Your Fearless Leader (photo: Patric Carver)
The Rickshaw Stop was unusually crowded for a Thursday night, but the good people of San Francisco had gathered for a special reason. A small woman was helped to the stage and addressed the audience, “This is our dream. It has been our dream that someone would do a benefit concert for us, and you’re here. All of you are here! You’re here for the best concert in history,” said a resplendent Eve R. Meyer, Executive Director at San Francisco Suicide Prevention.
Meyer has been with San Francisco Suicide Prevention for nearly three decades. I had the opportunity to chat with her a little during the show: “When this was first started, it was started by an Episcopalian priest, and he went to clubs and handed out matchbooks that said ‘Feeling like ending it all? Call Bruce.’ Back then, they couldn’t say suicide; there was too much stigma. He knew the way to get out to people was to go to the clubs, though.” Meyer said. She went on to explain that the suicide prevention hotline received 30 phone calls in its first month of operation. They receive 200 calls a day now. “I’m amazed that we’re here, we pay the rent. We answer the phones. We’re here.”
The first opening band, The Damn Fanatics, echoed Meyer’s enthusiastic commitment to life with a firecracker set. Vocalist and guitarist Andy Strong hobbled around on a cane before going on stage, but danced expressively once in rock star mode. His transition was reminiscent of Grandpa Joe coming to life once Charlie handed him the Golden Ticket — dressed in a cowboy hat, bandana, and gym shoes, Strong pranced about on stage like an ayahuasca-fueled Matthew McConaughey. At points, he got on the ground and mashed the effect pedals with his hands with a maniacal look in his eyes, making the visual of him doing so just as important as the sound it produced.
Usually, I don’t have kind words for bands who neglect to include a bass player, but The Damn Fanatics managed to create a full sound with only guitar, keys, and drums. The set started with a song that reclaimed the cowbell back from the slapstick joke its become following Will Ferrell’s infamous “more cowbell” routine. The Fanatics used this would-be-campy accent with a dirt-under-the-nails, blue-collar funk flair that instantly informed me that they might be the real deal. Juggling between the velvet tones of an Albert King influence and a Jello Biafra sneer, Strong twisted the feel of each song. Strong played with feedback and sound more like a painter than a musician, and I think that’s a good thing. The Donovan-esque lyrics of songs like “Stand by the Man” and “American Dream” deserved nothing less than a beautifully strange backdrop. At the culmination of The Fanatics’ set, Strong put on a large papier-mâché mask that appeared to be a hybrid of a rabbit and a human. While masked, Strong led the crowd in repeating a chant from earlier in the night: “This is what victory feels like!” It certainly did feel like a victorious moment.
In contrast to the first act, second opener Mad Noise filled the stage. They honored the description on their website as “punk blues,” with their first number — a biting piece of social commentary with Motown keys, funk horns, lyrics from the voices of the oppressed, and a bassline right out of CBGB. They kept with the musical traditions of southern bluesmen, but dropped the imposed use of metaphorical lyrics for a more direct message and, thus, provided a set that was just as varied, conflicted, and thrilling as the city of San Francisco. At points, their sound was a near copy of a fired-up Tracy Chapman, with winding soul and oaky timbre. At other times, it was light and melodic — ethereal. It was somewhat mind-boggling; a band that so expertly leads the crowd in a call-and-response straight out of a Zora Neale Hurston novel should not be able to pull off a cover of a Bjork’s “Joga” with confidence and competence, but Mad Noise did just that. Cellist Marica Petrey twinned the Icelandic art-rocker’s spritely-but-sharp sound as she cooed to the audience. It was positively uncanny.
The main act of the night, Your Fearless Leader, kept up the energy and joy from the first two acts with a set that was also varied and charming. Their sound started with a heavy high-hat intro that bled into a psychedelic sound that echoed hints of 1970s prog-rock a la Beggar’s Opera. Breaking into big, bombastic moments like the back-and-forth refrain of “I’m a Hypocrite,” Your Fearless Leader provided a clean and polished chaos that is usually only found in more orchestral outfits, not rock bands. Singer Marcus Ghiasi sang so confidently that it seemed to be as in his nature as breathing. For a few acoustic songs, he seemed to steer into church music territory — without all those references to God. He was able to shed this persona for later, harder-hitting numbers that evoked The Kinks with powerful simplicity.
Most of the night, I was thinking that Your Fearless Leader sounded like The Killers, if The Killers had more musical substance. Then they went and played a Killers cover, “Mr. Brightside,” and confirmed my suspicion. Compared to their original songs, the cover paled in comparison. There was nothing wrong with it. It was played just fine. It just didn’t have the flavor or the depth of their own work, and therefore was almost sad to hear. I was grateful when they got back to their own pieces.
I cannot fully encapsulate the feel of this band in words — they were playing for a small, albeit packed, club, but it was as if they were playing for thousands. In fact, that could be said of all the bands that night; they had sound and hearts bigger than the stage. I guess that should come as no surprise since they were playing for a potentially life-saving cause. “People think we’re just looking for someone to answer the phones,” said Meyer during our conversation, “but we’re not! We need people to get the word out, go to the clubs, talk to the kids in schools, put on parties like this one! We’re here right now, and we are saving lives.”
If you would like to get involved or volunteer with San Francisco Suicide Prevention, call 415-984-1900 or visit http://www.sfsuicide.org/. You can also provide support by attending their annual fundraiser comedy show May 4, 2017 at the Julia Morgan Ballroom. San Francisco Suicide Prevention accepts phone calls on their crisis line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The crisis line number is 415-781-0500.