Spend some time with a gigging musician and you’re sure to hear a litany of stories about the trials and tribulations of booking shows. Clubs and promoters routinely ignore calls, texts and emails. Fees haven’t risen since eight-track tapes were a thing. And venues often expect musicians to conjure their own audiences. Blues and jazz pianist Sam Rudin almost had to die before he landed a regular gig at the Back Room. And he owns the joint!
After years of touring on the blues circuit with his band Hurricane Sam and the Hotshots, Rudin opened the venue in April 2016 in a former publishing office on the Bonita Avenue cul de sac in downtown Berkeley. He talks about it as a gesture of gratitude, giving back to the musical world that helped him thrive for decades. But he was seven years into his 10-year lease before he finally gave himself a booking break, carving out a monthly slot that he calls Sam’s Corner.
Sam’s Corner with special guest George Brooks, the Back Room, Friday, March 17, 8:15 p.m., $18-$20
He launches the series Friday with Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks, who spent years working with blues and R&B legends like Etta James, Albert Collins and Frankie Lee before he became a singular niche as the bridge between the improvisation-based worlds of jazz and North Indian classical music.
Rudin had been hesitant to feature himself regularly at the Back Room for the same reason that you don’t throw a party for yourself every few weeks. “If I’m there every month the likelihood of having a good crowd seems to decrease, so I’ve been shy about it,” he said. “I always put that personal ambition on the backburner. I didn’t want it to look like a vanity project. But I’ve become a lot less shy and caring about those potential pitfalls.”
A close encounter with the Grim Reaper changed his perspective. Six months ago, he suffered a stroke that in most cases would have meant joining the celestial ensemble. But he and his girlfriend recognized the immediate signs and happened to be within minutes of the Santa Clara Medical Center, which specializes in stroke care.
“I was supposed to die, but I not only survived, I didn’t have any after effects that lingered,” Rudin said. “That’s just not what usually happens. This is a real mortality situation and I figured if there’s something I’ve been wanting to do, I’d better do it.”
He and Brooks haven’t played together often, but they do share some resonant history, including performances at the original Freight & Salvage on San Pablo Avenue (now the Berkeley Auto Shop) and the venue’s second incarnation on Addison Street (now the West Berkeley Fencing Club). Rudin modeled the Back Room after the first Freight storefront, with cozy couches and a living room vibe.
When he performs in the Bay Area these days Brooks is usually working with Hindustani artists. With Brooks on tenor and soprano sax, Friday’s duo show offers a rare opportunity to see him playing a wide array of jazz, blues and pop. The set list is typically Rudinian, jumping from American Songbook chestnuts (“Pennies From Heaven” and “My Favorite Things”) and jazz standards (“Caravan” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”) to songs by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Robert Johnson, Boz Scaggs and Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” theme.
“The set list is really interesting, jazz, blues, pop tunes and Gershwin, and he sings,” said Brooks, who also plays a solo recital May 19 as part of vegan chef Philip Gelb’s “Sound & Savor” dinner and concert series. “Sometimes I feel like I’m hanging on for dear life. He didn’t get the name Hurricane Sam by chance! More than anything I’m really impressed with what he’s done with the Back Room. It’s really a great thing.”
Rudin’s wide-ranging taste keeps the Back Room humming with an unpredictable array of acts. There are lots of singer/songwriters and two- and three-person combos that have honed an idiosyncratic palette of influences. There are straight-ahead modern jazz, experimental jazz, and all manner of blues, bluegrass, and folk-influenced musicians drawing on Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Balkan and West African idioms.
It’s a testament to the versatility of drummer Jeremy Steinkoler, who joins Rudin for the second Sam’s Corner gig on April 23, that he’s worked the Back Room more than just about any other musician, including several climate change fundraisers Rudin put on. “We enjoy each others’ playing and similar ideas about punctuation and phrasing,” Steinkoler said. “We mesh together well, and we’ll be trying to mix it up.”
Steinkoler is part of the regular mix with his mighty drums-and-two-horns trio Mo’Fone and a trio with bassist Chris Bastien and pianist/flutist Erika Oba (a group that returns to the Back Room March 31). He’s played there with vocalists Jenna Mammina and Kay Kostopoulos, the folky Portland trio Flyover States and Malian ngoni master Mamadou Sidibe. And last week he played a packed trio show with his son Evan Steinkoler focusing on the 17-year-old pianist’s original music.
“I am so grateful that Sam decided to bring that venue to life,” Steinkoler said. “He talks about it as his giving back to the musical community and decades as a player doing his blues and boogie thing. It’s so important to have venues of different sizes. Not every gig can be at the Freight or Yoshi’s.”
A vocalist, composer and arranger who’s been at the center of the a cappela movement for more than two decades, Lisa Forkish celebrates the release of her fifth album From the Ashes Sunday, March 19, at the Back Room. During her long tenure at Oakland School for the Arts, she founded and directed Vocal Rush, which won the high school national a cappella title five times under her leadership. Now living in Eugene, she’s bringing a bevy of her vocal comrades to the Back Room, including an OSA alumni choir, members of the intergenerational community choir WeSing (which she founded) and Attune, the all-star vocal quartet that sings with Bobby McFerrin every Monday afternoon at the Freight. A testament to the healing power of the human voice, particularly when raised in solidarity and communion, From the Ashes is a deeply felt testament to navigating and surviving uncharted waters.