Posts Tagged ‘Babak Haghighi’

Across the Universe

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By Babak Haghighi

Writers find meaning in words. Musicians find it through notes, and artists through their art. Likewise, the astrophysics students who run the SFSU Observatory find meaning by looking at the night sky.

It’s a rare starry night in San Francisco—at least as seen from the rooftop of Thornton Hall. Expensive telescopes of all shapes and sizes decorate the SFSU Observatory, and red and black florescent lights surround them. Under the blacklight, orange and green chalk glows bright on a chalkboard, revealing the specifications of the telescopes. It looks like something out of a glow-in-the-dark bowling alley. The ethereal beats of Canadian band Purity Ring play from a laptop in the corner. It’s the first time Stephanie Lauber has brought music to the observatory, but it’s far from the first time she’s been there.

Lauber, a 25-year-old astrophysics student at SF State, has been running the SFSU Observatory for years. As a student with a more-than-heavy workload, she finds solace in looking out into space from the observatory.

“If I couldn’t come up here, I’d go crazy,” she says.

Her coursework requires endless equations and complex theories, but as a reward, she can look at the stars and truly understand them. Despite her impressive understanding of astrophysics, she is fascinated by the universe for one simple reason.

“Space is cool,” she says.

On a clear Wednesday night, Lauber and her fellow astrophysics classmate Dylan Pounds point the observatory’s best telescope at Jupiter. The $36,000 instrument is a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain with a reflective lens. It stands on a $40 concrete block. Through the lens of the telescope, Lauber and Pounds look at the largest planet in the Solar System and are impressed that the expensive equipment allows them to see the planet’s stripes.

“It’s fucking incredible,” says Pounds, who hopes one day to become an astronaut. “This thing [Jupiter] is so far away, and the fact that we can see it is mind-blowing.”

Other telescopes are pointed elsewhere, and there is much to see in the sky. The stars tell tales of Greek gods and their respective myths, and Lauber and Pounds know nearly all of them.

The observatory is open to the public every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, as long as the weather permits. However, it doesn’t get too many visitors. Heavy clouds and light pollution make San Francisco a less-than-ideal location for stargazing, but Lauber explains that it’s not as bad as people might think.

“Yes, it’s true,” says Lauber. “We can see stars from San Francisco.”

As Lauber and Pounds prepare to close shop, the Orion Nebula appears at the horizon. As The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” plays appropriately, Lauber and Pounds track down the nebula with the telescopes. Lauber picks up the Schmidt-Cassegrain’s controller, which resembles that of an Atari controller. She moves the joystick and the telescope reacts accordingly.

“This is the most frustrating part,” she says, eager to track her favorite nebula in the universe.

Being the brilliant astrophysicist that she is, Lauber has no trouble hunting down Orion. The telescope brings out the true beauty of what might otherwise look like a typical cluster of stars.

Once the observatory closes, Lauber and Pounds have to hit the books again. Equations, formulas, and theories await them downstairs. But when they come back up tomorrow, they will use those formulas and theories to explore the universe through the lens of a telescope—one star at a time.

Barcelona After Dark

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Photo by Babak Haghighi

By Babak Haghighi

It was my last night in Barcelona. The sangria-induced hangover was just starting to fade after a day full of Gaudí sightseeing, beach roaming, and paella eating. With an 8:16 a.m. train to Marseille, France the next morning, the smart thing to do would have been to have a low-key night—perhaps stay in at the hostel. But I didn’t come to Barcelona to be smart.

When in Spain, do as the Spanish do: Party. Hard. It was Friday night, after all. So I opted to join a pub crawl with some other travelers from my hostel. It was quite the international crowd, including Ala, a teacher from Poland whom I met in Madrid a few days earlier.

We headed out at 11:30 p.m., which is pretty early for Spain. A typical night out in Spain often starts at around 1 or 2 a.m., but I wasn’t complaining. We started out at Ryans Irish Pub—perhaps not the most authentic example of Catalan nightlife.

“¿Hablas inglés?” I asked the bartender, eager to show off my seven years worth of elementary Spanish knowledge.
He didn’t hear me over the noise, so I asked again.
“¿Hablas inglés?”
“Hmm?” he responded.
I asked once more.
“I can’t hear you, man,” he said in his North American accent.
He spoke English. I ordered a beer.

Downstairs, a group of American girls tilted their heads back and opened their mouths wide as the pub crawl leader poured liquor down each of their throats. Those inane Americans wouldn’t last the night—everyone knew it. This was no college dorm party with watered-down beer. This was Spain. This was Catalonia. This was Barcelona. The night was young.

“These American girls are crazy,” said Ala. I agreed. Not once during my six-month tour of Europe did I introduce myself as an American. I was Californian. There’s a difference, and everyone in Europe recognized it. Introduce yourself as American, and they grimace. Many people seem to have their mind set on what an American is like, and they want nothing to do with it. But introduce yourself as Californian, and their eyes light up, eager to learn more. Once you tell them you’re from San Francisco, jaws drop and shrieks of excitement fill the air. Many Western Europeans told me that they think of San Francisco as “the European city of America.” Not a bad reputation over there.

Four pubs and three hours later, it was time to end the night at a dance club. On this particular Friday night, Boulevard Culture Club, or BLVD as the locals know it, was the place to party. Located right in the middle of La Rambla, the busiest street in the heart of Barcelona’s city center, BLVD is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. The young, international crowd and variety of music make it a worthy party venue, but even with three dance floors it remains one of the city’s more low-key night clubs.

 

Photo by Babak Haghighi

Photo by Babak Haghighi

The Polish Ala hits the dance floor. Before long, she notices her purse is open and her belongings are missing—particularly one iPhone and one wallet.

Barcelona is no stranger to pickpockets. TripAdvisor, among many other travel websites, lists Barcelona as the number one place in the world to beware pickpockets and specifically distinguishes La Rambla as a hotspot for wallet snatchers.

