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The Noe Valley Music Series--
At 18, It's the Grand Old Opry of the Neighborhood
By Richard Dodds
On a balmy October evening, the church windows have been thrown open wide to help cool an eager crowd of concertgoers. Through one window, the lights from nearby homes twinkle in the early dark. Another offers a view through ruffled curtains of the sunflowers decorating a neighbor's kitchen. Inside the church, ponytails sway in time with the music.
It may look like a scene from Meet Me in St. Louis, or from some other movie about idyllic small-town life in a bygone era. But the setting is contemporary San Francisco, the ponytails are on the men, and the concert this evening features an Indian musician named Ustad Sultan Kahn playing an obscure instrument known as the sarangi.
Welcome to the Noe Valley Music Series.
Begun 18 years ago at the Noe Valley Ministry by a jazz flutist who was discouraged that he had no place to play, the series has showcased thousands of musicians, both celebrated and obscure, exotic and accessible.
While the players have included such national names as Bobby McFerrin, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Jesse Winchester, and the Persuasions, as well as musicians from as far away as Bali and Brazil, the focus has always been on homegrown talent.
Actually, jazz vocalist McFerrin fits into that category as well. Before his albums were topping the charts and "Don't Wor-ry, Be Happy" became a ubiquitous anthem, the former Noe Valley resident was a series regular. Even after his fame took off, he remained loyal to Noe Valley Music.
"One night he'd be at the Ministry and the next night on the Tonight Show," recalls Larry Kassin, the flutist who founded the series in 1981. "Even though he could play larger venues, he kept coming back until he moved to Minneapolis a few years ago."
Other performers in similar situations continue to seek out the Noe Valley series, Kassin says, because it gives them a chance to try out new material in a low-pressure environment.
"They are not intimidated because people have spent $50," says Kassin, noting that tickets for the music series are a relative bargain -- $15 or $16 at the door, $13 or $14 in advance. "They also like the acoustics, and the fact that the reviewers are not there," he adds. "And they know they'll be playing for one of the best listening audiences. We're loose and friend-ly, but do things professionally. It's just a nice scene."
When Kassin founded the series, he was an unmarried Noe Valley resident in his 20s, a demographic that reflected his audiences back then. But after Kassin, now 47, met and married his wife, Martha, and they became parents, housing costs dictated a move to the suburbs of Marin. The series has gone through similar demographic changes as the makeup of Noe Valley has changed.
"Audiences used to be mainly from Noe Valley, where a lot of artists and musicians lived before it got too expensive," Kassin says. "Our audiences have aged with us, but people in their 40s don't go out as much -- I can relate to this -- once they have kids and start renting videos. We have had to look to events that could draw people in their 20s and 30s."
Kassin finds it hard to categorize the musical style of the series, which originally was termed a jazz series. "What we do now has a world-music tinge or a contemporary tinge or an avant-garde tinge," he said. "Straight-ahead jazz doesn't work that well for us."
Audiences for the 45 or so concerts staged each year at the Ministry may sell out all 250 seats or fill but 30 of them. Because most of the annual budget of nearly $100,000 is generated from ticket sales, filling those seats is important.
"You'd think after 18 years of a really great concert series, people would wander on down no matter who was on the bill," Kassin says. "But I've made it so eclectic that it makes it hard but more interesting. We want to support groups that may not be big draws."
Although he occasionally performs at the concerts, the series has pretty much become a full-time job for Kassin. In 1992, he created the nonprofit San Francisco Live Arts to present the series so it would be eligible for grants. "But it's still mainly me," he says. "It's a Mom and Pop operation and I'm Mom and Pop." The only other staff member is Michelle King, who can usually be found at the box office on concert nights.
Kassin is on good terms with his host church, paying rent and helping with fundraising. "We've also had a pretty good relationship with the neighborhood," he says. "It's been years since there was a complaint, but one neighbor once went to the city saying, 'This isn't a church. It's a nightclub.' We got hundreds of letters of support, and a big group trouped down to City Hall. I was really bowled over by it."
The Ministry was awarded a special use permit, and all concerts must end by 11 p.m. and be no louder than 90 decibels. "That's the level of enthusiastic applause," Kassin says with a smile.
It's that particular sound that keeps him going. "You don't do it for the money," he adds. "But I feel I've created something that has benefited the performers and the neighborhood. People will thank you on their way out, and that makes you think this is all worthwhile."
THE LINEUP AT OUR LOCAL CONCERT HALL
Tired of staring at your computer screen? Want to go hear some real live humans playing folk, blues, jazz, rock, or pop music? The Noe Valley Music Series -- our down-home Saturday-night concert hall-- may be just what the doctor ordered.
Here's the series' winter schedule. All shows start at 8:15 p.m. and are held in the upstairs sanctuary at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St. Advance tickets, usually in the $12 to $14 range, are available at Streetlight Records on 24th Street or for a couple of dollars more at the door. For information about specific concerts, call 454-5238.
Dec. 3 Actor/comic Geoff Hoyle and Friends in a special holiday performance
Dec. 11 Hanukkah concert with the San Francisco Klezmer Experience and Davka
Dec. 18 Peter Rowan and the Rowan Brothers' Reggaebilly Christmas Band
Jan. 8 The Terry Riley All-Stars with Terry Riley on piano, George Brooks on sax and flute, and Gyan Riley on guitar
Jan. 14 Folksinger/storyteller Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Jan. 15 Acoustic folk pop by the Box Set Duo
Jan. 22 Avant-classical music and jazz by the Tin Hat Trio
Jan. 28 Improvised jazz by Michael Manring, Larry Kassin, and Tom Darter
Feb. 11 Indie Grrl Tour (female singer/ songwriter festival)
Feb. 12 British guitarist Adrian Legg
March 1011 Balinese music by Gamelan Sekar Jaya