SONIC REDUCER Remember the first time you strolled into the Ivy Room? The rec room wood-panel walls, a bar with a clear shot of a view into a homey live space, a jukebox that spun 45s, a pinball machine, the regulars in cutoff T- and Hawaiian shirts (always accessorize with a bulbous gut, please) who warmly welcomed hoodies and strangers alike. The gun emporium down San Pablo Avenue was the first indication that you were in an interzone between then and now, us and them, where a free-speech, increasingly affluent Berkeley began to cave to a live-free-or-eat-hot-lead working-class East Bay. The down-low Albany spot has been one of the last bastions outside Oakland, nay, the entire Bay, where you could imagine yourself in the thrall of the red state blues once again. Where you could imagine peeling yourself off the floor and walking out into some Southwestern furnace to roast like a relleno.
When the late Dot and later her son Bill MacBeath first took on the ’40s-built Ivy Room in ’92 (moving up the street from the It Club, which Dot had watched over since 1978), a point was made in cultivating a roots, country, rockabilly, and blues scene that was slowly vanishing from the area — with the exception of Downhome Music, the Arhoolie label HQ down the street. At the time, MacBeath says, "it was a really scary old-man bar that I would never have thought of walking into." But the Ivy proved a bigger tent than that — taking on indie rockers and hip-hop crews and providing a sweet little platform for performers like Jonathan Richman, Sugar Pie De Santo, Chuck Prophet, Kelley Stoltz, Neil Michael Hagerty, Jon Auer, Wayne “the Train” Hancock, the Lovemakers, the Loved Ones, Pinetop Perkins, Deke Dickerson, Gravy Train!!!!, and oodles of others.
"I tried to create a place where musicians could play and express themselves," explains MacBeath, who booked the music until 1999, when Sarah Baumann took over. "People can appreciate that, and it was also a regular neighborhood bar at the same time." Why hang in Albany if you don't live close enough to stumble home in a drunk? These acts gave you a reason — along with the Ivy-clad crew and their genuine, rapidly vanishing, and all-too-often-remodeled-out-of-existence vibe, a relic of a time when the Embers in the Sunset served up sad clown paintings along with sloe gin fizzes and Mayes in the Tenderloin offered crab, cocktails, and comfort in ’20s-era wood booths.
But that was then — MacBeath is ready to move on and has sold the venue, which plans a final blowout weekend Sept. 15–17 showcasing Ivy fans and friends before the ownership changes Sept. 18.
MacBeath can't say this chapter will entirely close on the club, yet one can naturally expect change to come to a beloved relic like the Room. "I'm trying not to be sad about that," he says. "The bar is not going away." However, he adds, "I don't think it's really current anymore." We the flesh and blood relics appreciate it, but we're "not really here as much as I think they should be — for how cool it is."
DONDERO'S NOT DONE According to the online list of auspicious locals who have played the Ivy Room, stellar songwriter Dave Dondero has never graced the joint. But I'm sure he would if he could — and maybe even start a semistaged brawl with his drummer, Craig D, as he did at the Hemlock Tavern so long ago. True to the title of his 2003 Future Farmer album, The Transient, the man continues to wander: I caught up with him in Austin, where he had just completed the recording of his latest album for Conor Oberst's Team Love imprint, tentatively titled When the Heart Breaks Deep.
The songs, Dondero says, revolve around his life in the last year when he was living and bartending in Alaska and San Francisco. "I actually tried to write a real love song," he explains, prepping for a tour with Centro-matic. "It's always been a smarmy, poking-fun-at-love song.