In Ala’s case, the pickpocket watched her as she danced the night away. Distracted by the good music and good vibes, she failed to notice the pickpocket open her purse and steal her phone and wallet. She searched the floors helplessly and ran back to the hostel in distress.

“They pickpocketed me in style,” said Ala. “You really have to have your eyes wide open all the time.”

With my own wallet still in my back pocket where I left it, I continued to enjoy my last night in Barcelona. Once I realized I was the only person left standing from the pub crawl group, I stepped outside for a cigarette—one which would spark a six-month chain-smoking session in true European fashion. Outside, I met a friendly group of Germans. Nina led the pack, accompanied by her friends Kirillo, Kai, and Man, who were visiting Nina from their hometown, Düsseldorf. Nina had recently moved to Barcelona and worked as a bartender.

It was late. I had a train to catch in two hours. The nightclub was closing. In most parts of Spain, Barcelona included, the nightlife shuts down at around 6 a.m. The streets are dark. Empty. Lifeless. What was, just minutes ago, a vibrant playground for drunken debauchery is turned into a barren neighborhood of sketchy streets and sketchy people.

What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that at 6:01, a new side of Barcelona opens up.

“We’re going to get some food,” said Nina. “Do you want to join us?”

Most people would think to call it a night. I did have a train to catch, after all. But I was determined to let the good times roll. I joined them, curious as to where one gets food in Barcelona at six in the morning after a long night out.

The city was dead. Business hours were over, as evidenced by the aluminum garage doors covering the windows and entrances of nearly every building. Nothing was open. Or so it seemed.

Nina approaches one of the aluminum doors of a seemingly closed shop and knocks. Lo and behold, a man opens a hidden door and lets us into his diner. The place is packed. The cooks are hard at work at the grill as if it’s the lunch rush at In-N-Out. We sit at a table and each order a breakfast burger and a beer. Nina helps me order, as both the Catalan and Spanish languages are mysteries to me—at least as far as burger menus go.

Germans seem to have a reputation for lacking a sense of humor, yet we still shared laughs as we poked fun at each other’s names, among other things. As we waited for our food, Nina’s bartending colleague, Francesca, walked in. Francesca, a beautiful brunette from Italy, had just gotten off work.

“I’m ready to party!” she shouted.

It was nearing 7 a.m. when we left the diner. The sun was out now. The Germans said their goodbyes and called it a night. But Francesca was just getting started.

“Let’s get a drink,” said Francesca.
I had a train to catch in just over an hour.
“I’ll buy,” she said.
I was sold.

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Photo by Babak Haghighi

Francesca moved to Barcelona from Italy just a few months earlier. It didn’t take her long to learn the secrets of the Catalan capital, and she was glad to show me the ropes.

“Sow how do you know Nina?” she asked.
“Oh… I met her a couple of hours ago,” I responded.
“Well what are you doing in Barcelona?” she asked.
“Just traveling.”
“All by yourself?”
“Yep.”
She found this to be both fascinating and crazy.

But Francesca was fascinating and crazy herself. Standing no taller than 5’2”, the curly-haired Italian was an independent woman of wild energy. She envied my travel plans and hoped one day to do the same.

“A journalist, wow!” she exclaimed.

To call her a free spirit would be an understatement. She wore a collection of Rasta-colored wristbands on both of her arms, making her fit in well in Barcelona. She was a fan of marijuana, as it is a huge part of the liberal Catalan and Barcelonan culture.

Francesca leads me southwest along the beachside promenade towards the Port of Barcelona. She was about to show me one of the most intriguing secrets of Barcelona’s late-night afterlife. Francesca walks up to another building covered up by aluminum doors. She knocks, and once again, a hidden door opens. Inside, a busy and bustling bar awaits. Classy Spanish jazz plays from a jukebox in the back. Nearby, groups of friends play foosball and billiards on their respective tables. Well-over 75 patrons sit at the surrounding tables and chat over food and drink. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tourists need not apply here. It felt like a speakeasy from 1920s Atlantic City, hidden from the rest of the city. After three days of sightseeing and tourist attractions, this was a refreshing change of pace.

Francesca and I sat at the bar. I had less than an hour to catch my train. When in Spain, do as the Italians do (apparently), and take shots of Jägermeister at 7 a.m. She ordered each of us a shot as well as a side of Patatas Bravas, one of Spain’s greatest tapas dishes. The tapa consists of small slices of fried potato covered in a delicious spicy tomato sauce. But Francesca disliked spicy food, so she ordered a mayonnaise sauce instead. It made for one hell of a chaser.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so came to an end my trip to Barcelona. It was 7:45 a.m. and I was taking shots in a hidden bar in the middle of who-knows-where. With a kiss on the cheek, I bid farewell to Francesca but promised we’d meet again. My train was going to leave in half an hour, so I rushed back to the hostel, ignoring the pain from the blisters on my feet. I walked into the hostel and the receptionist gave me a smile. She knew I had a good night in Barcelona. Within minutes I packed my bags packed and checked out.

“I have a train in 15 minutes,” I told the receptionist as I left.
“Uh-oh,” she said.

I learned the secrets of Barcelona’s nightlife. I saw the things they hide from tourists like myself. That 8:16 train to Marseille left, along with its dozens of passengers. I was not one of them.

It’s 5 o’ clock Somewhere

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Gold Dust Lounge

Gold Dust Lounge

By Babak Haghighi
Photos by Virginia Tieman

“To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
-Homer Simpson

Let’s face it: for better or for worse, San Francisco has a drinking problem.

Alcohol. Booze. Hooch. Sauce. Hard Stuff. Heaven in a bottle. Poison. Call it what you will, but the stuff’s everywhere—and apparently, it’s popular.

These San Francisco bars open their doors before the sun rises. Enjoy beer for breakfast and kill last night’s hangover before it even hits you at these early morning watering holes.

Ace's bar

Ace’s bar

Ace’s – Tenderloin / Lower Nob Hill
998 Sutter Street (at Hyde)
Open daily: 6 a.m. – 2 a.m.

