Neck of the Woods Upstairs

The Inner Richmond is a modest cut of San Francisco. To an outsider, it’s known for its Chinese Food, proximity to Golden Gate Park, flat streets and that familiar fog. To any local (this writer included) who lives between 2nd and Park Presidio Blvd. on the North side of the park, The Inner Richmond is a well kept secret. It’s Green Apple Books, Toy Boat Cafe, Park Life, 540 and The Bitter End. For some it’s Buckshot, The Abbey Tavern or The Plough and the Stars. This neighborhood has the food, the bars and now it has a music venue. Or rather, it has a music venue with an ear for both local music and touring acts and not one, but two stages to offer.

Neck of the Woods might be a relatively new name in the neighborhood, but before it adopted its current name it was Rockit Room. Before that it was Last Day Saloon. We sat down with owner Kanoa Blodgett and his secret weapon, talent buyer Travis Hayes Busse — who is best-known in this town as a singer/songwriter and musician Travis Hayes — to talk about the transformation of Neck of the Woods and what it means for the quiet, underrated Inner Richmond, or as a Busse affectionately calls it, The Avenues.

“This place, since 1973, has been the longest continuously running venue in the city,” says Blodgett. “There are a lot of venues that are older, but they shut down for a couple of years or for a year to do renovations, a change of ownership, and other stuff. This place has, from the day Dave Gower started it to today, has always been running as a music venue.”

While that declaration seems inflated at first, it works. Even the iconic venue we know as The Fillmore, which opened in 1912 as a dance hall, was converted into a private club after the glory days of the 1960s.

He concedes, “There’s been longer running venues, but those haven’t always been concert venues. That’s the weird backhanded claim to fame.”

Whether true or false, what’s obvious is Blodgett’s fondness and attachment to the space, which does have a rich history. The venue has hosted legends like John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Otis Redding, as well as Metallica, Third Eye Blind, Train and The Motherhips. As the Rockit Room it housed many hip-hop acts such as Biz Markie, Warren G and The Dogg Pound.

After moving to San Francisco from Hawaii, Blodgett first came to Rockit Room as a bartender with aspirations to be a bar owner. He explains, “I thought, let me work behind the bar first to see if I like being on that side. And it was a lot of fun.” As a musician himself, he immediately connected with the live music aspect of the place. “I fell in love with working with musicians and booking shows and trying to help them promote themselves. I decided I don’t want to buy just a bar where you just get drunk together and that’s it. I enjoyed the entertainment portion of it.”

After some sketchy business with the old owner, someone Blodgett describes clearly as a “shady Italian guy”, and taking some time away to work at Ireland’s, he came back to Rockit Room as an owner and immediately wanted to rebrand. The venue had fallen into a successful but pigeonholed cycle of hardcore hip-hop and reggae with Rockit Room, followed by a less successful stint of marketing itself as a club, so Blodgett wanted to get back to focusing on live music. “We went away from local live music, the up and coming acts and the traveling acts. The clientele for those kind of shows just loves music. They don’t care about what’s cool in the scene, or what types of people will be around. They go for the music. So we went back to live music with musicians who play instruments.”

After researching talent buyers in the city, he kept coming back to Busse, who he met years prior when Busse played his first open mic ever at Rockit Room. “I knew what he was helping to do with Thee Parkside, and that’s what I wanted to try and do here,” explains Blodgett. “If Thee Parkside can do it out in Potrero Hill, I knew we could do it here, where most people consider to be off the beaten path.” With shared philosophies on how to treat bands and fans, and what a venue can do for bands, the two musical minds paired up, but not without careful consideration.

Busse, who had already curated a few shows at Neck of the Woods, explains, “We did the monthly Tell All Your Friends emo/pop punk night once a month starting in February. I was able to dip my toe into putting on events in the space. It was nice for me because my thought was, this will be a great night because I have a great working relationship with Kanoa. We’d work out a great deal and he would give me a weekend night to do something fun and let me promote it however I wanted to promote it. And it’s walking distance from my house. Everyone who lives in the Mission is always like ‘Ugh, god the Richmond is so far out there.’ I live out in The Avenues, and El Rio is super far! The Knockout is really far!”

An eight year resident of The Avenues, he calls the neighborhood “a hidden gem that’s going to get attention,” especially while downtown, Soma and the Mission continue to get flooded under the rising cost of living. Along with the restaurants the neighborhood is known for and the bar circuit that is slightly lesser known, a legitimate music venue was the only thing missing from the Inner Richmond’s night life, and Busse recognized an opportunity to change that.

