19 Apr 2017: The Midway San Francisco
There’s something unusual going on in San Francisco’s warehouse district on this particular spring evening. It’s clearly not just another Wednesday night as fans of psychedelic music and art descend upon The Midway, a new venue that seems to be a multi-use space in a not-so-happening part of town. San Francisco’s warehouse district is oddly still undeveloped for the most part, leaving many local music fans unfamiliar with the area. But there’s a Bicycle Day celebration about to go down, an all-evening event paying homage to chemist Albert Hoffman’s paradigm shifting discovery of LSD on April 19, 1943.
After having gotten an accidental taste earlier in the month, he chose April 19 for the first dedicated acid trip during which he enjoyed a historic bike ride home after the substance’s unique effects had taken hold. LSD would go on to play a pivotal role in the development of the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco music scene, and the pop culture explosion of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s, and so it’s fitting to hold a commemorative celebration here in “The City”. The main draw for most fans seems to be the San Francisco debut of the Bureau of Sabotage, a new jam rock supergroup just formed in 2017. With guitarist John Kadlecik (formerly of Furthur and Dark Star Orchestra) and bassist Oteil Burbridge (currently with Dead & Company), the band has strong second degree roots in the Grateful Dead scene. Drummer Jeff Franca from Thievery Corporation and keyboardist Aron Magner from the Disco Biscuits are only slightly further removed, and so the project seems to hold great promise.
The band’s name is the brainchild of Kadlecik, making a timely reference to science fiction stories from Frank Herbert in which the government has become so devastatingly efficient that it can conceive, pass, fund and enforce new laws in a matter of hours. This reckless bureaucratic tyranny becomes such a threat to society that a resistance organization is formed to put a needed check on the government’s out of control power. Can musicians play such a role in the era of Donald Trump’s reckless assault on American society’s safety nets by inspiring more people to take action for resistance? This remains to be seen, but the concept is intriguing.
The Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab) are not scheduled to hit the stage until 10:30 pm, however. The early part of the evening is a mixed bag. The two musical acts that precede BuSab on the main stage are electronic acts with such booming and reverberating bass tones that the “music” feels more like noise pollution to the ear drums for many in the rock ‘n’ roll crowd. These fans, therefore, seek refuge elsewhere. There’s a psychedelic art show of sorts in a small backroom with legendary artists Alex & Allyson Grey holding court, but the room is packed and stuffy with a bottleneck for passageway and little in the way of seating. There’s fantastic psychedelic art in the hallways (which grows only more compelling as the evening progresses), but those looking for a place to chill are forced to step outside into the artisan vendor area on what becomes a cool, damp night.
There are only a couple of benches for seating, and the area keeps getting more and more crowded, as patrons continue to arrive at the venue and take displeasure with what they hear in the main room. The lack of a chill room at what’s largely set up as a rave type of event is the primary flaw of the evening. The secondary flaw is the scheduling that has rising third generation jam band Papadosio scheduled to close the evening with a set that won’t begin until 1:45 am. A number of fans express displeasure on social media in the preceding week about this and with good reason. It isn’t a Saturday night, and not everyone can stay out all night in the middle of the week. It seems to many sitting outside in the mist that Papadosio should have been scheduled to play either directly before BuSab, or directly after.
The jam rock crowd is getting downright antsy as the 10 o’clock hour finally arrives. The masses start to move into the main room, and it becomes clear that a pretty good size audience is now on hand. The vibe starts to build when the Greys take the stage for a short presentation about the development of their Chapel of Sacred Mirrors project in New York, where they’ve built an art sanctuary and trans-denominational interfaith church that appears to be a psychedelic wonderland of sorts. And then, at last, the Bureau of Sabotage takes the stage before an audience that is amped up and ready to rock.
They open with a solid rendition of Jerry Garcia’s “Cats Under the Stars” with Kadlecik on vocals, followed by the Grateful Dead’s “Feel Like a Stranger” oddly sung by Magner. Many in the audience can be forgiven if they aren’t familiar with Magner since the Disco Biscuits have implemented what seems to be an undeclared boycott of California in this decade. But it’s good to see him back on the scene, as he was with members of Sound Tribe Sector 9 during Santa Cruz Hemp All-Stars shows around the Bay Area in 2001-02. His vocals here are a bit rough, but things start to coalesce in the jam section of the song as the quartet takes it for a little ride.
