Press Releases

Roots Music Has a Home in Berkeley

By Joe Eaton, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:24:00 AM

Somewhere during the Nixon years, a friend of a friend of a friend from San Diego showed up in the Bay Area to explore his musical options, mainly by hanging out in North Beach. We took him to the Freight & Salvage Coffee House on an open-mic night, but for some reason he didn’t manage to sign up. We all stuck around, though; the Freight sold beer in those days, and the acts were relatively painless. Then, when the place had emptied out and the bar was shutting down, our guest, Tom Waits, took over the house piano and picked out “Closing Time.” I would like to be able to report that he also played “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” but I don’t think he did. 

The Freight had only been around for a few years by then, having been launched in 1968 in the space formerly occupied by a used-furniture store. But it was already an institution. It was part of a thriving San Pablo Avenue music scene—anyone remember the Longbranch? the West Dakota? the Blind Lemon?—and it has outlasted all its contemporaries. In the process, it has become far more than just a folk club. 

I’ve caught a lot of shows at the Freight. Some of the performers are no longer with us: Dave Van Ronk, Utah Phillips, Raymond Kane (a benign Buddha-like figure, the first slack key guitar player I ever heard, and one of the best). It remains the place to go for Celtic music (the incomparable Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill among many others), Hawai’ian, African, Cajun, bluegrass, the eclectic and unclassifiable.  

One night, some years back, a young kora virtuoso from Mali named Toumani Diabate mesmerized the audience with the intricacies of his music. Another time, Henry Kaiser filled the stage with strings, including mother-and-daughter Vietnamese danh tranh players. I’ve heard Ralph Stanley’s transfixing version of “Oh Death” more than once there. The Freight is not a dance venue as such, but I’ve been there often enough when groups like Tarika from Madagascar and the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band evoked spontaneous dancing anyway. 

For serious dancers, there’s Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center. The Savoy-Doucet group has been known to play sitdown gigs at the Freight followed by dance concerts at Ashkenaz. That venue came along a little later than the Freight, in 1973, founded by the prickly but big-hearted activist David Nadel primarily for fellow folk dancers and built to resemble an Eastern European synagogue. With a bar. 

Ashkenaz became the place to go for zydeco (Clifton Chenier played there), reggae, Afrobeat, western swing, and other danceable musical styles. But in 1996, when Nadel was shot dead by a drunk he had ejected, it looked as if the show was over for good. Miraculously, a nonprofit group of friends of Ashkenaz was able to acquire the place and keep the music going. 

It’s still going strong in the club’s 35th year. The Balkan and Middle Eastern folk dance tradition continues. This is probably the only place in the Bay Area that features Berber music on a regular basis, or where you’re likely to catch a singer from the Comoro Islands. There’s also a steady stream of local talent. Ashkenaz serves wine, beer, and vegetarian food, and boasts three wood-paneled gender-neutral restrooms. 

The Freight, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this June, will be moving from its present Addison Street location into new downtown digs soon. It’s now run by the nonprofit Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music. True to its roots, it still offers coffee; currently, no alcohol is available.