PopOff! Venue and Concert Review: Gabe Lee & King Margo at The Back Room/Amando’s

The Short:

It was a great show with a four piece band that juggled various instruments from guitar to piano and mandolin while bringing some serious harmonies to strong country/folk/blues songwriting. It was my first time in the intimate brick walled room that didn’t feel overly intimate, there was no real room to dance but it never felt stuffed. Just cozy, filled with couches. You could bring in your own drinks and snacks. And it was $20 for about three hours of music. Both the band and the venue were a real winner.

The following night at Amando’s was a Friday and the audience was ready to party. The band was on fire and raised the roof of the basement. Got a bonus opener by way of David Redd with more great songwriting. Glad to have gone the night before so one could focus on the lyrics and then party down on Friday.

The Long:

When I was in South Africa I stayed at a place called the Porcupine Bush Lodge. The owner would go for walks every morning and you could join him as he named every tree and orchid and piece of scat. The man knew his local community. I mention this because, for as long as I lived in my current residence about 7 years and the Bay Area overall (46 years), I had never heard of The Back Room off University Avenue in Berkeley. It was only because I came across Gabe Lee’s touring schedule that I found out about it. And I only knew about Gabe Lee because of the work done at Saving Country Music, one my favorite music websites.

So last minute on Thursday night I played hooky at work because live music is in a local venue is NEVER a mistake in my opinion. The Back Room feels like, and here’s an old school local reference, The KFOG play space. But with a few differences, the walls are brick making it feel less like an office and more like a cozy cafe or somebody’s living room in the Oakland hills. The seating is made up mostly of a collage of sofas with some tables and chairs towards the back and along one wall. To top it off you could bring in your drinks and snacks. Some people had coffee, some beer or soda and crackers. I imagine you could “party” in this venue but the music was definitely the focus with a modest stage in the right corner.

Since this was my first time in the space I knew none of the history. But both the event and the venue seemed to be owned and operated by one man show named Sam who multi-tasked everything from being a doorman to working the soundboard and doing band introductions and booking the gigs. This was not a livenation/ticketdisaster product. I dare say it felt in some ways a little like Frieght and Salavges’ older sibling. Rough around some of the venue edges but had the system down pat and didn’t need your meddling help. I LOVED the space.

When I say it was not a livenation/ticketdisaster product, you know that is compliment. One never felt liked they were getting fleeced around every corner. You walked in the front door paid Sam, walked down the stairs and picked a seat. Tickets were $15 beforehand but $20 at the door. I payed my $20 in cash because cash is cash. It remains the same amount it started as. The bank can’t skim off the face of that bill through “processing fees” removing a few dollars here and there from the overall pool of public funds. Plus the service fee I would’ve gotten on-line didn’t make it THAT much cheaper. So all the $20 goes direct to the venue and musicians. I am a STAN for cutting out the middle man and using cash at the door and the merch booth. Voting with your dollars is the way to go, always cash when you can.

So if you want to give ticketdisaster the finger, go local for your concerts and I mean the small venue right around the corner because even the mid-sized venues are being bought by the big names and making those spaces pricier and less fun. And you get a special experience, because while going to an Arena show the acts may be different but the process and ambiance is more or less the same hassle of bag checks, scalpers, overpriced food/merch, people standing about filming the act or filming the act on a jumbotron, long lines, traffic…

For example the opening act King Margo got up, tuned their instruments and, before Sam could do proper introductions, jumped right into their first song. The female duo was just electric guitar and bass. But as the night would progress I would come to see these women trade of on piano, mandolin, and guitar the entire evening.  For the duo of King Margo also made up one half of Gabe Lee’s band. Lucciana and Rachel had great harmonies though it felt like the vocal levels may have needed some adjusting because there was a few songs at the stars where I felt like I couldn’t understand the lyrics. But it all tightened up as the show went on.

I definitely understood the 3/4 time though and was waltzing alone in the back as the music compelled me to do so. As they were an act that is new to me I didn’t know any of the songs and so cannot name them here. But they were definitely well crafted and well written. One that stood out was a song about that one night stand who you find still standing around days, weeks, months, or in my case years later. You went home with them for one night and in my case they became family. The track so fresh out of the garden it was not on either of the CDs being sold.

There was an intermission. At that hour no other spot close to the venue was open for me to go grab a snack and drink but now I know bring your own goodies because I really wanted a drink to go with the vibe. I would just say don’t over do it and say bring some over fragrant chili or giant Italian anti-pasti spread. Keep it compact with in the limits of your little chosen seat or table. After the intermission Sam was back onstage to introduce Gabe Lee.

