back Room’s outdoor concerts in October
There will be plenty of merch available Saturday when Dirty Cello kicks off The Back Room’s brimming spring season, which features some two-dozen outdoor concerts on Bonita Avenue through June 20 (and a couple of 10-percent capacity indoor shows that will also be live-streamed). Pianist Sam Rudin, who owns and runs The Back Room, has been preparing for the spring thaw since last fall, when he tangled with the city of Berkeley’s health officer, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, over whether outdoor concerts were permissible under state guidelines.
Working with the Downtown Berkeley Association, he closed down the southbound lane of the Bonita cul de sac north of University Avenue and spread five-dozen chairs around a west-facing bandstand. At the shows I attended audiences were universally masked and socially distanced but after several events, he received a phone call from a city of Berkeley code enforcement officer followed by a “cease and desist” email from the city attorney’s office demanding that he end the concerts.
He dutifully canceled several shows but found an ally across the Bay when the San Francisco International Arts Festival brought a suit in federal court against the city and county of San Francisco and the state of California arguing that the city’s efforts to shut down outdoor SFIAF performances at Fort Mason violated the rights of the artists. The state was dropped from the suit after quickly conceding that the arts enjoy equal protection with religious worship and protest under the Fourteenth Amendment.
San Francisco has continued to wrangle with the SFIAF and the state has yet to issue the promised guidelines, instead clearing the way for professional sporting events (which also apply to major performing arts presenters like the Hollywood Bowl). Rather than protecting the public from the spread of COVID-19, SFIAF Executive Director Andrew Wood argues that the government’s lack of attention when it comes to the performing arts reflects who has political clout.
“It’s beating up on the little guy because you can,” Wood said. “We’re not doing anything dangerous. On the state level, after doing nothing they open up to do outdoor events and it’s pro sports. They refuse to put any kind of emphasis on opening up the performing arts and it has nothing to do with health and safety. The artists don’t have political juice.”
The demand is clearly there. Dirty Cello’s show quickly reached capacity with 60 seats sold (and an additional 10 seats for patrons who are bringing their own chairs). Cajun and zydeco-style fiddler Tom Rigney and Flambeau’s April 25 concert also sold out and so has the May 1 gig featuring the hard-driving blues trio HowellDevine. Rudin is also doing trial runs inside the Back Room on Sunday night, playing duo with vintage pop-jazz vocalist Roberta Donnay, and special guest Danny Caron on guitar (Donnay also performs with her full Prohibition Mob band outdoors on June 18).
“It’s our first-ever indoor show since the pandemic,” Rudin said. “We determined the safe capacity at up to 15 people, and we’re asking they all be vaccinated. They’ll be wearing masks anyways, but people on stage won’t have to, and certainly not the singer.”
The Back Room isn’t just presenting the only ticketed, music-centric series in the East Bay right now (there are also a number of band-for-hire options that bring music to the people ). Rudin takes pains to present artists with deep local ties. Berkeley High graduate Ethan Ostrow, a New York jazz pianist and educator, performs on May 15 with a trio. Rudin, who lives in the Back Room, reunites with his band Hurricane Sam & the Hotshots featuring bassist Steve Evans, drummer Jimmy Hobson and saxophonist Jeff Ervin on May 22.
Guitarist John Schott and the Actual Trio, a riveting all-Berkeley combo with bassist Dan Seamans and drummer John Hanes, explore a vast and variegated repertoire encompassing gut-bucket blues and Ornette Coleman harmelodics on June 4 (the group’s moniker came from its long-running gig at the lamented Actual Café at San Pablo and Alcatraz). And Berkeley saxophone maestro Larry Ochs, a founding member of ROVA Saxophone Quartet, performs with his protean duo partner drummer Donald Robinson on June 12.
Other highlights include drummer John Hanrahan celebrating John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the sinewy fusion of Miles Davis on May 2 with saxophonist Andrew Dixon, guitarist Ben Misterka, bassist Murph Murphy, and keyboardist Kevin Wong. And Richmond vocalist Ed Reed, a peerless balladeer who gained national attention at the tender age of 85 (placing number one in Downbeat Magazine’s 2014 critics’ poll as Rising New Star), performs May 9 with first-call pianist Adam Shulman. On June 5, the Guitar Trifecta collective brings together three soul-steeped guitarists with Calvin Keys, Carl Lockett and Lloyd Gregory. On June 6, saxophonist Noel Jewkes celebrates his 81st birthday with his quartet and vocalist Kay Kostopoulos, and veteran R&B drummer Larry Vann closes out the season on June 20 with his trio.
For Rudin, the spring series offers a chance to prepare for warmer weather and more musical offerings in the summer. He sees the possibility of presenting an outdoor show in the afternoon followed by a performance inside the Back Room in the evening. One uncertainty is how much pent-up demand there is on both sides of the concert equation.
As a higher percentage of the population gets vaccinated the safety of higher capacity indoor shows increases. But Rudin is still gauging the interest from musicians. When he put out the word to artists whose shows had been canceled he figured he’d get a flood of inquiries, “but I didn’t get as many as I expected,” he said, noting that he ended up leaving Memorial Day weekend unbooked.
Dirty Cello got the opening slot because Roudman was the first to approach Rudin, sending him an email back in January. Not only was the band ready to work, they come with their own stage, which means Rudin doesn’t have to deal with setting up the bandstand on his opening weekend (since Sunday’s show with Roberta Donnay is indoors).
When everything closed down last year, Roudman her husband, Dirty Cello guitarist Jason Eckl “spent a bizarre and exciting week on Facebook marketplace until we found an old homemade tractor-trailer that we purchased in Santa Cruz,” she said. “Jason took this and turned it into a vintage style Roadhouse stage made of reclaimed wood. We’ve been driving this from the San Luis Obispo area to southern Oregon performing outdoor, socially distant concerts.”
There are no more tickets available for Saturday, but anyone can stop Bonita Avenue by and listen from the sidewalk. Dirty Cello also performs May 2 at Riggers Wine Loft in Richmond on a double bill with the Jazz Messengers String Quartet, and May 15 at Michael’s on Main in Soquel.