The Old Friends Festival Comes to Berkeley

by E. "Doc" Smith on December 9, 2011

The Old Friends Festival (OFF) highlights the best of the 1990’s Bay Area creative music scene with a power packed line-up featuring: the Rova Saxophone Quartet playing a Tribute to Bay Area tenor saxophone great Glenn Spearman, local legend Ralph Carney, Pluto, Pamela Z, Gino Robair’s Improvcore Orchestra 3000, Dan Plonsey’s New Monsters, and a re-union of the avant jazz group The Manufacturing of Humidifiers, all in two action-packed nights.

Curated by Steve Horowitz (“Super Size Me” and so much more) & part of the Berkeley Arts Festival, the OFF takes place on Friday, December 9th, and Saturday, December 10th, 8pm both nights. Admission is sliding scale, suggested donation $10-20. The Berkeley Arts Festival space is located at 2133 University Avenue, just of f the corner of Shattuck, in beautiful Downtown Berkeley.

The OFF features a wide array of musicians and bands from the heyday of the Bay Area creative music scene of the 1990’s. For those of you who were not there or are just way too old to remember, the 1990’s were an amazingly active decade for all sorts of cross currents in what became to be known as the Improvcore music scene in the bay area. Some high and some not so high profile shows were centered at a club called Olive Oil’s on the piers in San Francisco (before there was a ballpark there, now called Jellys) and Beanbender’s, in the Berkeley Store Gallery, in downtown Berkeley.

The steady stream of talent was simply awesome, from bands like Pluto, the Molecules, ROVA, The Humidifiers, Eskimo, and the Splatter Trio, to individual performers like Ben Goldberg , Ralph Carney and Glenn Spearman. . . the list goes on. The late Stephen Lucky Mosko, long time conductor for the SF contemporary music players was even featured. Many of the musicians in these groups are still making vital music and have been performing locally and internationally for years. The OFF festival may just be a once in a lifetime chance to see many (not all, no way to do that) of the progenitors of the bay area creative music scene together again for the first time in a long time. Regardless of style or genre, the OFF festival is fundamentally a gigantic celebration of the talent, depth and musical diversity of the Bay Area.

This year’s festival is curated by composer/bassist, Steve Horowitz who moved away from the bay in 1996, to live in the Netherlands for four years, and then Manhattan for ten. Steve finally returned to the city for good, and being back is what sparked the idea for this mass conflagration. “The number of fantastic players and bands in SF is overwhelming, and I think a festival like this will go a long way to remind people of that fact,” said Steve. “I can remember so many fantastic shows and bands, I just wanted to see us all together again”

Rick Rees, one of the original promoters of Olive Oils and the Improvcore scene, now living in Pacifica remembers, “Those were heady musical days, there was a real sense of community and shared purpose among the groups. The Improvcore orchestra got started at Olive’s, different bands that played each other’s music in a large ensemble format. Best of all was the Battle of the Improv Bands: Splatter vs Scatter, conducted by Willy Winant. I am sure I still have the official zebra jersey he wore and the “trophy” made by Tom Nunn buried in the garage somewhere.” Composer/Saxophonist Dan Plonsey ran a creative music series called Beanbender’s in downtown Berkeley for many years.

Everyone played there, Fred Frith, Roscoe Mitchell, and even the Sun Ra Arkestra. “Beanbender’s often seemed to book itself,” says Dan. “We’d get calls and e-mails from some of our favorite musicians from all over the world, and they’d come and play in this abandoned bank which was in legal limbo. Once or twice we had no electricity, so we had to run an extension cord to the pizza place next door. Or the guys running seminars upstairs would complain about our noise, or they’d book a party, and we’d run up to complain about their noise. But people would always come to the shows — somehow we almost never lost money.” “I would expect nothing less than some new major musical moments from these players and this festival,” says Steve. “We will get to see a re-union of Pluto (now called Lost Planet, get it!) playing with Ralph Carney and a very special ROVA tribute to the late great Bay Area, Saxophonist Glenn Spearman titled, ‘Extrapolation of the Inevitable — Rova Channels Glenn Spearman.”

Steve Adams explains, “Rova will perform in honor of the late Glenn Spearman, the great tenor saxophonist who was also a dynamic force in the Bay Area music scene. ROVA had the chance to make music with Glenn on many memorable occasions, including the sax octet Figure 8 and the thirtieth anniversary concert of Coltrane’s Ascension. His playing and spirit were an inspiration to many in these parts and we will be making music dedicated to his lasting influence.”

Horowitz concludes, “In many ways, this is a dream come true, to be able to come back to town and work with these folks again. Completely inspiring, I really think this festival is going to rock!”

The Old Friends Festival
Friday, December 9th, and Saturday, December 10th
Sliding scale admission (suggested donation $10-20)
2133 University Avenue – just off the corner of Shattuck, in beautiful Downtown Berkeley

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment