SONIC REDUCER "It's like an old ship. Things break, things fall apart, and you just keep bailing water and hope you hit land someday!"
That's Guy Carson, Café Du Nord owner and ex-Hotel Utah booker, on owning a 100-year-old club. Yes, there are the inevitable aches and pains attendant with a structure erected just two years after the great 'quake, as well as eerie little trap doors and escape hatches from the Prohibition era. But, oh, the stories the Du Nord, House of Shields, and Hotel Utah a troika of oases overflowing with libation and live music that have all hit the century mark in the past year could tell. 'Member the time PJ Harvey played a not-so-secret show at the Utah, triggering round-the-block queues? Or the first San Francisco show by rock legends the Zombies at the Du Nord? Or the rumored gunfight played out by Comstock Lode robber baron William Sharon in front of his then-men's social club, now known as the House of Shields?
'Course you don't. So much has been lost in the mists of Bay Area mythology and Barbary Coast conjecture. But there's always word of mouth in full effect at the shambling, loving June 19 celebration of the Utah's centennial, as Birdman Records' David Katznelson presented witnesses like owner Damian Samuel, a ukulele sing-along by music writer Sylvie Simmons and Bart Davenport, and tributes by artists who have stomped Utah's boards, including Paula Frazer and Greg Ashley.
Since its days as Al's Transbay Tavern (name-checked in 1971's Dirty Harry) through the years owned by screenwriter Paul Gaer (who brought in Robin Williams and puppet shows), the venue has not only been instrumental in establishing a beachhead for local bands Cake was considered a resident outfit in the 1990s and Counting Crows, Jewel, and Tarnation were onetime regulars ("For a while I used to say that the Hotel Utah was Geffen's A&R department," recalls Carson). Its communities include "open micers, the regulars, and the people who live in the building," Samuel offers. "It's a live amoeba of sorts that has its own direction." He says the UK's Noisettes now call the Utah its home base, and past staffers include ex-booker Mike Taylor (Court and Spark), Cory McAbee (Billy Nayer Show), and Shannon Walter (16 Bitch Pile-Up). One of Samuel's fave tell-alls: in 1997 he had to walk future Guns N' Roses guitarist Buckethead around the block so he could make a dramatic entrance onstage. "Here I am walking him around in SoMa, a chicken bucket on his head," Samuel recalls. "He kept saying, 'I didn't realize this block was so long.'<0x2009>"
Uptown, a century ago, the House of Shields also threw open its doors in a much more hush-hush way: the venue began life as a men's social club, and the only women permitted in until the '70s were, says owner Alexis Filipello, "working girls." These days, the venue that got its name from its '30s owner Eddie Shields is more likely to see indie artists like Sean Smith and Beam than highly establishment swells sneaking a stiff drink, but the crowd remains raucous, gathered around the elegant bar originally meant for the Pied Piper watering hole in the Palace Hotel across New Montgomery. When artist Maxfield Parrish made his Pied Piper of Hamelin mural (1909) far too long for the piece, the bar was sent over to Palace cobuilder William Sharon's other nightspot. After Filipello bought the watering hole in 2003, she restored the natural wood, refurbished the moldings, reupholstered the booths, and jettisoned the "funky" taxidermy. "It was just such a beautiful old location, a piece of San Francisco's history," she recalls. "We did a lot of work to get it back up to its beauty." No plans, however, for the firmly closed underground passage that links House of Shields to the Palace.