Since forever and ever (and ever), South Bay music fans looking for something to do on the weekend have shared a common complaint: “There’s no good music in San Jose.”
And you know what? For a long time, they were right. Aside from performing arts centers, some restaurants that let cover bands play every once in a while, and other trappings of suburbs that want to convince outsiders that they are cultural destinations, San Jose has had hardly anything substantial to offer the country’s – even the Bay Area’s – musical landscape for who knows how long.
It’s not for lack of trying. San Jose has a long habit of, every few years, laying a promising foundation for a real, thriving arts scene, and then chickening out at the very last minute. Then, after a few years of relative dormancy, it starts back up again…only to peter out shortly after. And on and on it goes. It’s disheartening and disappointing, but long-time residents like myself are used to it. We know the dangers of getting too attached to any worthwhile music ventures in San Jose. It never lasts. Don’t believe me? To this day, we are still mostly known as “the place where Smash Mouth is from.” (My cheeks started to flush with embarrassment just writing that).
Then, in early 2013, Café Stritch opened its doors.
Café Stritch, a reincarnation of the popular Eulipia restaurant, came about as a way to not only bring good food, but a dependable venue for quality music, to downtown. I had heard some rumblings about Café Stritch around the beginning of the year — mostly about how good their food was (everything you have heard about the macaroni and cheese, by the way, is completely true). Then, some time in March or April, manager Maxwell Borkenhagen gave a talk at Make a Scene San Jose, a now-defunct monthly meetup of San Jose musicians and fans.
His story, a very common one of growing up thinking San Jose sucked, moving away to a bigger, cooler city, then returning with the goal of elevating SJ’s status in the music world, struck a deep chord with me. Like tons of kids, I had done almost the exact same thing: born and raised in a house by Highway 17, moved to San Francisco to chase a major-motion-picture dream of living in a ramshackle Victorian and writing about music for a living, and when that didn’t work out, moved back home and decided to try and make the best of my local scene while I was here. I met up with him for an interview a week or so later. The place had barely been open a month and when I showed up, and it was packed with guests. He already had a list of shockingly notable names lined up for appearances in the near future.
Guess I got here at a good time. Right out the gate, Stritch began pulling in big, even legendary names on both the local and national level: Built to Spill. Jonathan Richman. Andrew Jackson Jihad. Rin Tin Tiger. Will Sprott. Grouplove. The Blank Tapes. The stuff of shows that might take place in more established Bay Area art hubs like Oakland, or even – gasp! – San Francisco. Since most acts, even local ones, rarely give San Jose the time of day as a worthy tour stop, Café Stritch’s immediate and sustained success in 2013 is, in retrospect, a huge, huge deal.
As an almost-lifelong resident, I feel qualified to speak on San Jose’s behalf here (if you disagree, please do let me know in the comments. I’m serious.): The problem isn’t that we inherently suck, it’s that we suffer from cripplingly low self-esteem. An inferiority complex that we always, every time, let get the better of us. We have no shortage of creative types down here, but seeing our own scene crash and burn time and time again convinces us that we just must not deserve quality music. Why even bother getting a band together when history shows that art almost never works out for San Jose?
We are without a doubt at the dawn of yet another cycle of awesomeness in the South Bay, but with the beginning of it comes the expectation that some time soon, some force beyond our control — more often than not, various bureaucratic powers that have been wiping out downtown venues in San Jose for years – will bring that to a swift end. However, the runaway success of Café Stritch shows that a robust, varied, and self-sustaining scene in the South Bay is possible, and is already happening. I am crossing my fingers that we won’t drop the momentum next year, the way we always do. We San Joseans are self-deprecating, but we are also fiercely proud. Now is the time to stop buying into the stereotype that we suck. We can only suck if we let ourselves suck. Let’s band together and go big in 2014.
Please don’t leave us just yet, Café Stritch. Give us just a few more years.