SoFA Street Fair (Photo: Gary Avila)

“What’s the Interruption?” the Mormon asked me, referring to The Interrupters t-shirt I was wearing. I can’t say for certain if he actually was a Mormon but he definitely contained all the characteristics of a fervent believer that can make any atheist feel a bit uncomfortable – crisp white shirt, straight black tie, big smile, eerily polite. Even after grumbling some semi-coherent response, I wasn’t sure if the meeting actually happened. He was an apparition more than an actuality, a vision of some over-sanitized, caffeine-free alternate dimension, a place where my lot of nicotine-stained, struggling writers are confined to basements and laundry rooms, condemned to an eternity of ironing white shirts in penance for our sins. It was a surreal way to end my day at the SoFA Street Fair, but one that was strangely fitting at the same time.  After all, it was a day full of strangeness and a Gonzo collection of musicians, artists, rockers, Rastas and everything in between.

Legitimate freakiness – that’s a hard thing to find at modern day music festivals, the Coachellas and Outside Lands of the world, mostly because they’re so expensive they price the true societal misfits out. Sure, you have an abundance of Great Pretenders, of college kids with disposable income who let their guard down in public three days out of the year, thinking they’re channeling the spirit of Woodstock after smoking half a joint and putting on a headdress. Those are just day-trippers, casual music fans who probably haven’t purchased an album since junior high. The SoFA Street Fair, completely free like the real Woodstock was, is a bit more democratic and inclusive, the only requirement being a concrete passion for music. It's like the poem on the Statue of Liberty - give us your tired, your hungry, your weird.  At least that's how I think it goes.

This was my experience at the SoFA Street Fair, one I hope will be around for many more years to come.

Do you know the way...

I lived in Los Angeles for a year and a half, and nothing will make you more nostalgic for that SoCal city than speeding down the 680 South at 90 plus miles an hour, approaching San Jose in a hazy, smog-choked 11:30am light. Sunglasses on, Fishbone’s Truth and Soul blasting through my very worn out car speakers and anticipation steadily building up, a full day of music awaiting me. I came armed only with the essentials – water bottle, pocketful of Excedrin, notebook half-full of random thoughts and listless observations, pack of American Spirits and a cheap bottle of whiskey. Here’s my exit: San Jose, time to show me what you’ve got.

Noon to 1pm

Like any music festival, the SoFA Street Fair started off rather slowly. Of course no one, not even the promoters, actually expect you to show up exactly at the scheduled start time. Bands are still loading their gear and looking for parking, vendors have only half set up their merch booths, food trucks have yet to even preheat their ovens and volunteers are scrambling for directions and purpose. Only homeless people and wannabe music journalists arrive at noon. Enter the wannabe music journalist.

The first thing I noticed about the crowd when it started truly arriving was the sheer diversity: teenage punks with heavily patched vests and ripped jeans, aging hipsters sporting grey and tan fedoras and thick black glasses, dreadlocked stoners, families with small children who must’ve got lost on the way to Great America and ended up here, elderly couples wondering what the hell was going on in downtown San Jose. And none of those aforementioned day-trippers in sight - no obnoxiously cute girls dressed as forest creatures, no pseudo-hippie flower children taking selfies at every possible opportunity, no tank-top clad tech bros dutifully worshiping their smart phones even when surrounded by real life.  An environment akin to the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

I thought/half-hoped the music would start off a bit mellow, maybe some low-key folk duo to serve as a build-up to the louder acts. Nope. San Jose, like Ike & Tina Turner, never do nothing ‘nice and easy.’ So they had alt-rockers Sloe kick off the San Salvador Stage and blow everyone’s eardrums out in the first five minutes. Despite the piercing loudness and aggression inherent in songs like “Waiting to Suffer,” chock full of epic drum fills and raging vocals, I could see ten-year-old kids dancing near the front of the stage. My brain was rattling in my skull and these brats were dancing. God I’m getting old.

[bandcamp width=100% height=42 album=3609348453 size=small bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 track=2762757303]

1pm to 2pm

This is where the musical ADD kicked in. How do you expect me to stick to one band when there are five stages playing music at the same time? Here we go, the great Music Festival Juggle.

First up was two-piece Pretty Shanks or, as I like to call them, ‘Baby Two Gallants,’ because they couldn’t have been old enough to have even a driver’s license.  However, their lead singer/guitarist worked the stage (which was awesomely placed inside a martial arts gym) like a pro. Though the audience for this show consisted of me, the band members’ parents and a handful of amused onlookers, said singer/guitarist displayed an impressive amount of confidence and technical sizzle, ripping solos and getting the sparse crowd thoroughly pumped. They described themselves simply as ‘alternative rock’ but that’s a bit modest. These kids were straight-up punk. I can’t imagine how good they’ll be once high school graduation rolls around.

