With its swirling blend of acid rock, R&B, cosmic jazz, Krautrock and folk, Mushroom confounds many of the neat categories that clubs rely on to fill out their rosters. But the San Francisco-based band has found a welcoming home at the eclectic-minded Make Out Room, where Mushroom returns for its annual gig Sunday, with North Bay singer/songwriter Patrick Winningham opening the double bill.
Part of the Mission’s musical landscape for almost three decades, Mushroom played its very first gig at the Make Out in 1996, and has performed there exclusively since about 2008, “because I got tired of doing the dance with other bookers and clubs,” said drummer Pat Thomas, the only musician who’s been in every edition of the evolving collective (and not to be confused with the Cool Ghouls bassist of the same name).
“The Make Out Room lets us play whenever we want, which ends up being once a year. I don’t have to grease them. ‘Do you think you can get at least 122 people?’ I feel like we have an on-going residency. Back in the acid-jazz era, we briefly played the Elbo Room a few times, and it felt like we could have become regulars, but it didn’t become a thing.”
Released on Bandcamp, Mushroom’s latest album, “Songs of Dissent: Live at Make Out Room 8/9/19,” features largely the same lineup as Sunday’s show, including longtime bassist Ned Doherty and keyboardist Graham Connah, who was a founding member of the band at the same time he was fixture at Bruno’s, when it was the center of the Mission jazz scene. He keeps a low profile these days, but after decades away he returned to the Mushroom patch a few years ago.
For jazz fans who know Connah as a brilliant player and arranger, Mushroom offers a different kind of cauldron, exploring extended soundscapes marked by churning, lapidary grooves rather than post-bop’s harmonic steeplechases (though the group collaborated memorably on the psychedelic “Joint Happening” album with South Bay trumpet legend Eddie Gale, who recorded with both Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra).
Multi-instrumentalist Erik Pearson (tenor sax and flute) brings a wealth of experience into the band, from old-time inspired combos like the Evie Ladin Band, the Stairwell Sisters, and the Crooked Jades, to Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot’s band, Daevid Allen’s University of Errors, and Matt Lax and Nearly Beloved. Drummer and Amoeba Records honcho Marc Weinstein joined the group several years ago, when he moved down to Los Angeles around the same time as Thomas.
“We weren’t really friends in the Bay Area, but we bonded with each other down here,” Thomas said. “We’re both from Buffalo, and his dad was the Walter Cronkite of Buffalo, so I was kind of star-struck at first. Marc is coming out of Soft Machine and electric Miles Davis,” foundational influences on Mushroom, too.
Rounding out Mushroom are bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist David Immerglück, who’ve played together for decades in Camper Van Beethoven and the Monks of Doom, which spun off of germinal Santa Cruz alt-rock bands, “so they’re kind of moonlighting on top of moonlighting,” Thomas said. “The difference is that, as proggy as the Monks are, they’re still quite structured. Mushroom is all improvisation.”
While Thomas revels in the improvisational nature of Mushroom, off the bandstand he’s carved out a niche via meticulous, painstaking excavations into archives and back catalogs, overlooked cultural figures and movements. In some circles, he is best known for his essential book-collecting speeches, interviews, poetry and writings emanating from various Black power movements, such as “Listen, Whitey!: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, 1965-1975” (Fantagraphics Books). A companion album, “Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974,” was just as revelatory.
At the moment, Thomas is working on several projects, including a coffee-table book of Allen Ginsberg memorabilia, “with letters to and from William S. Burroughs, photos with Lou Reed, a letter from Yoko Ono, and things like that,” he said. He’s assembling a big box set of recording by LA Paisley Underground mainstay The Dream Syndicate. He’s co-producing a movie about the short-lived LA singer/songwriter Judy Sill, and is co-authoring an anthology of articles, writings and sketches by pervasively influential but largely forgotten actor and comedian Ernie Kovacs.
Somehow, it makes sense that Mushroom has flourished at the Make Out Room, where art and entertainment comfortably coexist and intermingle. The venue is essentially two clubs, with early sets featuring live acts geared more for listening and late evenings taken over by dancers and DJs.
“Not to be too reductive but, from 7 to 9:30, it’s mostly indie rock, and a lot of the crowd is 40 and above,” Thomas noted. “Then it switches to a dance club, and it’s sort of 30 and under. It’s a really good business plan. What I love is that I was in San Francisco from the ‘80s until I moved to LA, and it’s the only bar I can walk into on an off night and see someone who I’ve known for years. It’s our Cheers.”
I was at the Mushroom show with Eddie Gale. Everyone in top form. Glad the Make Out Room survived Covid and supports the locals
Great to see ML reporting on the music scene, which has disappeared from local journalism. Also great to see a shout out for Make Out Room, pride of the Mission.