49er faithful, look elsewhere. Ace’s Bar brings a slice of New York to San Francisco’s Tenderloin. That means this is the go-to spot for New York Giants fans, Yankees fans, and, God forbid, Mets fans to catch the game. The divey, New York-themed neighborhood bar is friendly both to the graveyard shifters as well as those on the nine-to-five grind. Ace’s is open daily from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. and features cheap drinks all day. No happy hour necessary. There’s also a free barbeque on Sundays.

Free. Barbeque.

Drink of choice: Manhattan (why not?)

Clooney's

Clooney’s

Clooney’s – Mission
1401 Valencia Street
Open daily: 6 a.m. – 2 a.m.

Writing a novel about a group of rowdy drunkards who hang out at a bar? Go to Clooney’s. Observe the characters. The novel will write itself. This hole-in-the-wall dive bar features a horseshoe bar and an array of interesting regular patrons. Clooney’s is the divest of dives in the Mission. The daytime crowd can get—well, really drunk. Dogs are welcome, but they won’t be served at the bar. This is one of those bars “where everyone knows your name,” probably due to the horseshoe bar which forces everyone to stare at one another. Clooney’s is also home to The Galley, which is essentially a closet that serves some of the best damn pub food in the city.

Drink of choice: Trumer Pils on tap!

Gold Dust Lounge. 165 Jefferson Street, San Francisco

Gold Dust Lounge 165 Jefferson Street, San Francisco

Gold Dust Lounge
165 Jefferson Street
Open daily: 7 a.m. – 2 a.m.

After being evicted last year from its Union Square location after nearly 80 years of operation, the Gold Dust Lounge was reopened on February 1, 2013 at a new location in Fisherman’s Warf. It’s back and bigger than ever. Very big. Very new. Very velvety. It’s luxurious. It’s classy. It’s fancy. Elegant chandeliers hang above the bar, walls and pillars are painted gold, bartenders wear red vests and bowties—in short, it looks like a Las Vegas casino. Gold Dust Lounge is open everyday from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., and there’s live music every night performed by Johnny Z and the Camaros, who have been playing at Gold Dust Lounge for fifteen years.

Drink of choice: Irish coffee ($3.50 until 8 p.m.)

Vesuvio Cafe

Vesuvio Cafe 255 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco.

Vesuvio Café – North Beach
255 Columbus Ave
Open daily: 6 a.m. – 2 a.m.

The alleged birthplace of the “Beat” movement remains as popular today as it was in its heydey in the 1950s. Despite its historic significance, this is no tourist trap. Vesuvio still retains all the characteristics of a friendly neighborhood bar, and its bohemian aesthetic remains intact. It’s open every day of the year from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. There’s two floors, a bunch of seating, music, art, and the cocktails flow like water. Oh and Jack Kerouac used to hang out here. Like a lot.

Drink of choice: Absinthe

Gino & Carlo Cocktail Lounge

Gino & Carlo Cocktail Lounge

Gino and Carlo Cocktail Lounge & Sports Bar – North Beach
548 Green Street (between Columbus & Grant)
Open daily: 6 a.m. – 2 a.m.

Gino and Carlo is one of the few remaining gems from North Beach’s seemingly ancient history. The Italian family owned bar has been in operation since 1942, and the building has been a bar since even before that. 12 beers on tap. 12 beers in bottles. The beer selection is great, but the cocktail selection is better. The bar gets an older crowd during the week, but the typical young crowd takes over on weekends. Gino and Carlo is also one of the best spots in the city for sports fans. Every Bay Area sports team is celebrated here. Giants, Sharks, Warriors– Gino and Carlo has got you covered. Come in on “Orange Friday” to watch a Giants game and take advantage of the all-day Blue Moon specials.

Drink of choice: North Beach Campari

DJs Adrian (center) and Mysterious D (left)   play mashups in the main room of DNA Lounge. Photo by Andy Sweet

Dance The Night Away

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Bootie, the world's biggest mashup party, is held every Saturday at DNA Lounge. Photo by Andy Sweet

Bootie, the world’s biggest mashup party, is held every Saturday at DNA Lounge. Photo by Andy Sweet

 

By Babak Haghighi
Photos by Andy Sweet

Bootie is the best dance party in San Francisco. That’s a fact.

The weekly mashup party is held every Saturday at DNA Lounge in SoMa. But “Lounge” isn’t entirely accurate. The place is massive, and each week’s party is appropriately massive as well. The music continues far after the 2 a.m. last call, and it’s the music first and foremost that truly sets Bootie apart from any other club night in the city.

Mashups. It’s all about the mashups.

Knife Party meets Oasis. Psy meets LMFAO. The Killers meets Guns N’ Roses. M83 meets Rihanna. David Guetta meets the The Proclaimers. Ke$ha meets Mumford & Sons. The list goes on and on. There’s something for just about everyone, and it all sounds great.

“Why go to a party and dance to one song, when you can dance to two—at the same time!” Truer words have never been spoken by Bootie founders A Plus D, aka DJs Adrian & Mysterious D, aka Adrian and Deidre Roberts. The duo started Bootie in San Francisco in 2003, and the event has since risen to fame as the biggest mashup party on the planet.

“We’re a celebration of pop culture,” says Adrian. “Not just top forties—just all pop music of all genres from the past fifty years.”

No dress code. No douchebag bouncers. This is not a club. This is a party.

“We’ve always thought of Bootie as a party, not a club,” says Adrian, “and we started it just by playing mashups for our friends in our living room. And it still feels like we’re doing that.”

“We just have a bigger living room now,” says Mysterious D.

