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Club Hopping, San Francisco

by Chris Streng

Flip through the live music listings in the S.F. Bay Guardian and one thing is obvious: San Francisco has a wealth of clubs, concert halls, and bars offering a wide variety of live music every night. If the average concert goer had the ability to be in more than one place at a time, you could enjoy Pharoah Sanders at Yoshi's (510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510/652-9200), Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band at the El Rio (3158 Mission St., 282-3325) and Bjork with Goldie at the Warfield all at once! However, since the finer points of time travel have yet to be smoothed out, we'll have to explore one club at a time and where better to start than Slim's?

Slim's (333 11th St., 621-3330) is the baby of blues crooner Boz Skaggs but that hasn't stopped the booking agents from bringing in an eclectic mix of fine bands from America and abroad. Zydeco, surf, ska, and alternative bands have all found a comfy home on the Slim's stage. A 400-person capacity and pristine sound system make the club an ideal listening spot -- not too big and not too small. Ticket prices are reasonable ($7 - $12 in advance) but they do tack on the Ticketmaster service charge. Kudos for being an all-ages club and for handing out free water after the shows.

While we're hanging out on 11th Street, a main artery of the "artsy" SoMa (South of Market) area, hop a few feet down to the DNA Lounge (375 11th St., 626-1409). The interior bears a striking resemblance to Club MTV but without the gyrating models. The stage is small and the beer is pricey but cozy couches line the walls and the cat-walk balcony gives techno-vampires a fine perch to survey the scene. This crowd is in the late 20's-early 30's range so they've probably been clubbing for so long that they're either bored to tears or they really know how to have a good time. Hopefully the latter. The DNA tends to have DJ's more often than live bands and the crowd is stylish and surprisingly friendly. Slap on the hair gel, black turtleneck and a grin but be careful -- the bouncer checks IDs with an infrared microscope. If you're on the bus, both Slim's and the DNA (as well as other groovy spots like the Paradise Lounge) are accessible from the Van Ness Muni Station. It's a short walk down 11th St. or take a 42 bus towards the neon lights.

And while you're hanging out on Market Street at this early hour, hop on one of the numerous Market buses downstream to the Warfield Theatre (982 Market St., 775-7722). The Warfield is more of a theatre than a club, (it's only open on concert nights) but it is HUGE and architecturally stunning. There's a dance floor, many bars, seats in the balcony, and all sorts of Baroque curly-cues on the ceiling. It holds around 1500 happy concert goers and tends to have some larger cool acts come through. Siousxie and the Banshees (with Spiritualized opening!), Sonic Youth and Bjork have all graced the stage. The all ages crowd is a fun mix of scudsy San Francisco types and bouncy kids from the suburbs. Back in the day, My Bloody Valentine held out a one-note white noise drone for about thirty minutes at the Warfield. We walked out of that place feeling like Skylab had just re-entered the atmosphere onstage.

If you're not too burnt out from all this club going yet, take the 47 or 49 bus up Van Ness (from the Van Ness & Market station) to the Great American Music Hall (859 O'Farrell, 885-0750). The G.A.M.H. epitomizes the barrier breaking multi-cultural booking policies which other S.F. clubs utilize to a lesser degree. Any club that can book the Bulgarian Women's Vocal Choir for one night and Luna for the next automatically wins big points. Visually, the Hall is a cross between the lushness of the Warfield (red carpets, spiral etched ceilings) and the size of the DNA Lounge (wrap-around balcony, intimate stage). The make-up of the crowd really depends on the night. Ticket prices go from reasonable (8 bucks) to outrageous (22 dollars for Billy Bragg!?) and that's before the dreaded Ticketmaster service charge. Be careful, shows tend to sell out frequently here; both Pavement (with Rollerskate Skinny opening) and Stereolab had large groups of sullen young people milling outside mumbling about needing a ticket. Shows are usually all ages (if you can get in).

All this talk of selling out is getting depressing- we need glamour and good food -- North Beach! Hop on a 30 bus from the Montgomery Muni/BART station and don't get off until you're in the very seat of opulence, Bimbo's 365 (1025 Columbus Ave., 474-0365).

Bimbo's is a supper club held over from a more refined time. The tables have little lights on them, the stage is wide, the dance floor sparkles and people are stationed in the restrooms to dispense paper towels and breath mints if you tip generously. The ambiance of the room breaks musical preconceptions and a Charlie Hunter jazz show becomes as elegant as one of the big band revues that swings through from time to time. Shows are usually 21 and up so leave the kids at home tonight. Exceptionally upper-crust pop bands grace the stage here too. Blur and Electrafixion have both cast their spell over the swooning dance floor. When you go to Bimbo's, dress up; it is a time machine that will accommodate you.

Down on the other side of North Beach at 140 Columbus, like the bratty kid brother of Bimbo's, drinking orange soda pop and breaking the empty bottle with a sling shot, is the Purple Onion (140 Columbus Ave).

The Purple Onion specializes in radical local music and sometimes noise straight from Japan. It's 21 and up but bring a fake ID. Lots of mods hang out there and beware the mad poets out front on their way up to City Lights and Cafe Trieste. The P.A. consists of two huge home-made speaker boxes and the owner doubles as the bartender. The stage is small but the disco ball works and the beer is cheap. Bands like the Brian Jonestown Massacre play there though recently Poundsign came down from Santa Cruz to show San Francisco what pop music is all about. The Purple Onion is near the base of the Transamerica building and it rocks.

If all this club-going is getting claustrophobic, hop on a 22 Fillmore bus from the Church Street Muni station and take a long bus ride out to the Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., 621-4455) in the Potrero Hill district.

Bottom of the Hill is more of a neighborhood hangout than the other spots reviewed here; the attitude is friendly and casual, and bands tend to be from smaller labels with local groups as opener. There's a full bar and grill with lots of beers on tap and good fries. The interior is decorated like a cartoon pueblo with little mesas and crooked windows lining the ceiling and top of the stage. Bands on the K Records label breeze through frequently and $5 to see Lois with Heavenly or Some Velvet Sidewalk in this mellow atmosphere is a real treat. One of the coolest things about the Bottom of the Hill is their free Sunday matinees. Doors open at 5:30, there's no cover and two or three local bands play to whoever's there. A faboo way to kick those Sunday blahs.

One last word about club hopping in San Francisco: if the band is rocking your head off but the crowd is like a bunch of sleeping statues, damn the critics and shake your booty. Have fun!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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