The Freight & Salvage dance floor was packed with gyrating couples as Bobi Céspedes and her band delivered a gorgeous set of Cuban standards last November. It was her debut at the club, though she’s been a towering figure on the Bay Area music scene for some four decades, and Céspedes seemed determined to earn a return invitation with a powerhouse performance.
She needn’t have worried. In the midst of the salsa-dancing fray, a sharp-eyed observer could spot the Freight’s program director Peter Williams and his wife Chelsea spinning to the music with rapturous smiles. As the venerable Berkeley’s venue celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, Williams is clearly having a blast steering the institution’s 21st-century evolution.
“I’ve never been so happy at any of the places I’ve worked,” says the well-traveled Williams. “I have very eclectic tastes, and I’m getting to do so many different things. We’re really diversifying, trying to be more than a club doing Americana. And we’re doing a lot of things this year to celebrate, like the free monthly sing-alongs,” which continues on Sunday, Oct. 14 with Celia Ramsay and Shay Black leading the session “Favorite Songs from Scotland and Ireland.”
The non-profit venue’s 50th birthday celebrations kicked into high gear on Wednesday with soul legend Mavis Staples and continue on Saturday, Sept. 22 with a free party “Playing With Tradition” that turns Addison Street, the heart of downtown Berkeley’s arts district, into a family-friendly block party. Across the street, the Berkeley Rep, which is also celebrating its golden anniversary, is holding an open house with free tours of the theater and a Sunday Sampler at their School of Theatre. But music is the focus of the day, with two outdoor stages for high-energy plugged-in acts and an indoor singer/songwriter stage curated by fiddler/guitarist and roots music champion Suzy Thompson featuring artists such as Maurice Tani, Claudia Russell with Bruce Kaplan, Quinn DeVeaux and Terry Garthwaite.
The outdoor stages kick off with the enchanting reggae artist Asheba and the Grammy Award-nominated Alphabet Rockers, acts honed to appeal to kids and parents. The afternoon performers include legendary Cajun music revivalists Beausoleil, the bhangra-powered combo Bang Data, and the Bay Area debut of the BKO Quintet from Bamako, Mali. The Freight date concludes the group’s first US tour, introducing a seamless blend of Mandingo praise songs and incantatory Wassoulou hunter’s chants. It’s a sound that embodies the double meaning of the day’s catch phrase “playing with tradition.”
The festival’s centerpieces is the first ever collaboration between vocalist Linda Tillery and funky drum king Zigaboo Modeliste, the architect of The Meters hugely influential grooves. They’re joined by Berkeley Hammond B-3 expert Wil Blades, Berkeley High alum Will Bernard on guitar, and veteran saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo.
“It’s a special one-time-only Freight band bringing Zigaboo and Linda Tillery together for the first time,” Williams says. “I’ve been a fan of Zig’s forever, and I love the idea of Linda doing an afternoon of New Orleans funk and R&B. She and Zig are just three months apart in age. She’s a singer who also plays drums, and he’s a drummer who also sings. It’s a match made in heaven.”
The same could be said for Williams and the Freight. When he took the job in the fall of 2016 the Freight’s board and Executive Director Sharon Dolan “made it clear they’ve wanted to diversify the audience here for some time,” Williams says. He’s been particularly effective at tapping into the region’s deep pool of Afro-Caribbean music, traditions that hadn’t previously found a home at the venue. Working with Oakland percussion maestro John Santos, the Freight launched the “Raices” series, which has led to booking coups like legendary Cuban diva Omara Portuondo, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s benefit for Puerto Rican hurricane relief, Latin music legend Eddie Palmieri, and the Afro-Peruvian folkloric-electronica of Novalima.
“Working with Peter has been incredible as he’s opened up that beautiful space for these kind of events,” Santos says.
In looking to expand the venue’s booking purview Williams hopes the relationship with Santos will provide a model for collaborations with several other artists. “That’s part of the mission, to be a community organization,” Williams says, “There’s such a strong community around the Freight, and we want to keep it growing, attracting a lot of new people.”
Williams doesn’t just want to present a wider array of music. He wants to include it in the Freight’s educational agenda. Booking Bobi Céspedes was a no-brainer, but he also invited her to do an all-day workshop teaching sacred Afro-Cuban chants from the Lucumí sect in which she’s a priestess.
“I’d like to have workshops with some of the bigger name musicians, with master classes on the main stage,” Williams says. “I’d like to see us busier during the day when there aren’t shows.”
Williams brought an ideal array of experience to the Freight. He had recently taken a position booking concerts for the Tucson Jazz Society in 1999 when Jason Olaine let him know that he was leaving Yoshi’s. Williams got the gig and started working at the Jack London Square jazz spot, “jumping in head first,” Williams says, crediting Olaine and Kuumbwa Jazz Center Artistic Director Tim Jackson with providing essential guidance during those early years.
When Yoshi’s San Francisco opened in 2007 he booked both clubs for the first year, but the volume of work made the situation untenable and he started bouncing around Bay Area venues, including stints at the Napa Valley Opera House and Sonoma State’s Green Music Center.
While jazz has been the focus of his professional life, Williams is thrilled to spread his wings stylistically at the Freight. “I like a ton of other stuff, Americana, bluegrass and folk,” he says. “Lately I listen to more world music than anything else. Since SFJAZZ and Yoshi’s have jazz covered, if I book jazz here it will be with a twist.”
So, who’s on Williams’ wish list? He has his eye on Chile’s nueva cumbia combo Chico Trujillo and Malian diva Oumou Sangare, Mauritanian griot and songwriter Noura Mint Seymali and Oakland soulstress Goapele (unplugged), as well as singer/songwriters like Margo Price and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
“I would love to have Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the ultimate fusion group,” says Williams (he did get the banjo power couple of Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Dec. 14-16). “And I would love to do some of the all-star bluegrass things you see at Strawberry Music Festival, like David Grisman with Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. And I’d love to book Seun Kuti’s band Egypt 80.”
At Freight & Salvage these days, anything seems possible.