The clock strikes eleven and Jim Sweeney aka Emcee Kingfish of The Hubba Hubba Revue takes the stage to commence Bootie’s monthly burlesque performance. This time, the lovely ladies of Sin Sisters Burlesque strut their stuff for the eager audience. First up is Valerie Veils. She comes out dressed in bright blue lingerie while DJ Adrian spins an electro mashup of Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave.” As she removes her top, she covers up with a neon green feather boa, and the crowd erupts in roaring applause. Those in the front row hold up dollar bills and toss them on stage, motivated by Kingfish’s one rule: “Just put in the tip!” Some even toss twenty dollar bills on stage. A handful of other performers each take their turn putting on a show, including an aerial silk performer who stuns the crowd with her impressive acrobatic moves.

Brief, live entertainment is a staple of Bootie, so Emcee Kingfish makes sure to bring as much energy to each show as possible.

“The Bootie audience is amped up, and after more than nine years of spectacular parties, they have high expectations,” says Sweeney. “You cannot phone it in at Bootie—you need to go out there and instantly go big!”

Once the show is over, DJ Adrian tosses out free mashup CDs to the crowd before blasting Baauer’s popular “Harlem Shake,” the crowd runs on stage, and the real party begins. The massive main room of DNA Lounge is packed for the rest of the night, and the mashups are in full effect as A Plus D run the show.

Upstairs in the “Lounge” room,DJ Meikee Magnetic’s Glitterazzi, featuring himself and Mixtress Shizaam, amp up the crowd with their hard electronic dance music. Their monthly third Saturday residency at DNA Lounge makes for some of the most exciting and energetic Bootie nights. Pungent fog machine vapors fill the room as crowd members dance their asses off to Glitterazzi’s booming bass, exciting buildups, and satisfying drops, played through a loud Pioneer sound system that’s suspended from the ceiling. From house to dubstep to mashups—it’s all things hard electronic when it comes to Glitterazzi, and the crowd loves it all as they cheer and dance the night away under the colorful strobe lights.

“The harder the music we play, the more the crowd loves it,” says Meikee Magnetic.

Around the corner, DJ Mykill provides a mellower electro groove in the smallest room at DNA Lounge, “Room Four.” The walls are lined with mirrors, the dance floor is compact, and there are black leather couches in the back of the room where people get freaky. Other weeks, different DJs take over both upper level rooms, but Bootie always offers at least two rooms of music in addition to the main room mashups.

Regardless of music taste, practically everyone can find something to enjoy at Bootie, and thus the crowd is as diverse as it gets. Men and women of all ages (21+), all ethnicities, all genders, and all subcultures gather at Bootie for one reason: to dance like nobody’s watching.

“The Bootie crowd is the true heart of San Francisco,” says Meikee Magnetic. “You have every flavor there united.”

Hipsters, ravers, hip-hoppers, goths—Bootie’s got it all.
T-shirts, tuxedo vests, button-ups, bow ties.
Gas masks, neon headbands, light-up glasses, tank tops.
Baggie jeans, slacks, sweatshirts, wallet chains, baseball caps.
White dresses, black dresses, striped dresses, no-back dresses.
No dress code. Bootie truly caters to all crowds and all styles.
It’s not about appearances. It’s about the people. It’s about the party. It’s about the music. It’s about having a great time.

“I think the nature of Bootie requires its audience to be open-minded,” says Adrian. “We’re totally messing with music— other people’s music. There’s not this preciousness to it.”
The diversity of the music lends itself naturally to the diversity of the crowd.
“People don’t listen to just one genre or style anymore,” says Mysterious D. “All of these different, diverse types of people come together.”

By midnight, the weaklings are flushed out of the venue, usually by their own failing digestive tracts. Mysterious D attributes this to a combination of “Bootie’s silliness and DNA Lounge’s strong-ass drinks.” Out front, a young woman projectile vomits next to a blue Toyota Camry. The watery mess pours heavily like a waterfall and connects with her friend’s pink dress and shoes. The friend is outraged, but two gentlemen nearby flock towards the puking princess, eager to make a new friend. She is just one of many stumbling patrons who simply could not hang. The first rule of partying hard is to party hard in moderation. The real party animals remain inside, prepared to dance the night away until well-after 3 a.m.

This is more or less a typical Saturday night at Bootie, though Adrian admits it “was a particularly crazy one.”

Despite the wild weekly parties, there’s never any real trouble at Bootie as far as Arlo Kirschner is concerned. As a “bouncer” at DNA Lounge, the burly man, towering over most others at 6’6”, has never had to do any actual “bouncing.”

Vixen Roe, of Sin Sisters Burlesque struts her stuff on stage durring Hubba Hubba Revue's monthly Bootie performance on February 16, 2013. Photo by Andy Sweet

Vixen Roe, of Sin Sisters Burlesque struts her stuff on stage durring Hubba Hubba Revue’s monthly Bootie performance on February 16, 2013. Photo by Andy Sweet

“Not counting handshakes, hugs, or making my way through a crowd, I basically never actually put my hands on anyone,” says Kirschner.

“My job is to make sure everyone at the party is having as much fun as possible,” he says. “I chat, socialize, flirt a bit, and generally keep an eye out for ways to be helpful. I’m basically DNA’s version of what other clubs refer to as a bouncer, but we tend to function a lot more like hosts.”

At its core, Bootie is about mashups. But there’s more to it than just the music. It’s a mashup of people, a mashup of cultures, a mashup of lifestyles. As a result, an entire mashup subculture has been created and is now prosperous not only in San Francisco, but across the globe.

“It’s a worldwide phenomenon that’s only going to get bigger,” says Meikee Magnetic.

Since its founding in 2003, Bootie has made its way to many cities throughout the nation, with regular events in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, and more.

”When we brought Bootie to LA and Manhattan,” says Mysterious D, “what people fell in love with is that— while these big club cities can sometimes have these pretentious, serious music and nightlife scenes— Bootie is a place for them to be themselves, let their hair down, and just get crazy.”

