Chapel manager Fred Barnes.
About a month ago, former Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs (nee’ Scott Kannberg) came out of semi-seclusion from his home in Mexico to play to two sold-out shows at The Chapel. Working closely with the Mission District venue, Kannberg assembled an all-star cast of his friends to play, and the gigs featured he and Stephen Malkmus (and lovable stoner drummer Gary Young) playing Pavement songs live together for the first time since 2010.
Footage from those shows made their way to national music blogs like Pitchfork and Stereogum, and further cemented The Chapel’s reputation as a delightfully unpredictable venue — a place where something amazing could unfold before your eyes on any given night.
In a city filed with beloved local music venues, The Chapel has managed to claim an impressive foothold, despite celebrating just its fourth anniversary on October 4. Much of that has to do with its distinct collaboration with musicians, resulting in the kind of multi-night residencies that made the Spiral Stairs weekend so memorable.
“We’ve tried to shift away from just becoming the San Francisco tour stop for these musicians,” said Fred Barnes, The Chapel’s manager. “We came up with some ideas to work with artists and their management team to devise these residency programs, where musicians can perform in their own unique manner. We really like to work with the artist to achieve their vision for their show, and we have a lot of tools at our disposal. As long it doesn’t interfere with the audience’s experience, we’re game for whatever they suggest.”
These partnerships were borne out of stints like Real Estate’s three-night run of shows in June (while the band wasn’t on tour), a special 50th anniversary show for The Flamin’ Groovies in April, and back-to-back nights of Television playing improvised performances with Vetiver last month.
“We’re not part of a larger organization, and we’re not tied to any festivals, so we had to be creative to stand out,” said Barnes of the venue, which has already produced 60 sold-out shows this year.
While being the largest music venue in the Mission District — a San Francisco neighborhood revered for its rich cultural history and vibrant artistic community — gives The Chapel an obvious appeal, the venue experienced some growing pains following its debut in 2012.
The owner of The Chapel, Jack Knowles, originally intended the venue to be the residency site for The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the legendary New Orleans outfit named after a club in that city’s French Quarter. The site was even originally called Preservation Hall West at The Chapel.
And while The Chapel remains dedicated to showcasing New Orleans jazz and soul bands, management opted to drop the Preservation Hall West moniker shortly after opening.
“We kind of had to let the prevailing mood and culture dictate how we approached the club,” said Barnes. “We still love music from New Orleans, but it was about staying as relevant as possible and embracing what the community wanted.”
That Mission District community provided another set of challenges for the club. In a rapidly-changing city that is increasingly unaffordable for middle-class and working-class families, fears of gentrification are always heightened — particularly in the Mission, a neighborhood that has seen mass displacement of local residents.
Barnes said the venue worked closely with local residents and businesses to integrate itself within the community in a way that was respectful and open-ended. The Chapel has worked to support local galleries by showcasing artist works at the venue and has promoted nearby businesses to its patrons. It also features a bevy of free offerings — from jazz performances in its restaurants to televised sporting and political events at the main site — that it encourages residents to attend.
“Basically our number one thing, besides running the venue, is to integrate it into the community and make it something really positive,” said Barnes. “We spend a lot of time talking with these residents and inviting them to experience shows, and trying to make this place be something that is special for the Mission.”
It helps that The Chapel has a strong relationship with local artists. Barnes said he tries to showcase Bay Area bands whenever he can, and always hopes to include them on the billing with national acts touring the area. One of The Chapel’s closest cohorts is Thee Oh Sees, perhaps San Francisco’s most cherished once-local band. They’ve played more than a dozen times at The Chapel, and will be returning for a two-night residence later this month (that’s already sold out).
“Not only are Thee Oh Sees so important to the local scene, they’re only one of the best bands in the world,” Barnes said of Thee Oh Sees, who recorded a live album at The Chapel that was released earlier this year. “I cannot say enough about Jon (Dwyer, of The Oh Sees) — he’s the real deal. He’s a guy who just cares so much about and pays real close attention to the local scene. To have is stamp of approval, is as good a stamp as anyone’s.”
That kind of artist support has The Chapel optimistic about the future. “We’ve got some really cool things coming down the pipe,” said Barnes. “It’s definitely an exciting time to be part of this venue.”
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