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SFMX2 Rocks

Christopher Gardner

Africa by Way of Birdland: Guitarist Ron Johnson leads Congo Square's jazzy combination of brass fantasies and visceral '90s-era soul power grooves.

This year's South First Street Music Experience benefit show features 11 bands at three downtown San Jose clubs on one night

By Nicky Baxter

It's been said that music is a universal language--and that's half true. Rock, for instance, uses a specific lexicon whose reach, while impressive, by no means encompasses everyone. Jazz has an even more particularized audience. Ditto blues.

Currently, only hip-hop has succeeded in seducing a nation of millions, perhaps because part of its appeal to the masses is extramusical. The real point is that music's professed universal appeal often works best not when a single band or genre tries to be all things to all people but when a variety of forms are presented under a single eclectic banner.

Last year, Metro put the theory into practice, soliciting the support of a dozen disparate local bands and booking them into three of downtown San Jose's South First Street District nightclubs. The selection of performers and venues allowed music fans to sample an extensive array of musical styles in concentrated fashion. As an added plus, the proceeds from the evening were funneled to some worthy local charities under the aegis of the Metro Community Fund.

Like last year's block party, the South First Music Experience #2 (a.k.a. SFMX2), which takes place next Thursday (April 11), showcases a fleet of acts, ranging from the thrashy hardcore of the Ronnie Bauer Experience to the rock-hop of Willies Conception and the very hot Salmon. Featured as well are the In-Citers' British-inspired blue-eyed "Northern Soul" and Supersauce's low-keyed "jazz" Crusadin'. Representing the funk-plus front are Congo Square and Clubberlang. Only Latin, hardcore R&B and straight-up hip-hop are missing. Here's a short-order preview of a few of the benefit's bright spots.

Here's the schedule for SFMX2.

Despite the current popularity of retro-Anglophiliacs like Green Day and the Offspring, the Ronnie Bauer Experience is proof that punk's hardcore heart is still pumping genuine adrenaline made in the USA. That's not really much of a surprise, considering that frontman Bauer was already active on the local scene when punk broke in the 1970s.

"I'm an old punker," he tells me proudly in a recent phone conversation. Bauer recalls attending shows in San Francisco at such legendary venues as the Mabuhay Gardens and the Keystone, where original punks like the Dead Kennedys, the Nuns, Crime and others held court. Bauer's taste, interestingly enough, encompasses everything from the three-chord bash and burn of the UK's the Damned to the more sanguine Lennonism of rock eccentric Robyn Hitchcock.

Take 2, They're Free, the Ronnie Bauer Experience's five-song cassette, does a just-tolerable job of reflecting Bauer's divergent interests. Recorded in Portland, the trio's furious flaying is not wholly subverted by the cassette's low-level technical quality. Besides Bauer, who handles guitar and lead vocal duties, Take 2 features bassist Chris Smith and drummer Joe Marucci (since replaced by Julie Rose of Red Number 9).

Although it formed barely two years ago, the Ronnie Bauer Experience has already developed a modest fan base. The cassette's first two tracks are mosh-pit favorites, while "Stranger," on the other hand, reveals Bauer's winning ways with pop motifs, bouncing between balladic interludes and balls-out rock. Bauer's characterization of the tape's concluding track as a "poppy love song" is unabashed, revealing a healthy refusal to live up to others' expectations, which is what punk is supposed to be about, anyway.

On the other side of the musical map are Congo Square and Clubberlang. Led by bassist and songwriter Ron Johnson, Congo Square combines jazzy brass fantasies with visceral grooves conductive to dancing--Africa talking to you by way of Birdland and '90s-era soul power.

Congo Square has already shared the stage with the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and Spearhead. Despite a flurry of recent--and reportedly amiable--defections and new additions, the rhythm-and-groove band's upward trajectory appears almost preordained.

Occupying the murky gray zone between rock and a funky place, Clubberlang's members navigate that ill-defined sonicscape as if they own it. Which, according to lead vocalist Victor Trey, they do. "We are the pioneers of acid-funk," he proclaims. Acid-funk? "The acid part," Trey explains, "means [the music] can go anywhere; the funk has a rock and blues base."

He then ticks off a string of funk forebears, including the usual suspects, most notably Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic. When Trey names clown princes of kitsch Kiss as funk-rock influences, however, some real question marks arise.

Trey's bandmates' influences are even more rock-centered. Guitarist Tony Bonano, bassist Joel Tacorda and drummer Chris Eynon cite Black Sabbath and King Crimson as significant sources for their sound.

Then again, pitting funk against a rock bottom is not exactly a novel idea, although Trey begs to differ. While admitting that Clubberlang is often compared to black-rock renegades Fishbone, Trey doesn't want to concede anything. "We came up with this shit on our own!" he states flatly.

Like the Ronnie Bauer Experience, Clubberlang is a relative newcomer to the local scene, conceived in the fall of 1994. In any event, no one can accuse the band of collective diffidence. Regarding the ensemble's concert performances, Trey declares no one does it better. "As far as our lives shows, we can't be beat! What we do is break down color lines." Now, that's as honest an appeal for music's universalism as you're likely to hear anywhere.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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