Bootie has also gone overseas to four other continents, including Europe. London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Budapest, etc. These cities are the cream of the crop worldwide when it comes to nightlife and late-night partying. Despite their best efforts, most American cities can’t hold a glowstick to these European powerhouses when it comes to nightlife. Yet, A Plus D have managed to turn the tables and bring their San Francisco party to these majors cities to show them that San Francisco knows how to party. Hard.

“[Bootie] San Francisco is the mother ship,” says Adrian. “It’s the biggest party. It’s the only party that’s weekly. But it’s something that we slowly, organically built up too. If you told us nine years ago that Bootie would be a weekly party, we would have laughed.”

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Haight for the Holidays

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Words & Photos: Babak Haghighi

Money. Power. Free beer. These are the things that drive the human life force, the latter of which was in no short supply at the Lower Haight Holiday Art Walk. “Happy Holidays” is damn right.

Spirits were high, both in terms of mood and alcohol, at this makeshift block party. Free beer, free wine, free live music, free live art, and free good times. The handful of blocks that comprise the Lower Haight turned into the ultimate neighborhood holiday party on the first Friday of December. Shops, restaurants, and bars all had special events to celebrate the holiday season. Many boutiques invited people in for complimentary drinks, as long as they also enjoyed live DJs and local art. Idle Hand, a tattoo parlor, offered “get-what-you-get” tattoos for $60. Burger shops gave patrons free munchies. Every local business seemed to have something special going on. Some businesses took their parties to the streets with live music and art shows. Each store threw its own party, but it brought the neighborhood together in a very special way.

D-Structure, a clothing boutique and art gallery, is one of the hot spots of the Art Walk. The place is packed. DJ Oli spins vinyl upstairs while guests enjoy the showcase of new local art downstairs while sipping on free booze. Others bring their own booze. It’s like a house party, only cooler. D-Structure owner Devon Chulick mingles with the crowd as he enjoys his own party, perhaps the most popular on the block. Next door, a folk band plays some tunes on the sidewalk in front of their apartment. The crowd dances accordingly.

San Francisco State University student Wesley Deimling arrives at Lower Haight. This night isn’t formal by any means, but it’s one hell of an introduction to one of San Francisco’s hippest neighborhoods. Deimling grabs a six-pack from the local grocer and hits the streets.

“The only thing I didn’t like about the event is that I didn’t show up earlier,” says Deimling.

Deimling arrived at Lower Haight at around 10 p.m., towards the end of the Art Walk, which started at 6 p.m. Although things were supposedly “dying down,” the party was still in full effect. Shops stayed open late and there were plenty of after parties.

“The vibe felt a lot like a music festival,” says Deimling, “except a lot less expensive and in a cooler location. Each shop was its own stage, and each piece of art was its own song.”

Various shops’ walls were covered with local art of all styles, from oil paintings to stencil art to photographs, and everything in between. In all of these shops and on the street, everyone seems to have beverages in their hands and smiles on their faces.

Beer in hand, Deimling walks into P-Kok. On a regular day, P-Kok is a quirky fashion boutique. On this night, it’s a dark-room art show turned dance party. To the left of the entrance, a plastic table holds an abundance of beer, wine, and liquor for all to enjoy in typical house party fashion. A DJ spins her favorite beats in the back while people dance their feet off in the middle. Nearby, local artist John Benko puts finishing touches on a fresh painting that Deimling can only describe as a “panda on acid.” Benko insists it’s a polar bear. His art is displayed all over P-Kok’s walls. Impressed by Benko’s art, a man asks him to paint his face, to which Benko kindly agrees, as he did to many others earlier. “Do you accept tips?” the man asks. “Yeah sure,” laughs Benko. “I’d be glad to take your money,” he says as he pockets a lone dollar bill.

Nearby, a Seattle Seahawks fan does the unthinkable and shows his face in division rival 49ers territory. This sparks a heated but friendly debate between him and a Niner-loyal local. They flash each other with their team’s respective swag before realizing that they were both here for the same reason—to have a good time.

“There was a real sense of togetherness that this city doesn’t seem to ease up on,” says Deimling about the event. “It was easy to forget that we were walking along a busy San Francisco street and not some sort of eccentric museum grand opening.”

A few doors down, Nickies bar and restaurant holds the official Lower Haight Holiday Art Walk after-party, but it pales in comparison to the party at P-Kok. Regardless of the venue, the Art Walk provides good vibes to anybody looking for them.

Lower Haight holds similar events throughout the year, but the standouts are the Summer Art Walk and the Holiday Art Walk. These cherished traditions shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

“There’s nothing better than free drinks,” says Deimling. “Except when accompanied with free music, great people, and amazing art.”

It’s hard to imagine a better way to celebrate the holidays.

Artist Profile: Before the Brave

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Words: Babak Haghighi
Photo: Cassie Palmer

The quintet takes the stage. The lights dim. The music begins. The sea of beanies that makes up the crowd starts to create waves as heads begin to bob. Jason Stevens’ powerful voice rips through the room and the voyage begins.

Stevens is the frontman, accompanied by Kyle Teese on drums, Nick Morawiecki on electric guitar and piano, Steven Binnquist on bass, and Beth Garber providing backup vocals as she plays the organ. Together, they are Before the Brave, an up-and-coming indie-folk band from San Francisco, and they take the audience on a journey of vast sound and emotion.

The band recently released their first EP, Great Spirit, a milestone that they celebrated by throwing a release party at the Barrel House, a hidden gem of a venue buried deep in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

Among the crowd, but without a beanie, is Spencer Haar, an San Francisco  State University student and fan of the band. He came for the music, but stayed for the free beer and cookies.

“I honestly think that Before the Brave makes great music and has the potential to pursue great things in the future,” says Haar, who is experiencing his second Before the Brave show. “Their sound is just generally appealing.”

What that sound is exactly is another matter entirely.

“The thing that I like so much is that our music doesn’t neatly fit into any one genre or sound,” says Teese, an S.F. State student and drummer for Before the Brave. “I might generally describe our music as folk-rock, but it doesn’t capture the band completely either. I hear traces of the Avett Brothers and Head and the Heart in our music. But then we also sound like Arcade Fire at times, or Ray Lamontagne, or even Ryan Adams in more folky songs like ‘Holy River.’”

