Bay Area Venues
Totally subjective descriptions of venues that host creative music. I’ve included tips about parking and food, based on my limited experience; do correct me if I’m wrong about things. I have to drive to performances, so I don’t have many public-transportation tips, sorry. Dates in parentheses refer to the latest update for each entry.
Regarding parking: My car is a bit of a junker and has a cassette deck, the greatest anti-theft device since the 8-track. If your car looks better than that, you might want to exercise caution parking in downtown Oakland. I’ve never had a problem, but I’ve also seen one SUV with a window smashed in, so … try to park on well-lit blocks.
You can also see a list of venues on the BayImproviser site.
21 Grand — In three different locations across 10 years, this arthouse was a focal point for the local improv/experimental scene. As of this writing, 21 Grand is homeless; read details here. (Mar. 2010)
Actual Cafe — Oakland (6334 San Pablo Ave. at Alcatraz) — Basically right next door to the southern part of Berkeley. Opened in late 2009, Actual strives to be a neighborhood cafe, serving coffee and food but also acting as a gathering place. In 2011, they opened their doors to a monthly, Sunday-evening jazz series organized by Jacob Zimmerman and others. I haven’t been there yet, but I do admire them for instituting a no-laptops policy on the weekends. (Laptops smothered the community atmosphere and, worse, caused bona-fide food customers to walk away). (June 2011)
Dana Street Roasting Co., Mountain View (744 W. Dana St.) — Your typical suburban coffeehouse, but the owner is sympathetic to art-rock and prog-rock, especially the Nels Cline branch of jazz, so he occasionally transforms the store into a music spot. And he’s serious: During shows, patrons enter through the cafe’s side door, and they keep the coffeemaking noise to a minimum, if not zero. For the Scott Amendola Trio, they even replaced the tables with rows of chairs. I’ve seen only two shows there, but I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have a music venue closer to home (and one where you can buy big ol’ cookies between sets, too). The site is one block east of Castro St., downtown Mountain View’s busy commercial strip, but parking is surprisingly easy and (I think) always free. (Dec. 2010)
Kingman’s Ivy Room, Albany (860 San Pablo Ave.) — NO LONGER open to improv/experimental shows, as of Spring 2011. ….. A bar with an open area that’s suitable for small bands. They’ve been letting jazz and improv folks take over on Monday nights and occasional Wednesdays, presenting free shows. You can sip a beer while lounging on the couches or the big ottomans. Easy to find; a hop and skip from downtown Berkeley. San Pablo is a wide commercial street that’s replete with parking on these off nights, and it’s got lots of small eclectic restaurants, including an Indian food place a couple doors down from the Ivy Room. (You’ll also find a Taco Bell and a Sizzler about a mile farther down — it’s that kind of commercial street.) (June. 2011)
Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco (1007 Market) — Right on Market Street near 6th, so it’s not a savory neighborhood, but it’s quite safe. Evenings, you can park for free south of Market Street: Do avoid 6th St. itself, but if you find a spot on Folsom or Howard that’s between 6th and 7th, you’ll be OK. (Parking is more plentiful towards 7th and 8th; if you go towards 5th, you run into tourist crowds. And stay SOUTH of Market. North of Market, in this vicinity, is parking hell.) The art gallery itself is a second-story nook with lots of room. The lighting and the sound tend to be very bright, and street noises unavoidably creep into the performance, but it’s still a satisfying place for a show, and the surrounding art makes for a good environment. There’s no food or coffee, but the burrito dive next door is a great place for a pre- or post-show snack. (Oct. 2010)
Mama Buzz Cafe, Oakland (2318 Telegraph Ave.) — In an older part of town, in a peeling-plaster kind of building, Mama Buzz is a converted diner that has a small seating area in an adjacent room, where they host a lot of rock shows and the occasional improv gathering. Not the height of luxury, but it’s got local charm and some yummy vegan muffins, at least the time I stopped by. Haven’t tried the other food yet. I’ve only been there on a quiet, rainy weeknight, when parking was bountiful; the neighborhood might be busier on sunny weekends. (June 2011)
Meridian Gallery, San Francisco (535 Powell St.) — A small art space that’s right near Union Square (the touristy part of town with fancy shops, cable cars, one-way streets, and outrageous parking prices). Performances happen in a cozy third-floor space; you’ll get street sounds, including cable-car bells, but overall it’s a nice setting for music. Parking is hopeless — BUT HERE’S THE TRICK for weekday shows. Pine Street, two blocks north (uphill), has long stretches of street parking that come available at 7:00 p.m. If you can stomach San Francisco hill driving, I recommend driving in circles starting around 6:45 — yes, this wastes gas, I know — and claim your spot at about 6:55 or even 6:50. Stay in the car til 7:00 so you can move if the traffic cops insist. If you don’t do it this way, if you wait until 7:01, you’ll be screwed. Failing that … you can pay for a garage, but me, I’d park south of Market St. and just hoof it up the steep, steep hill, or even take a cable car. (June 2011)
Musicians’ Union Hall, San Francisco (116 9th St. @ Mission) — It’s literally a union office of some kind, but it has a carpeted studio/performance space with good sound. Crowds for the Sunday night SIMM music series can pack the room quite well, so it can be cramped and warm in there. Nice room, though. And the parking, on a Sunday evening, is mind-blowingly easy. You just wish parking could be canned and preserved somehow. I’m not sure there are food/coffee spots right nearby that would be open on Sundays, but if you drive up 9th and go left onto Hayes Street, you could try your luck there. (Oct. 2010)
Subterranean Art House, Berkeley (2179 Bancroft Way) — A nifty little art gallery right near campus. The gallery and a seating area for music are in the front storefront, with a restroom and snack area in the back. Beverages for sale. Clean and spiffy but still with a welcoming DIY feel. (Dec. 2010)
Trinity Chapel, Berkeley (2320 Dana St.) — Cozy church with elegant stone walls and a high ceiling. Usually host to chamber music but welcomes avant-garde stuff, too. Seating is in pews, and there’s no stage, so it’s difficult to see from the back. Sit on the outer sides, though, and you might be able to stand up for occasional peeks if you have to. It’s one block from the UC Berkeley campus, so free parking can be difficult. (Dec. 2010)
Uptown Oakland (1928 Telegraph Ave. downtown) — A storefront that’s split in two. On one side of a dividing wall, there’s a long narrow space for a bar. The other side is a long narrow space for music. The shape is awkward, but it works, and it allows bar foot traffic to come in without having to watch the music, which I suppose is good for the bar. The bar side was renovated recently and looks quite nice. The Uptown is mostly a lower-tier rock club but has allowed the Oakland Active Orchestra to play one Tuesday a month. (Dec. 2010)
Yoshi’s (Jack London Square in Oakland; Fillmore St. in San Francisco) — The clubs are nearly identical on the inside: plush and elegant, showing the music a level of respect that, sadly, isn’t always shared by the audiences. The two clubs, particularly the SF one, have been booking more non-jazz lately, and the clubs no longer book two sets every single night. Yoshi’s still hosts the occasional outer-limits jazz/improv, though — including, recently, a small festival and a couple of John Zorn residencies. There’s a two-item minimum (drinks or appetizers), although enforcement is lax on avant-garde nights. The SF club includes a bar and lounge area that’s sometimes open for late-night hanging out. (Oct. 2010)