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. First installment: In the Nethers.

The Boulevard Ear ~ Whither Valencia?

We flanneurs make a point of wandering many paths – both beaten and neglected – in search of excitement and edification, and we are fortunate indeed that our benighted burg offers an infinite variety.

However, even in such a honeycomb of possibilities, the connoisseur of fine living finds oneself drawn repeatedly to certain stretches of pavement where culture is robustly served at all hours. Let us not beat around the boulevard, then. Tonight’s topic: Valencia, the Champs Elysees of the hipoisie.

The Mission is, of course, full of many boulevards, and we intend to report on each corner in detail. But Valencia itself is many boulevards, not just across space, but, more to our current point, over time. We have left particles of our soles along this stretch since it housed such long-gone establishments as The Chameleon and The Crystal Pistol (now Amnesia and Range, respectively).

As captured in Camper Van Beethoven’s classic “Down and Out,” the neighborhood was even then decades into its cycle of being embraced for new energy, and reviled for slipping into the clutches of arriviste financiers and self-appointed tastemakers. The past several years has seen a burst of musical activity here, with our finest – Thee Oh Sees, Sonny and the Sunsets, Grass Widow, Fresh and Onlys – holding court on small stages.

And yet lately, our local punditry has sniffed a change in the air, the inevitable hangover that follows a period of creative fecundity. Valencia, one scribe asserts in the latest parlance, has “jumped the shark.”

And so, as your Boswell of bonhomie it is my duty to survey the question first hand: Valencia – in, out, or back in again?

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Our work begins two blocks south, at the Uptown, a dive so unapologetically indifferent to taste and time that it transcends trends. We are meeting an indispensable brain trust: GK, our resident expert bon vivant, and Shae, drink technician and neighborhood resource of exceptional reliability.

As the rare non-gloomy weather casts evening light on the taps, we put the question directly to her: Valencia – in, out or back in again? Valencia, she suggests without hesitation, is on the outs right now because students are bent over their final exams. Aha! A unique conceptualization of the question – in terms of weeks, months and seasons rather than years.

Shae, who moonlights (or day gigs) at Artist’s Television Access, also has a line on a “pop up” restaurant operating out of the newly defunct Corner. Tonight’s nomadic culinary crew is offering ramen.

We stop by The Lab on our way out and discover some very discouraging news indeed. (happily, it appears that this is only a trompe l’oeil – research reveals that they remain open for business). Although we are not yet to our boulevard of choice, signs point to general entropy already. Ditto at the once vibrant Weird Fish, who shared ownership briefly with the Corner. Both these establishments appear to have closed, and, after surveying the Ramen project, we opt for the Sycamore Cafe.

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Here, at last, we find some spark. Brewers of the local beer Tripel are hosting a special tasting. The patio is alive with the first denizens we see who seem to appreciate the absence of rain. The sliders – especially the lamb burger – are without question, essential research.

After checking in at GK’s to survey the spoils of record store day and play a few of our favorite lonely heart anthems, we wander finally the locale in question.

There is no shortage of life along the sidewalk. The bookstores in particular have drawn a crowd. But ATA is not hosting an open screening, nor is there much life at the cheery creamery. Our primary recourse is to check in at the epicenter of Valencia’s music culture: Amnesia.

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The legendary Tokyo-born country yodeler Toshio Hirano is on stage. Toshio once packed them in every second Monday here, but tonight – perhaps due to the presence of a cover charge – he is delighting a sparse crowd with his elliptical jesting, his Jimmie Rodgers tunes and distinct high tenor.

As The Sentimentals tune up their arsenal of vintage guitars, Toshio muses on the scene in terms surprisingly similar to Shae’s: “When the weather is bad,” he opines, “everybody wants to come inside and drink. But when the weather is good, they like to stay outside and walk around.”

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The magic hour of 10 sails by. The place fills up. The Sentimentals offer an expertly and energetically played repertoire of Johnny Oits covers and originals, which pleases the assembled. And yet . . . Who is lacking in energy? We, or everybody else? For us, when our favorite barkeep, Claire, moved on and someone tidied up the blackboards, something here was lost. But for whom? Does anyone else notice?

Back outside, GK and I conclude that one cannot divine history with a snapshot. Valencia is many boulevards indeed, and the next time we stop by, we may very well feel once again enveloped in the embrace of excitement and vitality. Hope springs eternal.

*What sayest thou? The Boulevard Ear awaits your evaluation of the scene.