The dynamic on-stage presence of this mostly-bearded group of San Francisco residents is not characterized by energetic stage moves or gimmicky crowd pleasers. Rather, the music, as well as the passion the music is seeded in, speaks for itself. The acoustic riffs range in style, which the rest of the instruments complement accordingly. Catchy folk-rock anthems are followed by sentimental ballads, upbeat blues tunes, and everything in between. The music is alternative and honest, and the audience expects the unexpected in a show full of musical surprises, all of which are met with success.

“Before the Brave is not the kind of band that is going to cause a riot,” says Haar. “But their shows can be equally exciting as those of higher energy bands because their music and their performance creates a lot of tension. It’s almost meditative in a sense.”

It is clear that the band emphasizes the importance of a truly well-crafted song. These young musicians are not here to show off their chops on their respective instruments. Instead, they focus on creating engaging melodies and crafting a cohesive musical experience. Every person, every instrument, every sound is there for a reason, and together the pieces fit together perfectly. The only thing that could be argued to stand out on its own is Stevens’ voice, but this is due only to the sheer power of his vocals. Stevens sports a set of vocal cords that would put a majority of successful vocalists to shame. His harsh, deep voice aims for impressive notes and never misses. His lyrical belts are both soulful and enchanting. Depending on the song, his leading vocals can either soothe or excite.

Garber’s background vocals only make things better. Her subtle yet profound vocal presence goes a long way in supporting Stevens’ dominant voice. Garber’s soft vocal touch adds an exciting element of on-target harmonies. Before the Brave’s lyrical prowess truly stands in a league of its own. But this doesn’t detract from the band’s overall sound, nor does it steal the spotlight away from other members of the band. It is just one of several parts that makes Before the Brave’s unique sound the endearing entity that it is.

As the band prepares to wrap up its performance at the Barrel House, Stevens thanks the audience for coming out before leading into a crowd-pleasing encore of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” “This amazing city has brought us all together for a reason,” he says to the crowd.

The band members met each other at RealitySF, a church in the Castro.

“Our songs express different aspects of what it has been like for each of us to live as followers of Jesus here in San Francisco,” says Teese. Lyrical themes include reconciliation and looking for hope amidst suffering, while others lyrics deal with the inward struggle involving purpose and meaning of life. “And other songs are just about joy. Plain and simple, they’re celebrations of the lives we’ve been given.”

The band as it is today, however, formed years after the members met at RealitySF.

“The band started in a bedroom, actually,” says Teese.

He and Stevens were roommates for two years, during which time they jammed casually and wrote songs. “From there, Jason [Stevens] met Nick [Morawiecki] through work and the three of us began to play together,” says Teese. “It took another year or so before Steve [Binnquist] and Beth [Garber] joined us. It wasn’t until last Spring that all the pieces really came together.”

Since the band’s formation in 2011, Before the Brave has made a name for itself thanks to consistent practicing and playing shows. “Those two things are essential in creating a polished live show and developing a following,” says Teese. When the band was away from the music, however, they looked to social media to expand their audience. “Facebok, Twitter, and Instagram are simply the best way to communicate today,” explains Teese. “So that has been essential.”

As a result, Before the Brave has gained a well-deserved following, which has contributed greatly to the atmosphere of their shows.

“The vibe at our shows has been so incredible,” says Teese. “So many of our fans sing along throughout the set, which is probably the coolest feeling ever for a musician. There’s a definite ebb and flow of energy throughout our set, which gives the audience such a variety of experiences. It’s almost cinematic.”

It’s been an undoubtedly great year for Before the Brave. Great Spirit is now available for download on iTunes and can be streamed through Spotify. But the up-and-coming band has high hopes for the future.

“It’s a pretty exciting time for us,” says Teese.

Before the Brave’s 2013 plans include a tour the West Coast during the summer, and the band has already been invited to play at the South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals in Austin, Texas in March.

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Parks and Recreation: SF State Edition

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RPT 520 students playing a series of games to test their team work at San Francisco State University. Photo by Alejandrina Hernandez / Xpress

Words: Babak Haghighi
Photos: Alejandrina Hernandez

Bob Flasher’s RPT 520 class is not your typical lecture. Flasher, or “Flash” as students call him, is not your typical lecturer. And SFSU’s Recreation, Parks, and Tourism department is not your typical academic program.

If you enjoy a tedious workload, cramming facts, and an overly stressful finals week, then this department is not for you. In one of the final class meetings of the semester, Flasher’s RPT 520 (Parks and Outdoor Recreation Resources) students are scrambling across the massive GYM 118 classroom, participating in various cooperative challenges and activities. Some solve puzzles in the front while others play a difficult game of “Bomb Squad,” in which a team must cooperate to place a ball, which is held up by a web of strings, into a small bucket. They scream, they laugh, and they smile. But this is no end-of-the-semester party. This is a typical class meeting for a required core class in the department.

No PowerPoints. No textbooks. No note-taking. No boring lectures.

“We see value in interactive teaching methods,” says Patrick Tierney, chair of the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism department at SFSU. “All classes use learning games to bring theory to life. Some classes are half lecture and discussion and half activities.”

Flasher promises students to limit his lectures to no more than 20 minutes at a time.

“This ensures that I will bring other types of engaging and more interactive learning experiences to the three-hour classes,” he explains. “We do raps, engage in cooperative physical challenges, have small group projects, have students lead lively discussions, and watch exciting videos.”

By using unique, interactive teaching methods, Flasher has successfully turned a large classroom of more than 50 students into an intimate and light-hearted learning environment.

“I look at teaching as sharing what I’m excited about, and it shows,” he says. Flasher finds that this encourages students to share what they are excited about as well, leading to engaging class discussions and an interactive atmosphere. Flasher doesn’t use textbooks. “Face it—they’re boring,” he says. “I focus on teaching the most essential concepts, not on imparting loads of soon-forgotten information that is easy to test for. I would rather students learn fewer, more important things well through first hand experience.”

