Editor's Note: KQED Arts this week premieres 'Backstage Heroes,' a series spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly -- where her 'Music Heroes’ series inspired this broader look at the arts -- giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
The Hemlock Tavern on Polk Street is an international destination for music — “unconventional, not necessarily commercial, artistically adventurous music,” says the venue’s booker, Tony Bedard. For the past 13 years, Bedard has been in charge of which bands step onto the Hemlock’s small back-room stage, a fact as surprising to him as it is necessary to anyone who loves independent music.
Today, Bedard has his back to a set of giant plate-glass windows that look out to a sunny day on Divisadero near Haight. From my vantage point, his face is in shadow, but I can easily make out the crown of curly black hair against the bright windows. And that’s one of the interesting things about Bedard: He’s a vital element of San Francisco culture, but he’s hardly ever the one in the spotlight.
“I was working at Mission Creek Café on Valencia Street, which at the time was owned by my bandmate,” he tells me, explaining he got the job at the Hemlock in the first place. He’d been laid off from a better-paying job doing film and video production at an advertising agency (“I worked with the woman who invented the whole concept of ‘Supersize,’” he says with a vocal eyeroll), but he was getting by, thanks to a rent-controlled apartment.
Then one day in 2002, Don Alan, the new owner of the Hemlock, walked in and asked him to interview for a band-booker job.
“My first instinct was like ‘No way,’” Bedard says. “And then I turned around and saw the huge stacks of dishes that were awaiting me, and was like, what am I, crazy? I have to at least talk to them.”
And that was that. The two men formed an alliance, with Bedard immediately insisting that they focus on two basic ideas: “Make things good for the audience, and make things good for the bands.” Alan's thinking was along similar lines.
“Very early on," says Bedard, "he told me, ‘I don’t want you just booking by the numbers. I don’t want you booking what’s going to be the most popular thing.’” That came as no surprise, since before the Hemlock, Alan owned Radio Valencia, a much-loved, fearless music venue in the Mission District.
“It was a key west coast venue for a lot of free jazz people, John Zorn played there, plus there was a lot of bluegrass going on. And then Don also came from a public radio background, he co-founded WORT in Wisconsin in the ‘70s, and after that he ran a live music café-restaurant.” Bedard pauses; Alan’s dedication is one of the few subjects that doesn’t eventually set him off laughing. “He says this all the time: ‘We’re not getting rich. We do live music because we love it and we’re obsessed with it.’”
And Bedard is obsessed. Starting with guitar lessons at age seven, moving into choirs and choruses in middle school, and reaching an apex in (public!) high school with an intense chamber ensemble vocal group that covered fifteenth-century Italian madrigals as well as Earth, Wind, & Fire, live music has played a part in his life almost daily. Moving to Boston for college, he became a dedicated fan of rock music, thanks to an incredible-sounding scene there in the mid-‘80s, full of great radio stations, lots of places to see music, and touring bands like Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers. Arriving in San Francisco post-college, he took up the drums, becoming a self-taught member of several bands, touring, playing, and continuing to go to shows. In addition, starting in college, he started booking events -- mostly lectures, big ones, for big audiences: Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis.
He won’t say it outright, but it’s pretty obvious that Tony Bedard has always been the organized one, and probably the responsible one as well. Surprisingly, this has not made him bitter. Quite the opposite, actually -- while other bookers succumb to jadedness beneath a daily pile of poorly written band bios in booking requests, Bedard takes the more absurd ones and posts them on Folder Rock, a Twitter account that for anyone who's been on the receiving end of press releases is familiar, cathartic, and hilarious.
Let me pause to explain something else that's funny about Tony Bedard: he says everything three times. Is it because he works with musicians, who are notoriously, let’s say, distracted? Is it because of that organized/responsible thing? Some people can’t quite say what they mean; I’m one. Most people say what they mean once, but they mumble. Diligent communicators say what they mean twice, which is a best practice. Tony Bedard, on the other hand, goes for the triplet.
“I like new bands,” he tells me. “I like up-and-coming bands. I like bands that are just starting out.”
Although he loves to talk about the heyday of MySpace, I weasel out of him his more current listening platform: “I love Bandcamp. Bandcamp is great. People use Soundcloud, some bands do ReverbNation, but for ease of use and stuff, Bandcamp is best.”
And to reiterate, he’s obsessed with live music. “I don’t care about movies. I own records, but I’m not a record collector. My jam is seeing live bands play.” This subject merits a double-triple: “The excitement of live shows, seeing that kind of stuff happen, especially when it’s new bands. I love that whole process, that level. I love it!”
Hence, for over a decade, the Hemlock Tavern’s music roster has been one of the most important, most creative, and noisiest in the city; a place musicians depend on and love, and a longtime haven for audiences who gravitate toward the esoterically angry -- like the night the late Jay Reatard smashed the bar's clock on his head. (Other "name" artists who've graced the club's stage include PJ Harvey, Animal Collective, Gillian Welch, Cat Power, Joanna Newsom, Parquet Courts and Kurt Vile, all of whom play much larger halls today.)
“Bands know they’re going to get good sound, they’re going to get a couple drinks, they’re going to get a meal buyout,” Bedard says, noting that his own long years of touring in bad conditions led him, with the support of Alan, to be serious about that original idea of pleasing both artist and audience. “I wanted to make sure that this was a place that was artist-friendly. I want the bands to have a good experience, and I want the audience to enjoy themselves and think it sounds good. It’s a well-run show, you know?”
I think back to what bands look like taking the stage at the Hemlock, in all the years I’ve been going there, and suddenly it clicks: They’ve always looked relaxed. Many of them have looked happy, smiley and joking with each other and with the audience. This is not the case everywhere -- sometimes, maybe even often, artists appear onstage still in negotiation with someone or something. But here, thanks to these guys in the background, things are always pretty copacetic.
The problem with places like the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco and a lot of other venues in cities all over the U.S. is that they’re going away. So many live music venues have been shuttered in the past few years that it’s hard to keep up with our losses, and as Bedard observes, once those places are gone, they’re rarely replaced. Speaking of which, I ask about recent rumors of mixed-use development on the Hemlock site: Are you worried?
“Our lease is up in six years," Bedard states. "We have an ironclad lease that’s good through 2021. At that point, will the owners decide not to renew our lease? That could happen.”
Bedard is sanguine, and hopes for the best. What else can he do? He misses KUSF. He misses the Bay Guardian. And economically, it’s practically a thing of the past for a young person to move to San Francisco, work at a service industry job, and spend most of their time playing music.
At our café, on our sunny day, we get distracted by a character Bedard identifies as “the neighborhood dog.” While he says hello to the local mascot, I reflect on the basic description he’s given me of his job: he has booked between four and seven nights of live music per week, upwards of 300 nights per year, for 13 years. So that’s 3,900 nights. But wait -- each night features an average of three bands, so that number must be multiplied, coincidentally enough, by three. This guy has in all likelihood booked 11,700 bands to play on the Hemlock Tavern’s small back-room stage.
He may not often be in the spotlight, but to anyone obsessed with live music, Tony Bedard is a San Francisco treasure.