The BuSab then elevates the vibe to a higher level with the beloved “Terrapin Station”, one of the most epic songs from the Grateful Dead catalog. Kadlecik moves into Jedi Master mode to shed light, and the swirling psychedelic laser light show doesn’t hurt either with a mesmerizing effect that matches the power of the music. The Greys also re-appear to add some live painting at the side of the stage, another San Francisco music scene tradition. Burbridge and Franca are tightly connected here, and then more so as they orchestrate a smooth transition at the end of the song into a funk groove. Magner digs deeper into his organ, while it seems that Franca is taking a lead role with a nifty syncopation and some funky fills. Kadlecik toys with the opening riffs as the rhythm section seems to tease “West LA Fadeaway”, before shifting into a higher gear for an ultra-groovy “Dark Star” propelled by Franca’s infectious beat.
A wave of sonic bliss washes over The Midway as Magner conjures some high-level psychedelia from his synths, while Kadlecik and Burbridge take a loose and open approach to the seminal psychedelic classic that lets Magner and Franca steer the ship. The relatively unique arrangement has some fans flashing back to when STS9 busted out “Dark Star” for a few glorious minutes at the Fillmore across town last November, but this version goes deeper as Magner continues to explore while the band keeps a groove going that makes the dance floor feel like a magic carpet ride. Accompanied by one of the most eye-catching laser light shows of recent times, this is a special rendition of “Dark Star” that moves the Bureau of Sabotage into the vanguard of second generation bands keeping the flame for Grateful Dead music.
Just as the melody seems to drift into a nebulous space, the band rallies on what seems like a brief “Turn on Your Lovelight” tease before dropping into a full-tilt “Franklin’s Tower”. Magner provides some strong Hammond B-3 work, while Kadlecik belts out the vocals with a fiery passion that feels aimed at the corrupt powers that be when he sings, “Whichever way your pleasure tends, if you plant ice you’re gonna harvest wind!” Burbridge and Franca drive the groove with a magical synergy as Kadlecik lets fly with liquid leads, while the Greys continue with the live painting to lend yet another multi-dimensional effect to the performance.
The appreciative crowd roars with delight at the conclusion of the smoking jam, though this elation quickly turns to surprise when the musician’s leave their instruments. Is the set really over after just five songs? Timekeeping devices indicate the band has only played for about 70 minutes and most of the crowd surely wishes the Bureau were scheduled for a two-set show. But the “Terrapin>Dark Star>Franklin’s Tower” trifecta was delivered with such a vibrant sonic alchemy that the sequence seemed to have impacted the space-time continuum on a much deeper level. Such are the skills of the tone scientists in the Bureau of Sabotage.
The evening hasn’t been quite as close to just exactly perfect as it could have been, but the event promoters of Euphonic Conceptions certainly pulled out all the stops to present Bureau of Sabotage in a compelling fashion fitting of the occasion with the laser light show and the live painting from the Greys. There’s also still some more live entertainment to be had immediately after that, as the back room that hosted the art talk earlier has now turned into a psychedelic disco of sorts with a DJ spinning funky grooves while sexy go-go dancers provide some additional attractions into the midnight hour.
A couple of fans later report a troubling vibe of fear and loathing after leaving the venue, however. Upon walking to their car a few blocks away, they find themselves stalked by an SFPD cruiser that was apparently out to try and bust some hippies for a trumped up traffic violation and potential DUI driving away from the Bicycle Day soiree. There are no bars in walking distance for them to hang out at for a bit. But the couple reports that they were able to evade imperial entanglements by walking past their car and taking a little late night stroll they would liken to walking through the “Mission in the Rain” (due to a classic San Francisco foggy drizzle), before returning to their car about a half hour later. It’s disturbing to hear that the SFPD apparently has nothing better to do in this day and age than stalk music fans. The Midway and the Warehouse District, therefore, have a ways to go if they want the area to be seen as an attractive destination for nighttime revelers.