Rob “Flash” Flasher speaks to his RPT 520 class at San Francisco State University. Photo by Alejandrina Hernandez / Xpress

“This’ll be an interesting debrief,” says Flasher as he prepares to get the class to retire from their activities and return to their seats. He blows a wacky-sounding whistle, and the students know that playtime is over.

As they discuss the activities they just engaged in, Flasher asks the class about one of the games. “What made the ball fall off?”

“J.R.,” jokes one student. The rest of them laugh.

After the break, Flasher puts on his grey snapback hat in style and prepares for the weekly rap. He raps about health, education, and recreation in the verses until students join in on the chorus.

“Are you down widdit?” asks Flasher.
“I be down widdit!” the students respond.
“Ya’ll be down widdit?”
“We be down widdit!”

And this is just a core lecture course for the major. Other classes in the department take things to the next level.

“Many of the classes engage in activities that take students outside of their comfort zones,” says Flasher. These classes include Small Boat Sailing, Beginning Rock Climbing, Introduction to Back Country Skiing, and more. Even the classes that don’t focus on a specific activity take students on various field trips that involve challenging and exciting activities.

“We whitewater raft, snow camp, rock climb, camp out, sail, kayak, do ropes courses, and many other unique activities that help students realize that they are way more competent at many facets of life than they ever imagined,” says Flasher. “[Students] learn to take reasonable risks that greatly enhance their quality of life instead of just going home every night to go on Facebook or play video games.”

This semester, Flasher has taken his RPT 520 students on a handful of field trips, usually to local parks and playgrounds and meeting the people that keep those parks and playground existent.

Despite its unconventional academic characteristics, the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism department isn’t all fun and games.

“Our majors take away skills and knowledge that will help them get a professional career started or enhanced,” says Tierney. “For non-majors, RPT classes push students to expand their world view, question assumption, look at balance in their lives, and encourage them to become change agents.”

RPT majors are required to complete 800 hours of volunteer work in the fields of recreation, parks, or tourism. Their senior year is spent planning and working at a full-time internship. Flasher says that 60% of the students are usually hired permanently by the organizations they intern at.

“This department focuses on developing practical skills, based on research and real-world experience,” says Flasher. “That’s why so many of us are lecturers—people hired to teach who have other 9-5 jobs in the field. We can share personal real-world experiences, not just teach to the test.”

As with most departments at the university, funding has not been ideal.

“Funding is always a challenge,” says Tierney. “But we’ve got to move forward and make the best of what we have. We need to look at non-traditional funding sources.”

This semester alone, the department had to apply for special funding just to run seven of its regular classes.

“It would be great to regain the funding we had just three years ago,” says Flasher.

There’s no denying the sheer educational value of RPT classes at SFSU. They are among the most interactive academic options at the university. Whether for an easy elective or for a serious pursuit of academics, a leisurely taste of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism is worthwhile.

Self-described "person and stand-up comedian" Karl Hess performs at the Comedy & Burrito festival's Kickoff Show at SUB-Mission. Photo by Babak Haghighi

Wet Burritos, Dry Humor

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Self-described “person and stand-up comedian” Karl Hess performs at the Comedy & Burrito festival’s Kickoff Show at SUB-Mission. Photo by Babak Haghighi

Words: Babak Haghighi & Molly Sanchez
Photos: Babak Haghighi

Sharon Houston, a dark-haired comic from Los Angeles, stands in the oval of light cast on the dark stage of a Mission District venue. Behind her is a wall covered in murals from the gorgeous to the graphic.

Squinting out at the giggling crowd at SUB-Mission in the darkness, Houston makes this assessment, “there’s some crazy f–ks in San Francisco!” The crowd whoops appreciatively, and she smiles before asking, “What the f–k do you eat in the Mission?”

Burritos. The answer to many of life’s questions, let alone Houston’s. Lines of people queue up in front of the assembly line of Pancho Villa Taqueria, waiting to redeem their voucher for a free burrito, a perk only allotted to festival pass holders. The smell of cooking carne asada is thick and intoxicating in the air, and patrons can hardly scarf down an entire burrito full of it before scurrying off to the next show.

Many clubs usually enforce ‘no outside food or drink’ policies, but at the San Francisco Comedy & Burrito Festival, held this year from Oct 11 to 13, outside food is encouraged—as long as it’s Mexican.

According to Ameen Belbahri, co-founder and executive director of the San Francisco Comedy & Burrito Festival, the tortilla and its contents are an essential part of partying in the city.

“The Mission experience, which includes drunkenly gorging yourself on a giant burrito, is about as San Franciscan as you can get.”

He and co-founder Jeff Cleary decided to start the festival after seeing the popular Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland. “Having met and befriended comics from all over the world, I learned that it [San Francisco] is also a city that comics from everywhere else want to visit and perform in,” says Belbahri. “That mixture of amazing local talent and being a popular destination spot for comics is what made it a great city to have a festival.”

The three-day festival featured more than a hundred comedians in well over 40 shows at six venues in the Mission, as well as an ongoing open mic. Not one of these shows had a shortage of burrito-eaters in the audience.

But why burritos? For San Franciscan comedian Drennon Davis, it makes perfect sense.

“San Francisco is pretty snobby about food in general and very proud of the Mission burrito,” says Davis, who was featured in NBC’s Last Comic Standing. “The comedy scene is also like that. We tend to have a higher grade of comedy that’s also very unique in style. We’re proud of it, so it only makes sense to put the two together and celebrate them.”

Performers and their audiences alike scrambled across the Mission district for three straight nights, constantly moving from venue to venue and from taqueria to taqueria.

