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Court & Spark

Bless You

Great new release from San Francisco upstarts

Champ Withers

Court and Spark play the El Rio back patio.
Note the monitor riser substitutes!

I pushed the clutch in to the floor, slipped the stickshift into
first gear, and pulled the emergency brake as gravity pulled the car to a stop. I was perched on an insane incline on Divisadero St. at the intersection with Pacific Ave in San Francisco. The fog was no less thick up there on the crest of the hill than it was outside the door of the apartment back down behind me in Cow Hollow at the end of Union St. where my wife and I had taken a sublet for the summer through a friend of a friend. When I was sure it was safe to proceed, I stepped on the gas, let out the clutch and released the e-brake in one continuous and successful motion. I made my way through the intersection, down out of Pacific Heights, across the WesternAddition, past Lower Haight, around to the Castro and finally into the Mission. It was late July of 2001 and, upon the recommendation of my good buddy P.Mad (the same guy who, more than a decade earlier, had turned me on to a band called MotherHips who at that time were rocking all the backyard parties in Chico where P.Mad was attending college and had progressed to where this summer a decade later they put on a brilliant performance as headliners at a sold-out Fillmore show), I had left my wife at home and was making my way (all the way) across the city of San Francisco to The Makeout Room in effort to check out a band called The Court and Spark.

The Mission.., El Farolito, multimedia upstarts on Capp St.,
condemned projects on Army, warm fresh corn tamales from the market on 24th St., quaalude horse pills from the market with the green awning on Mission near 21st, white Fruit Of The Loom t-shirts and Ben Davis pants, Mexican Bars with Mexican-Americans in cowboy hats and cowboy boots shooting pool and listening to mariachi music on the loud jukebox, a work cohort with a shaved head and tattoos who played bass and painted and had
a cute girlfriend that also painted and had a slight heroin problem and a bunch of little kitties, and other memories from the time that I had lived in that foggy city some seven years earlier synapsed their way through my brain that evening as I searched for a parking
spot. Some of those things I remembered were gone now, others hadn't changed a bit, and still others like the housing projects that I parked in front of on Bartlett St. had simply changed form. These projects were clean and had fresh coats of white and blue paint which made them much less intimidating than the burnt-out, hollowed-out, dirt encrusted, brown and black ones they were about to tear down in that part of the city just before I moved away. I parked the car and got out, carefully looking around me but just as carefully avoiding eye contact with the group of chicanos standing on the sidewalk a little ways from my car. To my relief, they were merely peace-loving denizens of the new San Francisco, and not the PCP-fueled vato gang-bangers that I feared were going to rush me with switchblades and take my little subaru.

I got to the door of the club safely and paused for a moment to
check out the black chopper with a beat-up blue/black gas tank and big chrome handle bars that was parked out front. This was a big, tough, rough, bad-assed motorcycle, the kind of machine that makes me think that it could actually be cool to be a biker dude. We had seen mods on Vespas outside the Ocean Color Scene show at Bimbo's 365 club on the opposite side of town a week or two before. They seemed cool to me too. Later that summer, I would see a large group of new-school Harley riders pull up together outside the Hotel Utah for the Dean Del Ray Rock show, and their brand-new, clean-machine, $30,000 bikes would make an impression on me as well. But neither of those other instances had nearly as much impact on me as this one bad chopper outside the Makeout Room. This bike was the real deal, a descendent of the bikes you see (along with Grahm Parsons) in the Maysles Bros.' documentary of the Altamont concert of '69 "Gimme Shelter," or the one on which Janis Joplin sits on the cover of the greatest hits album, it made me think of the San Francisco that Hunter S. Thompson described in his book "Hells Angels." The bike struck me as being a true icon, a tangible, living, breathing connection to an historical past which gives San Francisco a natural birthright to cool.

I paid the $5 cover and went inside to see the last few tunes of opening band The SHQ, which I was also very keen on seeing, given that the front man Sid Hillman was an old co-worker of mine at the job I had while I was in college in Los Angeles. That night, Sid had a cool band going with a much more country-rock vibe than his earlier days as a solo acoustic coffee-house singer. The great thing was that I ran into a few other acquaintances there from the olden-days in So Cal., as well as a buddy from high school who now owns and cooks in his own restaurant on Mission down South of Army (now Cesar Chavez) called The Blue Plate.

He and a couple of buddies bought a very run down building and worked their fingers to the bone renovating it into the stylish and comfy Bernal Heights culinary establishment that it is today. I love the place as much for it's killer pork chop as for it's fine selection of Zinfandels. Among the others that I saw there at the Makeout Room that night was an incredibly witty and funny film director who also worked with Sid and me at that same job. We chit-chatted for a bit and then, as I began to tell him about what I'd been up to, he abruptly interrupted the conversation telling me, "I can't wait to
read the book," and then handed me a postcard that promoted a screening of his most recent film The Party Crashers at the Towne 3 art-flick Theater in Santa Clara. Also present that night was another co-worker from that time who had established himself as an accomplished writer and had obtained a job as a creative writing teacher at Stanford. At this point, I figured that even if I thought the band that my buddy PMad. had sent me to see sucked, I'd already got my five bucks worth out of the night.

The Court and Spark set up their gear, took the stage, and began to creak and moan into some very atmospheric, dreamy, somewhat lazy, drunk-country grooves. I was on my third JDrocks by then and the sound coming off the bandstand seemed just right. The synapses began again, this time much more faintly, as I vaguely recalled telling someone seven years earlier, as I drove a truck full of sound gear through that city in the months before I left that I wanted to stay in SF and start a psychedelic space country band with steel guitar and play the cool little bars that were
popping up all over the Mission. The band playing on the stage there
that night in the Makeout Room was that band! They had managed to make that distant, half-baked notion of mine a reality and in a way that was far better than I could ever have done myself. The music was great, the vocalist was dripping cool, and the look and style of the band was perfectly appropriate to the overall vibe of the scene. What I realized then was that this was the closest thing to a true "scene" that I had stumbled upon in a long while. These kids were playing their own interpretation of country music to a roomful of young, urban hipsters who were truly digging the vibe. Wow! I gave the night an A+, paid for my last drink, and hurried out to the
car and drove home to my wife who was waiting for me in bed. The one thing that I had forgot to do was buy their CD before I left.

Some six months later, my good buddy Hank Ten forwarded me some e-mail correspondence between himself and the leader of The Court and Spark which addressed the idea of doing a review of the band's current album Bless You for Hank's Golden-Coast web site. I immediately expressed my interest in writing something. Hank agreed and brought the CD with him on his next visit to my new home in Southern California. Listening to the album here now, the music is as compelling as it was at that live performance that I caught that foggy summer night in San Francisco last summer. I honestly can't say enough good things about it. It encapsulates the spirit of the vibe there in the Makeout Room that night and evokes a comfortable state of nostalgia for me every time I put it on. Yeah, it sounds a little bit like Son Volt, and certain people may try to write it off as altcountry bandwagonism. But, while it does borrow from recent trends, it also draws on a long-standing and deep-rooted tradition of great west-coast country music, and most of all it definitely goes the distance to become its own.

MC Taylor is a genuine song craftsman, the music on this CD is soul music, coming from a place deep and true, and will surely one day lend itself to the collection of icons like that bad-assed chopper outside the Makeout Room that evoke a sense of historical birthright to cool for our beloved
Golden State.

The Court&Spark, Bless You.


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Golden-Coast Productions, 2002