For about six songs it was just one man on stage with a guitar and some amazing lyrics. A venue like this does help you focus on the songwriting. And after a month of daily streams where the majority of things I played fell into the pretty decent pop category, hearing truly well crafted lyrics REALLY stood out. The fist act to come to my mind hearing these lyrics was local favorites The Same Chase and the Untraditional (those who know, know what I talking about). Also, I admit country music bias and feel the current generation of young country folks (not the mainstream acts mind you) are putting out the best lyrics going in any genre. It was so refreshing to hear stories and to her couplets that I couldn’t predict where they were headed. And when you don’t have flashing lights or a little cottage coming up from the stage the songs are right there in your face so they’d better be decent.

Also I should note Gabe and company are the whole team meaning; they are the band, the roadies, the merch table, and the tour bus/van drivers. These are folks who are here for the music first and hopefully it pays enough to get to the next gig. This the ROAD not that myth/fantasy road you see in films like Almost Famous. This is why I implore you to pay with cash. It is direct and funds the musicians/artists directly right there so they can go get beers after the shows or something.

I was trying to do the math in my head: You had four people in one van driving across the country from Nashville and stopping all over along the way to CA. This event had decent crowd for the venue size but gas, food, hotel, venue… They can’t be making much more than enough to eat and get to the next stop or hopefully produce the next album. And then you factor in things like the window of the van getting smashed on Thursday and stuff stolen out of the car… that is another expense an arena act is not worrying about having to cover while being driven in a limo to the hotel (even Spinal Tap at their bottom). One of the band members rationalized the incident by saying, “It’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

Sadly it is not. It’s the sign of the times, where people feel that theft is the only way to get ahead or stay afloat. And sadly it is usually people at the “bottom” doing it to others at the “bottom”. Paul McCartney or Lizzo are not having to deal with these kind of “rock ‘n’ roll” issues on the road and I don’t know if they ever had to.

These are working class/blue collar musicians, the kinds of people Merle Haggard or Bruce Springsteen wrote and sang about. These are the people that need our money not ticketmaster or Madonna, Swift, or Depeche Mode. If we don’t support the acts at the bottom… when all the big names die off, all we will have left is whatever corporate decides to manufacture for us. And Sam and his Back Room are also here solely for the MUSIC. Point being The Back Room is NOT a sports arena and then a music venue on it’s days off.

After going solo on guitar (and piano) for several songs Gabe invited the rest of the band back on stage where things really got cooking and got country. I definitely danced and I knew some of the songs because I’d been playing Gabe’s stuff on my country streams. But a highlight for me was a song called “Beverly”. It was not a song Gabe had written and sadly, I forget the name of the songwriter.  Gabe sang the song because he liked and it was written by a friend he knew from a bar in Nashville. The type of person who sounded like one of those ornery anti-coporate music business types. And so this great song-writing would never have been heard outside the bar were musicians share their latest songs with each other.

Ed Sheeran is and Harry Styles are not hanging out in song-writing bars collecting poetry from fellow song-writers who may never record one lyric. And that could be one of the reasons why I find their material so lacking. Also this highlights one of the joys of shows like this, all the very personal stories (and much more relatable stories). And Gabe had plenty of stories about Nashville but also just doing the road and seeing all of these towns most people never see.  Collecting stories from all these places and people that inform the music to say nothing of seeing the U.S. landscape. So while this band was not directly local, I see them as traveling locals. Troubadours in the old sense where singers/poets/bards traveled from town to town with stories and tales. And I have not experienced that kind of presence in long time at any venue. And it reminded why I do LOVE country music. It’s about the stories. It is also about the drinking and parties and staying up too loate like many other genres too.  Just listen to the song, “Honky Tonk Hell”, one of the shows closers.

At the end of the night the band got Sam on stage to play his piano in a rollicking version of, “Honky Tonk Women”. When it was over the band hung out and drank wine and beer and played more piano until Sam complained he had not expected to be here this late. By the time I left it was midnight!

Overall the music was great, a nice amount of banter between songs about the road and playing everything from dive bars to honky-tonks and who knows what. The musicians themselves having to do the driving and roadie work must get exhausting and so sometimes the performances had the feeling on not quite on the A game. I would love to see what both acts could do with a full band backing these lyrics tearing roof of a place like the Saddle Rack. But that would be a totally different show. And ultimately, because it was raw and real the imperfections made it more honest and authentic and dare I say “rock ‘n’ roll”. And, yeah I almost cried during a couple songs throughout the night.

