My last rock show of the 2017 was Dream Syndicate at the Independent in SF, last Saturday, December 16. Dream Syndicate does not hold any particular significance for me (in fact I only bought the tickets because I thought The Muffs were opening) but it proved to be a meaningful and satisfying way to end the year in music. Dream Syndicate are an American Rock and Roll band from the 80s, who hadn’t performed in 20+ years, and suddenly reformed in 2012. I had not listened to Dream Syndicate before this year, but after checking them out on YouTube, and streaming some albums on Spotify, I was pretty sure this would be a good show. My hit was that in spite of, or because of, the intervening years, Dream Syndicate were fired up, having fun, and ready to rock. This turned out to be the case.
I wanted to get to SF a couple of hours before the show, and spend some time walking around the Haight and some of the places I used to hang out. The year I moved to San Francisco, 1984, was the year Dream Syndicate recorded their second studio album, Medicine Show, in San Francisco. In 1988 I moved to a studio apartment on Scott Street, just around the block from the Independent, which at that time was called the Kennel Club. I saw dozens of shows at the Kennel Club in the 80s and 90s, and this would be my first time back in that space in quite a while. That section of Divisadero used to be pretty sketchy – but you know the story – now it’s packed with trendy looking eateries and bars.
The Independent has changed somewhat, too, though the space was fundamentally similar. The main change was relocating the bar, which was in the center of the club, to the back wall opposite the stage, which to be honest is a better layout.
As I mentioned, I bought the tickets by mistake, because I thought the Muffs – who I adore – were going to be the supporting act. I guess I didn’t read the fine print closely enough, because the Muffs were not on this part of the tour, which I didn’t find out until a day or two before the show, much to my disappointment. The actual opening act for Saturday’s show was Psychic Temple, a rock combo led by Chris Schlarb. Schlarb looked like a 70s icon with long wavy hair, sunglasses and a white suit. He told a lot of dorky jokes, and shared some interesting anecdotes about Don Henley. I didn’t really connect with Psychic Temple, but they were some fine musicians. There were strains of early Traffic as well as Steely Dan. They had a pretty awesome pedal steel player, and the keyboard player doubled on violin. So they were a perfectly enjoyable opening act.
I was pretty amused at the crowd. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show with so many old guys and gals. I mean, it was nice in a way to be surrounded by folks in my age bracket, out for a night of rock and roll. But a lot of the bands I follow tend to have a younger audience. I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys who like me had attended shows there in the 80s and 90s. The one guy told us how he lived in the building next door to the Kennel Club, and he would climb onto the roof of the club, and watch shows through the skylight. We looked up to the cieling, and there was his skylight, still intact!
So this show was the end of a year or so of touring for the Dream Syndicate, and it was clear they intended to go out on a high note. Musically, Dream Syndicate is pretty straightforward, grungy rock. They have a fat, bluesy stoner sound, reminiscent of Velvet Underground or Tom Petty. The rhythm section of Mark Walton on bass and Dennis Duck on drums were killing it, laying down a driving foundation. Wynn and Jason Victor on guitar crunched, squealed and jammed with distorted abandon. Thematically Steve Wynn’s songs deal with low lives, sex and love, alienation, self-doubt, e.g. all the basic American themes. The songs are built on some great hooks, Wynn’s angst-y howls, and relentless and often lengthy jams. It all works rather beautifully, and I was totally satisfied.
There were a number of special (very special?) guests joining the performance. Steve Cacavas who has worked with Dream Syndicate as a producer played the keyboards. Linda Pitmon joined about halfway through to provide vocals on Filter Me Through You from their latest album, How Did I Find Myself Here. Medicine Show was a real barn burner. The set ended with Days of Wine and Roses which was similarly devastating. They played a couple more songs for an encore and then they brought out Kendra Smith, one of the founding band members, who provided vocals for her contribution to How Did I Find Myself Here, appropriately titled Kendra’s Dream. Not being an old-time Dream Syndicate fan, it didn’t have quite the significance for me, but it was pretty cool cuz I’m pretty sure Kendra did not appear at many other dates from this tour.
So, good-bye 2017. Glad it went out on a high musical note, with added bonus of visiting my old turf. Although 2017 sucked in many ways for the planet, and for me on a personal level, I did see and hear a lot of good music, which helped a lot. Here’s wishing for a better 2018 for all of us!