There was a moment last night, sometime around 11pm, when the view from sidestage at the sold-out Fox Theater was absolutely perfect.
As Hieroglyphics, the collective/record label that helped put Oakland on the hip-hop map in the early ’90s, launched into their classic “’93 ’til Infinity,” the silhouettes of two Oakland residents just slightly obstructed our line of sight: Merrill Garbus, the singer, multi-instrumentalist and creative force behind tUnE-yArDs; and Boots Riley, the lyricist-activist-virtuoso at the helm of The Coup. Ambling around behind them were various members of the felt hat-wearing, Leonard Cohen-covering a cappella group Conspiracy of Beards.
If the Oakland tourism board is ever looking for a way to succinctly communicate just how wildly creative, far-ranging and fundamentally tight-knit The Town really is, it couldn’t ask for a better scene.
Hieroglyphics’ set was just one thoroughly Oaklandish moment in an evening of many on Dec. 14. Sixteen artists total filled the improbably packed lineup for Oakland United, a combination group therapy session/concert benefitting the victims of the Ghost Ship fire. Organized in just eight days following the Dec. 2 tragedy that took the lives of 36 people — most of them in their 20s and 30s, many of them musicians and artists — the show was a team effort by the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts (whose founder Josette Melchor served as emcee), Noise Pop, and Another Planet Entertainment.
Other highlights from the highly emotional, nearly four-hour concert included reflections on the tragedy from journalists (Snap Judgement host Glynn Washington, former East Bay Express music editor Sam Lefebvre, and KQED Arts’ own Gabe Meline, who read this widely-shared piece) as well as veterans of the underground electronic scene (including event producer Jeremy Bispo, who became visibly choked up talking about friend and collaborator Johnny Igaz).
“This tragedy reminds us how special we all are. These people were so individually special,” said Washington, following a story about how he found refuge in the weirdos of Oakland as a young adult. “I find myself leaning into this community, this island of misfit toys. And I know we want to honor [the victims] by keeping this place special.”
Friends and family members of those lost to the fire packed the theater, both offstage and on. Cash Askew, a victim with perhaps the biggest family legacy in local music, was represented by her girlfriend, Anya Taylor, who performed with Kennedy Ashlyn, Askew’s musical partner from Them Are Us Too. Moments later, Askew’s dad played bass for Carletta Sue Kay — the Bay Area punk/performance art staple whose gleefully messy, dramatic, gender-bending show was a thrill to see on a stage like the Fox’s.
The bill was rounded out with two- to three-song sets from Bay Area bands like Geographer, Rogue Wave, Jay Som, Beats Antique, Fantastic Negrito, Tycho, and Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, who noted “I’ve lived in San Francisco for over 10 years, so I think I have it on good authority that Oakland is much cooler.”
Primus closed out the night with a maniacal, bass-based funk-storm; Les Claypool commented both on how gutted he felt about the tragedy “as a father,” and expressed hope that the next time such an outpouring of donated time and talent took place, it would be to help make spaces similar to Ghost Ship safer.
But perhaps the most cathartic moment of the evening came courtesy of Dan Deacon, the only non-local artist on the bill, who flew in from Baltimore for the night and promptly transformed into an electronic music reverend. “I’m gonna need everyone to form a circle!” he insisted, directing the lighting technician on appropriate colors. He then led the audience through a mandatory, organized dance party, followed by a guided meditation of sorts.
“I want you to take the hand of a person next to you, and lift your hands up in the air,” Deacon said. “Now close your eyes.” We were to picture the faces of people we loved, he said, and people we missed, and think about the ways they were still with us. The exercise culminated in good, healthy group scream. At a time of such unbelievable grief and overwhelming uncertainty, you got the sense that some us were just grateful for clear-cut directions.
While some speakers touched on the concrete market forces and political decisions that have contributed to many of the Bay Area’s artists living in illegal spaces — notably, Lefebvre read from his incisive, heartbreaking Pitchfork piece to triumphant cries of “thank you!” — the most consistent drumbeat of a theme throughout the night was that of gratitude: not just for the creative contributions and friendships of those lost to the fire, but to the innumerable micro-communities that nurture them, the punk houses and zine clubs and DJ collectives alike. Without them, it was made clear, the constant thrum of “cool” — the edge, the diversity, the culture, the very currency on which Oakland is trading in its ongoing development boom — is worth nothing. Oakland needs these spaces as much as individuals do.
To what degree the powers that be comprehend that fact, and what they decide do with it — what they move to build, or tear down — remains to be seen.
But the more than 2,500 people packed into the Fox Theater last night — from small children on up to grandparents, people who stood holding each other, wiping tears from behind glasses, or sweating out the grief as they danced — they understood. And it was nice to think that, had they been there, some of those joyful, queer, furiously talented misfit toys we lost in the fire would have been dancing hard and full of hope right alongside us, feeling understood too.
[For more coverage of the Ghost Ship fire, including in-depth remembrances of the individual victims, please visit KQED Arts’ memorial page here.]