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Burrito Coma: Beth Custer lets whimsy guide her.

Beth Hears Her Calling

'Eclectic' is too limiting a word for classically trained performer Beth Custer

By Richard von Busack

BETH CUSTER lives about five lives at once in San Francisco, but she's taking time out for local shows. Her upcoming San Jose performance brings in Custer's latest band, Doña Luz 30 Besos, dubbed in tribute to an abuelita of a landlady named Doña Luz, with whom Custer stayed when she was studying Spanish in Oaxaca.

"Originally, the band was called 'Doña Luz 30 Minutes,' but that sounded too sexual," Custer says. "Thirty kisses sounded mas suave."

When not performing with Doña Luz 30 Besos, Custer collaborates with Joe Goode and the Dance Theater, which entails a musical residency at the Lab, a San Francisco arts showcase. Custer also busies herself teaching music and preparing for a long vacation trip to Spain, which will be followed by a recording session for the new Doña Luz album. She is also incubating a new film soundtrack for debut in November at the Castro Theater: accompaniment for Kote Miqaberidze's silent film Chemi Bebia, a.k.a. My Grandmother, a once banned and little-known 1929 Soviet comedy. "It stars an Ernie Kovacs look-alike," Custer says.

To keep busy, Custer is also taking a cram-course in Spanish, to further a fascination with Latin music that spurred her recent trip to Cuba. "I think about moving there," she sighs with true love. "Every street corner has a cafe, where the music starts at 11:30am and goes on till 2am. There's government support for musicians there, but you have to audition and then get certified class A, B or C." Cuba probably doesn't need to import any musicians, but I bet they could use Custer, a class-A musician if ever there was one.

Mostly, I'd been familiar with Custer's clarinet playing on the Club Foot Orchestra's love theme from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a cobwebby waltz that is miles different from her velvety session work on the underrated Connie Champagne album La Strada.

Custer's been playing piano since age 3. She went from being a young prodigy to a BA in music studies at SUNY Potsdam. Custer came out West on a bicycling trip and stayed put. In between her many projects, she finished up an MA in clarinet performance at San Francisco State before turning back to the piano.

Custer grew up expecting to end up a classical musician. Indeed, she ended up in one of the most eccentric orchestras since Raymond Scott's: the Club Foot Orchestra. This ensemble, founded by Richard Marriott, went from a one-room Third Street nightclub to international performances of original scores for silent classics like Metropolis and Nosferatu.

The orchestra's membership waxed and waned, at one point including the distinctive Ralph Records guitarist Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman. Eventually, Club Foot fielded some CBS money doing the soundtracks for the Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat, a noble attempt to bring back the wonky surrealism of the pre-Mickey Mouse cartoon pioneer.

"It was extremely low pay for a 12-piece band," Custer told Metro in 1998, "but later you get royalties for these things, and television royalties are pretty happening. It's gotten me through the bad times financially."

Work with the orchestra began Custer's performance of original music. "I went from free improv and solo concerts to writing down stuff. That's when I started to blossom as a composer."

The Doña Luz lineup now includes David James (guitar), Jan Jackson (drums/voice), David Rosenthal (bass/voice) and percussionist Hugo Godoy. Doña Luz covers songs by the half-Galician/half-Basque musician Manu Chao, including "Lagrimas de Oro."

The Doña Luz concert may also include a song that she's recorded three different versions of: "In the Broken Fields Where I Lie." The song, an excerpt from her own Vinculum Symphony, is "a final ode to my grandmother," Custer notes.

I sought in vain some vinculum that connects all of Custer's work, but it's easier just to listen to the music of this multifaceted performer for whom the word "eclectic" itself is far too limiting.

Beth Custer and Doña Luz 30 Besos perform Saturday (May 25) at 9pm at the Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. Free. (408.287.3991)

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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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