On to the next one: the Southbay Dub Allstars commanded the Gore Park Stage with ease, maybe it had something to do with the pungent scent of ganja hanging in the air. Their reggae-infused cover of the greatest song ever written, Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” was a definite highlight of the day and it wasn’t even 2 o’clock yet.

Both the heat and the desire for another drink led me to the Beso Nightclub where Major Powers & the Lo-Fi Symphony were displaying their oddball, highly Oingo Boingo reminiscent brand of rock n’ roll. They may not have been South Bay locals, but the band fit SoFA like a glove, and the audience certainly seemed to agree.

2pm to 4pm

More wandering: back to Gore Park to watch Rudy Parris bust out a few supercharged Johnny Cash covers, then to the gym to see Los High Tops kick out the old-school jams and an especially raucous version of “Summertime Blues," and then 880 South at San Salvador delivering their reggae-rock grooves with understated style. At this point in my notebook I scribble, “pretty drunk, feel like dancing by myself- numerous shots of bad whiskey and a few beers will do that to a barely 120lb music fan on an empty stomach.” I didn’t end up dancing by myself, but I do remember looking around and realizing what a beautiful day it was - a cool breeze setting in, the sunshine absolutely glorious, and the music consistently appealing.

Then things got a bit hazy.

4-something to 5:30ish

Yes, this is when the notes disappear and only snapshots of memory remain. At one point I remember thinking, ‘fuck it, let’s see how trashed I can get and still remain on my feet.’ Probably not the best decision I’ve ever made, but then again, I never said I had a reputation for making good decisions. I obviously don’t make good decisions - I’m a music blogger.

At one point, I went to check out Year of the Dragon at South First Billiards and, the second I walked in, glimpsed Matt Kemp hitting a home run on the television sitting above the bar, putting the Dodgers in a comfortable lead over the Giants. Bad vibes setting in: was this a gloomy foreshadowing of certain deleterious events to come?

Foggy head, aching muscles...somehow I stumbled upon Cruella, a female tribute to Motley Crue. Memories of high school came flooding back, days when I was obsessed with cheesy hair metal and the grandiosity of classic rock. Go ahead and make fun if you want, but “Kickstart My Heart” is one of the greatest rock songs ever written, up there with “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hey Jude,” and you can only understand that fact after you’ve drunkenly sung along to the chorus in a room full of aging, heavily tattooed metalheads reliving their own younger, wilder days.

Then a game of Jenga with my friends ensued. Don’t ask me how or why. I think I won. At least, I didn’t lose.

5:30pm to Fishbone

This is where the memory starts rushing back. I mean, it’s hard to forget a band like Fishbone, the greatest overlooked gem of that smoldering trash heap we call the ‘90s, a decade awash in burnt-out potential. What can I say about Fishbone that fans of the group don’t already know? That they should’ve been huge but weren’t easy enough to market in a decade dominated by grunge in the first half and boy bands in the second? That the Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt pale in comparison to their more groundbreaking counterpart that could fluently cover just about any genre under the sun, sometimes all in the span of one song? Rock, funk, soul, punk, metal, gospel, ska, reggae, ‘80s new wave--you name it, Fishbone can play it.

Alright enough preaching. My bias has been revealed and I don’t really care. Fishbone is red hot, and they certainly were a perfect closing to a pretty awesome day of music.

While waiting for the band to set up, I may have partaken in a certain quasi-illegal substance, but when someone is generously passing around a pipe, you don't turn them down. That's rude. This, however, in no way affected my judgment of the show. Well, maybe it did. But I wasn’t the only one blown away by the performance. When the skank pit erupted during “Ma and Pa,” there wasn’t a single member of the audience who didn’t think this was the greatest thing happening at this place and time in the universe. As the cushions from the sofa at the front of the stage went flying into the air, I could faintly envision a thousand other scenarios, a countless number of different places I could be at this particular moment, and I didn’t want to be anywhere but right here, a street in downtown San Jose wedged between nondescript beige buildings and towering palm trees.

Aftermath

I left battered, light-headed and dehydrated or, in other words, exactly the way you’re supposed to leave a music festival. Covered in sweat and cigarette smoke, I wasn’t looking forward to the drive home. All I wanted was some greasy fast food and a pit of pillows to fall into.

That’s when the Mormon, or whatever he was, approached. That’s when he awkwardly tried to initiate small talk with a tired music blogger. That’s when he asked me to come to his church next weekend. I don’t remember what I said in reply to this, but the correct response didn’t hit me till about an hour later, back on 680, driving into a Monet-inspired sunset, a gorgeous melding of purple-orange clouds and blue-violet sky: Sorry man, I just got out of church.

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