Describing his time at Thee Parkside as invaluable — he credits his music business savvy to the place — he also acknowledges his need to challenge himself. “I had that feeling of needing a next step,” he says. “If I can do something in my own backyard where its all me, sink or swim. What a great challenge.”

At Neck of the Woods, Busse essentially has two venues to fill: the 500 capacity upstairs and the 150 capacity ground floor. With high quality soundproofing and sound systems, he can book the upstairs and the downstairs shows on Friday and Saturday without any crossover noise. This unique set up gives him the freedom to do something that, to my knowledge, no other venue or booker has the flexibility to do: never turn a band away.

Neck of the Woods Downstairs

“What’s amazing about Neck of the Woods is I don’t ever have to say ‘no’ to a band,” he says with confidence, continuing, “It sounds crazy.”

He explains: “I’ve worked with a lot of places and a lot of bands and a lot of companies — Noise Pop, Treasure Island Music Festival, Live Nation and of course Thee Parkside — but for me it’s always been about supporting local music and the community. It’s about helping to build the community of local bands. Everyone knows it’s not so affordable for bands to find a practice space, find time to do that, go play shows and make a living. So for me I decided, when I was figuring out what I wanted to do on the business end of things, at the root of it is I want to help out the local scene and build a community. I want to give them a stage, a platform to share their music.”

As a musician, he experienced the drag during his early days, the days when you couldn’t book a show because no one knew your name. He describes, “Any musician and any band, you can’t just go to a cool venue and say hey, let my band play! They want to know how many people you can bring. They’ll check your Facebook likes and all that stuff, and at the end of the day they could say no. So where do those bands play? I’m a musician and I know what the struggle is. I know its hard to get a leg into places sometimes, even when you know you can bring people.”

By working with each band and making the judgement calls on which venue to use, Busse and Blodgett are able to provide not only a stepping stone for up and coming acts, but also the opportunity for bigger acts to choose the setting — the intimate lounge downstairs or the incredibly vibed-out music hall upstairs (a space that, by the way, matches The Independent in capacity.)

“We booked Aaron Embry from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes,” Busse recalls, “There was an agent, contracts, deposits and guarantees, so you’d think we’d put him in the bigger, more legit venue. But the agent said no. They wanted the smaller lounge feel. What I learned from that is we can do more high profile shows in a more intimate space and make that night for people, or we can do something upstairs and really blow it out.”

For smaller bands, the ones that are more risky to book, they also find ways to benefit both the business and the musicians. “We cut really good door deals with bands. If they’re not into that, because they can only bring 30 people, then we’ll do a cut of the bar. We’ll make it a free show. I’ll say, bring your friends, it’s a free show and we’ll pay out some of the bar and I’ll be flexible.’ I know how it is on that end. If we only had one stage I would have to give priority to touring bands, bigger profile acts. With the two stages, I can still do the bigger shows, the crucial showcases upstairs, while also letting people play downstairs. Or put someone on as an opener.”

With Busse and Blodgett at the helm, Neck of the Woods has evolved into a venue run by the musicians, for the musicians, and congruently for the audience and the greater San Francisco music community. Rightfully so, Busse takes pride in the key role he’s played in the venue’s transformation and as a champion of the local scene, and he does so first and foremost as a fan, of both music and the city itself. “That’s an amazing opportunity to be able to say yes,” he repeats, before admitting, “I listen to all the submissions that are given to me, whether its a physical CD or a link to something. I’ve even followed up to emails and said, hey there wasn’t a link to your music, would you send something I can listen too?”

Blodgett adds, “With someone like Travis, we have the knowledge and connection to curate shows and help other bands out. They can make connections and expand their networks.”

At Neck of the Woods, there really is something for everyone: Monday night salsa lessons, Tuesday night open mic comedy, Wednesday open mic nights, Thursday night shows upstairs, Friday and Saturday nights there are shows upstairs and downstairs. On top of that, there is Russian Karaoke once a month, Tell All Your Friends emo/pop punk night, burlesque nights and college nights in the works, and the ongoing Balanced Breakfast residency this month. The next installment is on Thursday, September 18, featuring Martin Luther McCoy, Kendra McKinley, Eitch, and RZN8R, so go check it out, because if you haven’t visited The Avenue’s only music venue, you’re long overdue.

Martin Luther McCoy, Kendra McKinley, Eitch, and RZN8R,
Neck of the Woods
September 18, 2014
8:30pm, $5-10 (21+)