Jeff Cleary, a veteran of the San Francisco comedy scene, co-produced the festival alongside Belbahri. The two assumed the event would be somewhat low-key, so they figured they could handle running the event on their own. But with an unexpected sell-out of festival passes, things were much more hectic than they anticipated.

“It’s a huge cocaine party without the cocaine,” says Cleary.

As the event went on, seats filled up, and things gradually began to fall into place.

“Next year, it won’t be a two-man operation,” Belbahri says.

Cleary used to organize an open mic at Annie’s Social Club, a former venue in the South of Market (SoMa) area. The open mic became a weekly haven for a struggling group of up-and-coming San Francisco comics. At the Comedy & Burrito Festival, Cleary brought the gang back together, or as much of it as he could, in an Annie’s Social Club reunion show at The Dark Room.

“It’s a shame we couldn’t get any female comics from Annie’s to be here,” said Cleary. “They’re all busy with actual, successful careers. The rest of us are here.”

Successful or not, San Francisco comics take pride in making their city a funnier place. “I love the kind of comedy we produce,” says Davis. “We tend to cultivate the weirdos of the comedy world.”

Weirdos. And they perform in weird places. For example, Brainwash, part café, part laundromat, hosts a popular open mic comedy night every Thursday in SoMa. Lost Weekend Video holds comedy nights in their tiny, brick wall basement, also known as the Cinecave.

Photo by Babak Haghighi

Not only does San Francisco breed the weirdos of comedy, but it attracts them as well. Comics from all across the country come to San Francisco to showcase their comedic talents to the awesomeness that is the San Francisco comedy crowd. Louis C.K., a king among comics, sold out all four of his mid-November San Francisco shows almost instantaneously when tickets went on sale during the summer. Dozens of big-name acts in the comedy world come to the city, whether it’s to play a small club, record a popular podcast, film a DVD, or sell out a massive symphony hall. It may not be the show-business heavyweight that Los Angeles is, but when it comes to comedy, San Francisco puts up a knockout fight.

Guy Branum, one of the higher-billed performers at the Comedy & Burrito Festival, was glad to return to his hometown by the bay to perform. On stage at The Dark Room, Branum reminisces about going to college in the Bay Area.

“I lived in the affordable part of San Francisco,” says Branum. “It’s called Oakland. I lived in the part of Oakland with a lot of white people. It’s called Berkeley.”

Every up-and-coming San Francisco comic dreams of landing a headlining gig at Cobb’s Comedy Club or Punch Line, two of the top comedy venues in the city. But to get there, they have to hit the open mic circuit first.

“It’s great to see people do their amateur stuff and to see their process,” says Raj Dhar, a local comic who volunteered at the Comedy & Burrito festival. “When I first started, I hated doing open mics. I hated waiting around to only get three or five minutes. But now I realize that’s what you’ve got to do—try to get out as much as you can.”

There are many other open mic comedy nights held in virtually every corner of the city. San Francisco’s open mic scene gives amateur comics plenty of chances to test their material and make a name for themselves in the scene.

As far as comedy festivals in San Francisco go, SF Sketchfest wears the crown. The annual festival will celebrate its twelfth year in January. In 2012, the festival hosted hundreds of performers at more than a dozen venues throughout the city. Festival shows feature stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, improv troupes, live podcasts, film screenings, TV-show reunions, musical guests, and all things comedy. Simply put, during Sketchfest, San Francisco is the funniest place on the planet. In time, however, the Comedy & Burrito festival may end up giving Sketchfest a run for its money.

“It’s a little unfair to compare the two,” says Davis. “Sketchfest is absolutely amazing, but it took awhile for them to get where they are. If the Burrito Fest continues, which I imagine it will, I could see them with similar success without being in competition with Sketchfest. Burritos aren’t going anywhere, and neither is comedy. It’s a pretty safe bet to say that the festival will keep getting bigger.”

Despite almost-detrimental technical difficulties during his headlining Friday night set at The Dark Room, Davis says he enjoyed everything about the festival. He had only one complaint.

“I wish there was more free beer. But that’s just a general complaint in life.”

Ever since he found success in San Francisco, Davis has expanded his audience both throughout the country and even outside of it, most recently by performing for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. But for him, nothing beats the comedy scene of his hometown.

“It’s the best. Seriously. Great crowds and incredible comics—it’s a very symbiotic relationship.”

Sunday Streets: Western Addition Edition

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Words: Babak Haghighi

It is a beautiful, sunny Sunday in the Western Addition district of San Francisco. Bass is bumping and fists are pumping as a local house DJ puts on a show for his audience across the street from the Panhandle at the southern end of the Sunday Streets route. His unique, yet effective sound system comprises of no more than four boomboxes, each blaring his original beats.

Nearby, two young adults sporting shorts, sunglasses, and bare feet rest on an air mattress on the sidewalk as they sip on their Bud Lights and indulge in some people watching. A couple blocks away, an elderly woman, a child, and a college girl show off their best hula hoop moves while the crowd surrounding them does its best to keep up—just one of many hula hoop circles along the route. Further down the road, a teenager, accompanied by his garage band buddies, puts on a three-man rock show for his cousin, aunt, mother, and anyone else looking for some entertainment. His messy, dark hair swings from side to side as his fingers slide down the fretboard of his guitar. His 2010 San Francisco Giants Championship t-shirt occasionally sways in the calm breeze. Around the corner, a group of Western Addition residents and their families dance to The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache.” Costumed rollerbladers are easy to spot, and cruising past all of them, at a modest pace, are countless bicyclists. But what brings these people together is the one thing they all have in common—the massive smiles on their faces. This is Sunday at its finest.

If it sounds like a normal day in the city, it’s not. It’s the ultimate hangover cure. It’s Sunday Streets in San Francisco.

Despite its hilly features, San Francisco is a bicycle-friendly city. At Sunday Streets, that friendship turns into a romance. Bicycles, skateboards, and wheelchairs alike take over the streets alongside pedestrians. A pre-determined route is turned into a no-car zone, and along the way there is all sorts of fun to be had.

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