The Boulevard Ear

Welcome back to the Boulevard Ear, a regular feature on The Bay Bridged, where our man about town examines a community's live music offerings over the course of one evening. What is it like to be a show-goer whose experiences are dictated entirely by location? Follow Todd as he explores Bay Area music venues by neighborhood, finding a variety of independent music along the way.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Charlie Homo

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Todd Wanerman

It is gloomy without - the wind bitter and persistant, the moisture horizontal and aggressive. Within - in this case the bar of Chow - we push stringy bangs back and revel on. Our esteemed colleague, photographer Charlie Homo, will join us in the forbidding elements on a fitting project - plumbing the unseen corners of a music venue that represents the closest our young frontier can call history.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Todd Wanerman

We are blessed here with some music spaces that would tax the imagination were they to appear in a film fantasy. The Cafe du Nord and Swedish American Hall, along with the Great American Music Hall, Bimbo's and the Warfield, are architectual and atmospheric treasures. One feels to be a better person within them.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Charlie Homo

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Todd Wanerman

As far as we are concerned, the official story of the du Nord/Swedish - brothel, speakeasy - raises more questions than it answers. For starters, what is a Swedish American Hall doing in a brothel? What is the relationship between the two clubs - one, stately and meditative, the other florid with louche promises?

We are also buoyed along from a distant memory, glimpsed in the pages of a restaurant guide: The building started life as a Basque boarding house.You can see the irresistable parallel: ghosts of our unironically, bearded, wooly Point Reyes agrarian elders wandering among us in cafe society.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Charlie Homo

And, as fate would have it, a wooly duo from Bolinas with youth to spare, Beam, has settled here to entertain us as we arrive to investigate this gem of a venue.

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Eli Carlton-Pearson, on kick, hi hat and guitar and Isabel Sokol-Oxman, on fiddle comprise Beam, and it is the chemistry and conversation between them that defines their act. Musically, they combine slide blues, Bulgarian folk, and an array of other organic styles into a high energy, good natured rave up.

Inspired and energized, we checked in with Stever, house manager of the Swedish American Hall. He graciously opened the house to us and took a moment to answer our queries.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Todd Wanerman

As he tells it, the building was erected as a meeting hall in the 1870's by the Swedish Society of San Francisco. It fell later into disrepute. Stever recommended we review a few of their ancillary ballrooms, where we encountered a collection of odd, pointed thrones. Stever confirmed that they were hand-built at the time of the building's construction.

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The peepholes on the door confirmed the speakeasy angle.

No Basque shepherds, we press him?

"Oh, the downstairs was a Basque restaurant," he confirmed, if vaguely.

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And indeed, our probe yielded no gothic, brooding bunk rooms or communal baths. Instead we found a temple to California's naturalist utopian past.

The upper level revealed not an attic, but a leaded window suggesting instant transport to a Swedenborgian nirvana, all carved hardwood and scrubbed whitewash.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Charlie Homo

And perhaps an errant maiden.

The Boulevard Ear; 3/27/12, by Todd Wanerman

The basement, however, was creepy.