After six long months with no live music, the John Hanrahan Quartet offered a hopeful benediction Saturday afternoon on Bonita Avenue with the spiritually-charged music of McCoy Tyner. Berkeley’s first ticketed in-person performance since mid-March, the concert kicked off The Back Room’s outdoor Saturday series, which continues on Oct. 3 with the elemental blues trio HowellDevine.
Protected from the late afternoon sun by a Downtown Berkeley Association-provided canopy, Hanrahan’s band leaned into the persistent polyrhythmic churn of Tyner’s “Passion Dance.” The quartet faced west, playing for a socially distanced and masked audience arrayed across the mostly shaded west side of Bonita (the street’s northbound lane was open, providing access to the parking lot behind 1995 University Ave.).
Bustling around to check that people in the carefully placed folding chairs had purchased tickets, and unconcerned by the folks stopping by to stand and take in the band, Back Room proprietor Sam Rudin seemed pleased with the turnout. “We sold 41 tickets, and might pick up a few more before the end of the show,” he said.
Rudin fought a long, dispiriting campaign to get back to business. Starting in July he’s been trying to get Berkeley’s public health officer, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, to explain why the Back Room wasn’t allowed to present music outside (for socially distanced, masked audiences) when Berkeley and Alameda County had signed off on other al fresco activities like dining and religious services.
She referred him to the state’s guidelines at the time, and he responded that he “could find no specific prohibitions on music in California except in Berkeley’s guidance, which says, with no explanation, ‘entertainment events are not allowed.’ This is despite the fact that Berkeley does not stand in the way of those church services.”
Though he’d found considerable support from city staffers and the Downtown Berkeley Association he gave up the quest in the face of Hernandez’s veto (she didn’t respond to a request from Berkeleyside for comment). “I figured, okay, there’s nothing I can do,” Rudin said.
A few weeks later he saw that Bobby G’s Pizzeria on University Avenue was advertising live music. “So I went the following Friday to see,” Rudin said. “They have four or five parking spaces they can quarantine off in front of the restaurant and one space for the band, a trio. It wasn’t a concert. It’s more background music to create a nice atmosphere. There wasn’t applause when the song was over. It was just there. How come that’s allowed? I needed to check.”
Bobby G’s owner, Randeep Rekhi, had quietly started presenting music outside on Fridays in mid-July. The restaurant has long hosted music, and with encouragement from the Downtown Berkeley Associaton, “we were discussing how to bring some normalcy back to people‘s lives,” Rekhi said, noting that the city is fully aware of the performances. “We haven’t had any issues.”
Saxophonist William Ryan leads a revolving cast of players on Fridays. And more recently a crew of newly minted Berkeley High graduates performs on Saturdays. After checking out the scene at Bobby G’s, Rudin called Matthew Jervis, the DBA’s director of marketing, who was enthusiastic about the outdoor performances.
“We’re definitely trying to help folks get back on their feet,” Jervis said. “We’re not in the business of enforcing pandemic restrictions. The UC Theatre has presented some live music. Bobby G’s has been doing music. There is a lot of music happening. That’s where we’re at.”
City spokesman Matthai Chakko didn’t respond to questions about the city’s position on outdoor performances, but the DBA is getting on the bandwagon. On Oct. 9, the organization rolls out Music on Wheels, a collaboration with Freight & Salvage featuring a bluegrass trio performing in the bed of a 1941 Chevy pickup truck, complete with hay bales.
“They’ll do a tour of all the parklets downtown, playing 20-minute sets,” Jervis said. “I’d love to do Music on Wheels with other venues, the UC Theater, Cornerstone, the Back Room. Sam is a city treasure and marches to his own drummer. We’re all better because of him.”
While Rudin has booked acts on weekends through Nov. 1, he sees The Back Room’s fall concert series as an ongoing experiment. Figuring that presenting music indoors won’t be safe for much of 2021, he’s using the shows as a proving ground for the coming spring and summer.
“I felt like, this is my job, like it’s my responsibility to do what I can for the Back Room and for music in general,” he said. “I’m disappointed this wasn’t done earlier. The city should have used the stage in Civic Center Park to present live music and used Berkeley monitors to make sure people were distanced. Something to brighten up these times when we really need it.”
East Bay music fans seem eager to get back in the groove. Saturday’s HowellDevine show sold out the first day the 50 tickets were available. Rudin will probably offer a few tickets the day of the show “but I didn’t want to oversell,” he said. “I’m not looking for a huge crowd and become the proof of why Dr. Hernandez wouldn’t sign off on concerts. If people stop by and want to listen I’ll be there to make sure people standing are maintaining proper distance. If too many people come by I’ll ask people to move along.”
In the midst of a devastating loss of work for performers, The Back Room offers the glimmer of a silver lining. Drummer Pete Devine was set to return to widespread touring in April after his musical partner, guitarist Joshua Howell, took a six-month hiatus to travel around Latin America. Howell and his wife made it back to the United States just before travel shutdown. Like so many other players the band lost tens of thousands of dollars of gigs.
“I had booked all these shows and festivals from April through the summer,” Devine said. “We were going to have a bunch of work. We’ve played some private, backyard events, which have been great. We’re doing some live streams, including one from the Sound Room on Oct. 11 and Club Fox in Redwood City on Oct. 28, so we’re really grateful. That’s more than a lot of groups have. We wear masks and we’re very careful.”