Cozy acoustic music venue comes to downtown Berkeley

The Back Room, featuring jazz, folk, blues, and Americana performances, opens April 16 at 1984 Bonita St. Photos: Natalie Orenstein
The Back Room, which will feature jazz, folk, blues and Americana performances, opens April 16 at 1984 Bonita St. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Of the several new music venues slated to open this year in Berkeley, the Back Room will probably be the comfiest.

With room for 100 people at most, the brick-walled site at 1984 Bonita St. is occupied by sofas, loveseats, and a Steinway grand piano.

Owner Sam Rudin describes the music he plans to book as “whatever would fit aesthetically into your living room — if you had a very big living room.” That means primarily acoustic blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass, and classical.

Rudin, a longtime Bay Area-based pianist, is modeling the venue after his old stomping ground, the original Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. As a young musician in the 1980s, Rudin frequently brought his self-described “boogie blues and jazz” to the Freight’s small stage on San Pablo Avenue. When the venue expanded, eventually opening its current 440-seat space on Addison Street in 2009, it left a void, Rudin said.


“When it moved to the current place, folks like myself just couldn’t make it there anymore,” he said.

Sam Rudin, a jazz/blues pianist and teacher, will continue to offer lessons at the Back Room.
Sam Rudin, a jazz/blues pianist and teacher, will continue to offer lessons at the Back Room. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Rudin hopes the Back Room will attract both music scene mainstays and new blood, both local and touring. He has already booked 15 performers through August. Berkeley-based bluegrass artist Laurie Lewis will play the grand opening show on Saturday, April 16.

“We, as a music community, have really been missing having a smaller venue, with less stress to draw,” said Lewis, who was a fixture at the original Freight and continues to play at the current site. The Back Room, she said, will be a boon to the local music scene, providing a space where “nascent talent can be nurtured, and where established artists can take risks.”

Among the other upcoming shows at the Back Room are two Irish bands, a jazz pianist, and a French Canadian group. An Algerian band in town for the Reggae on the River festival will play an unplugged set at the Back Room in the summer.

The Back Room is located on a quiet block of Bonita Street, just north of University Avenue.
The Back Room is located on a quiet block of Bonita Street, just north of University Avenue. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Musicians determine the price of their own shows, but Rudin imagines most tickets will cost $15-$20. All the Back Room will offer besides the music is a soft drink or a snack, on the honor system. The permit doesn’t allow for alcohol sales (guests can bring their own booze), but Rudin says that was the plan all along.


“We want to be open to all kinds of performers where the musicianship and presentation is helped by a nice, quiet atmosphere in which it can be appreciated,” he said. He is also toying with the idea of a monthly event where he will play piano along with a different guest each show.

The Back Room has been in the works for four years. Originally Rudin planned to buy a space in Oakland, but when that fell through, he settled on renting in Berkeley. The wisteria-draped brick building, on the quiet block of Bonita just north of University Avenue, had sat empty for two years and required heavy-duty renovations.

The downtown location makes the Back Room part of a musical performance renaissance. The UC Theatre, at 2036 University Ave., reborn as a concert venue, opened last week after $6 million in renovations. (It canceled its first three shows due to technical issues.) The California Jazz Conservatory, formerly the Jazzschool, is expanding across the street at 2040 Addison St. The extended campus will include a new 100-seat performance space called Rendon Hall.

The seats at the Back Room are thrift store couches, and chairs along the walls.
The seats at the Back Room are thrift store couches, and chairs along the walls.

To the southeast is soon to be Cornerstone, a restaurant, beer garden, and music venue. The 12,000-square foot site at 2367 Shattuck Ave., between Durant and Channing, used to house Thalassa pool hall, which re-opened as Berkeley Public on Telegraph and Durant in early 2015. Alex Popov, founder of Smart Alec’s and Pappy’s Grill, is behind Cornerstone.

Although not exclusively a music venue, Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media, Ken Sarachan’s project at the long-empty Cody’s Books building at 2454 Telegraph Ave., will join the new crop soon as well. The site will be part media and coffee shop, and part restaurant, bar, and performance space. Events will range from book readings to rock concerts.


Rudin sees few parallels between his space and the others opening simultaneously. Among East Bay music venues, Monkey House in Berkeley and the Sound Room in Oakland are closest in character and size to his vision for the Back Room, he said.

But much is still to be determined.

“Right now I’m just kind of opening my doors and seeing who hears about it and who comes,” Rudin said.

To buy tickets ($20) to the grand opening show with Laurie Lewis & Friends on Saturday, April 16 at 8 p.m., call (510) 654-3808 or email sam@backroommusic.com

Related:
Dark Star Orchestra opens revived UC Theatre (03.12.16)
UC Theatre postpones TMBG show due to tech delays (03.25.16)
Giving thanks for Laurie Lewis, playing Berkeley Saturday (11.25.15)
Berkeley’s long-shuttered UC Theatre to get new life (04.14.14)
Mad Monk Center to rise on Telegraph (05.13.13)
Skippin’ and flyin’ with Berkeley fiddler Laurie Lewis (11.23.11)

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events: it’s self-serve and free.