Reborn on the Bayou

The birth of Preservation Hall West, the death of Warren Hellman, the life of Toys That Kill, more music

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Behold the Chapel, at the new Preservation Hall West.
PHOTO BY CHRIS STEVENS

Tofu and whiskey is music editor Emily Savage's new weekly music column.

emilysavage@sfbg.com

Tofu and Whiskey There are loud grinding noises and those cinematic electric sparks shooting from a machine below a church pew-like balcony. It's musky and filled with dark bordello wood. The arched main room, the one you see when you walk in the front door of 777 Valencia Street and turn a quick corner, is outlined in bright, bloody red, and there's a stage.

Despite this transitional state a few weeks back, this stage at brand new Mission venue, Preservation Hall West at the Chapel — named after the jazzy New Orleans venue that inspired it — will hold star-powered spillover from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com) this week, beginning Thu/4; the fest itself is Fri/5 through Sun/7. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans will perform each night of the long weekend with double-dipping special guests including Elvis Costello, Robert Earl Keen, Justin Townes Earl, and Steve Earle. Maybe this means we'll see a bespectacled Costello riding a bicycle from Golden Gate Park to the Mission, with a guitar slung on his back? One can dream.

Back to reality: "There's no shame in construction," said Tracey Buck of Slim's, who, along with Britt Govea of (((folkYEAH!))) and certainly others in the future, will be doing consulting and programming at the new all-ages venue. The building, now owned by Jack Knowles, was built in 1914, formerly housed the New College, and before that was a mortuary — which gives it a sort of macabre back story. The idea for the Chapel came from Knowles' friend Ben Jaffe, creative director for the beloved New Orleans venue, Preservation Hall, and leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

In early 2013, the West Coast sister venue will have a full restaurant attached serving fare with elements of New Orleans cuisine. But for now, there will just be concerts, including the aforementioned HSB-linked shows and upcoming visits from the likes of Woods, White Fence, and Here We Go Magic — but not to worry, the Chapel does have its liquor license now, and the bar should be ready to serve.

I pushed for fears about the venuenot being ready in time for its rapidly approaching opening date, anxiety about the relatively short distance between that morning two weeks back and the first show this week, but got back little more than nervous laughter. "It's crunch time, but everyone knows what needs to be done," said Buck, diplomatically.

It's no surprise. First of all, if you live in the neighborhood, or have been near it recently, you've undoubtedly poked your head in and have seen what I saw — constant work. Secondly, as rabid HGTVers know, programs like Love It Or List It and their ilk show designers and construction workers whipping out brand new pads in a matter of weeks. Buck even referenced the show Restaurant: Impossible, where they quickly turn around a doomed eatery. So, it can be done.

There was also some less literal rebuilding at the actual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2012. After the death late last year of the fest's founder, head cheerleader, and billionaire backer, Warren Hellman, the crew had some personal reconstruction to work on.

Buck has been working the festival since it began 12 years back, and felt the loss personally. "It's been tough, and I realize it more and more every day. But his spirit is there."

Sheri Sternberg, technical director for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, also ruminated on Hellman's passing, "There was something really great about having our first meeting with Warren each year...how excited he got about all the bands. If it was up to him, we would keep adding stages and days."

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