For the money it was WAY more than worth it (I think $30-40 would’ve been a fair price even). In hindsight I wish I would have brought more cash to tip extra directly because this is the kind of thing I think is worth supporting. Corporations are not people and I dare say some don’t even seem to be made up of people anymore (and I am not talking about automation). The Back Room as a venue was love at first sight for me. And it is a 20 minute walk from house. I am thinking of going back on Sunday for acoustic guitar, I had so much fun. It definitely made me more devoted the local community angle I preach.

Unfortunately, this will post too late for folks in Bay Area but Gabe Lee and crew are performing at Amando’s on Valencia in SF Friday, the 14th. It will not be The Back Room. Sam will not join them on piano. But it will be small intimate and rocking. I used to perform poetry there myself back when it was Viracocha. So by all means go. And when you hear the 3/4 time and you know how to waltz… don’t be afraid to waltz while listening the stories. You can multi-task trust me.

Epilogue/Update: I ended up at Amado’s on Friday a venue I used to perform at doing poetry with jazz with “The Word Party” back when it was called Virracocha. It is a room about the size of my studio apartment so, small but it can create a big feel depending on the act. There were no couches so the standing audience that Friday was ready to party as opposed to being attentive and respectful. I was glad I had gone the night before because The Back Room really let you focus on the lyrics and honky-tonk proper on Friday. And Friday also allowed the bands to change up some songs for the more party ready crowd. King Margo commented on the break-in and theft from the night before saying that they had written a song about this subject after a break-in that had occurred in Nashville. This was the right venue for that song. And they played on old drinking song, which is kind of a requirement if you are going to honky-tonk proper. Gabe Lee changed a few songs too. But he did bring back the John Prine song, “Paradise” which is still relevant today as we continue to strip the land. I was surprised the very mixed crowd was hip enough to know who Prine was and I guess that made that the song stand out for me. There was less banter than the night before as the acts seemed ready to raise the roof, which they did. In part because, it was Kelly’s last night as fiddle player on this tour. My only complaint is that at time it felt too dialed in like clockwork. When you see an act two nights in a row you get a peak behind the curtain on what is and is not spontaneous. And I just wish there had been MAYBE one two really extended jams where they just rocked out. But once again when it was all over it was almost midnight so you gotta go sometime.

The two different venues gave me two different shows and I am glad I went to both because as I said, I got really got to hear the lyrics on Thursday so I was able to run crazy on Friday. Not to say Amado’s can’t create intimacy with lyrics because there was an added bonus of opener David Redd (out of L.A.). Just voice and guitar and some more personal songwriting (plus a choice cover, Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away”). Again reminding, me of how much time I’ve spent in the pop realm and how lacking it often is. These songs were not following the top 40 rule book or trying fit themselves into a tik-tok meme. And the audience was no less enthusiastic for David either who was offering up his vinyl on a pay what you think it’s worth plan.

Side Note: In my experience most people know what something is worth but in the end want it for free and so in the end don’t actually buy anything because a deal like that can make one feel guilty not paying anything. I’ve confronted this myself as a graphic designer. When people ask how much I charge, I tell them and then I don’t hear from them ever again. Or if I ask them what they think I’m worth they get squirmy as they try not to low ball, but not low ball. And this I believe is a product of everything on demand much of which feels like it is free (even if you pay monthly) and people just being broke. Also, specifically with music people don’t go listening to physical formats much anymore (even the current vinyl craze is only a small portion of people and many of the just want it as a keepsake).

I mention this only because I didn’t notice that many people buying merch/music especially on Thursday. And as I said doing the math in the my head… that’s not a lot of money coming in when tours and merch are the man way acts of this level make a living. But I can now say I know longer have just three 45s hanging the wall I have an actual LP (good lord what is happening).

So I request even if you don’t have a record player or CD player buy the music anyway and consider it a service fee for the great show because a $20 ticket price for this level of songwriting is a steal. And better than any VIP package ticketdisaster is shilling. Also it helps the musician possibly return and put on another amazing show and keep the venue lights on. Put cash in their stash to keep local live music on track.

And always support your local musicians and venues that is the best way to fight the beasts with the big budgets. It also makes for a stronger community identity and local scene you won’t find anywhere else.

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