If the Hemlock's Walls Could Talk: Looking Back at 17 Years of Shows

Kelley Stoltz performs at the Hemlock in 2003.  (Debra Zeller)

On Oct. 6, the Hemlock Tavern, the longtime Tenderloin rock bar, will celebrate its 17th anniversary. But the occasion is bittersweet: the celebration is also a goodbye party, as the venue is slated for demolition and will close its doors—at least in this iteration—after its last show.

The Hemlock has, per the estimate of its longtime booker, Tony Bedard, hosted around 15,000 bands since opening in 2001. Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom, Beach House, Reggie Watts, Ty Segall and Parquet Courts are just a few of the high-caliber indie rock and pop acts that cut their teeth on the Hemlock's intimate stage.

The Hemlock staff has always had an ear for the weird and obscure. Other memorable performances included the exploratory acoustic guitar work of the late Jack Rose; the heavy and beautiful droning feedback of Liz Harris’s Grouper; and, in an especially memorable combination, Captain Beefheart sideman Moris Teper alongside U.K. alternative icon PJ Harvey.

Dolmen Property Group purchased the Hemlock in 2015. Last week, it was announced that managing partner Don Alan has sold the business after the building's other tenants accepted buyouts. A 54-unit commercial-residential development is slated for the Polk Street property. Dolmen currently plans to open a new Hemlock Tavern in the building, but this version won’t be affiliated with its current management.

The longtime bar and live rock venue is being sold to a developer with plans to reopen a new, unrelated 'Hemlock Tavern.'
The longtime bar and live rock venue is being sold to a developer with plans to reopen a new, unrelated 'Hemlock Tavern.' (Courtesy Hemlock Tavern)

For a generation of musicians and fans that came to appreciate the current Hemlock’s adventurousness—its willingness to book small acts rather than aiming for big stars—the news stings.

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“We gave shows to bands that we liked that were underappreciated,” Bedard says. “Almost all the local bands for the last 17 years at one point or another have played [here]. Some we ended up giving a lot of shows to, and some play a couple of shows and boom, they blow up and they’re on to bigger and better things.”

"It was to help these bands out because I felt like they needed to be heard,” says Debra Zeller, a longtime show photographer who also books bands at the Hemlock.

An underground mainstay

The Hemlock's opening followed the closing of another longtime Tenderloin rock club, Kimo's, and quickly attracted a loyal following of underground and alternative music fans. A key figure who helped get the Hemlock off the ground was musician and engineer Kyle Statham. Now living in Memphis, Statham previously owned and operated Blind Pig Studios in the Tenderloin when he learned about Alan’s plans to open a new bar and joined him as co-owner.

“Don was looking at these different places in the Mission,” says Statham. “I say, ‘No, no, no, no, there’s enough bars in the Mission! The Tenderloin’s a little dicey, but, man, there’s a ton of people.’”

Statham and Alan settled on the former location of a famed Tenderloin gay bar, The Giraffe, which had existed in one form or another since the 1950s. Stories circulate about how Statham was still coating the Hemlock’s bar with shellac just hours before the tavern formally opened. Statham's audio engineering expertise also helped the noisy bar avoid complaints—something Kimo’s had struggled with for years.

“Don and Kyle and those guys sunk a bunch of money into extra soundproofing and sound reinforcement for the room," says Bedard. "When he put that room together, he did it with the ear and the eye of an engineer. I think the fact the room sounded as good as it did, that was a bit of a calling card—one reason that we were able to attract bands to play there early on."

Bedard’s hiring proved to be another crucial step. Initial show bookings were somewhat haphazard. (Bedard and Zeller recall at least one situation when three different bills of bands showed up, all thinking they were playing the same night.)

“Tony had been very involved in all sorts of different scenes,” remembers George Chen, whose bands Kit, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle and Common Eider King Eider performed at the Hemlock. “He was an in for the kind of scene that was Mission- and Oakland-based people. He has really broad and specific tastes. He was willing to go along with a lot of things; he was willing to take a lot more chances than a lot of other bookers in that era.”

Vetiver performs at the Hemlock Tavern in 2002.
Vetiver performs at the Hemlock Tavern in 2002. (Debra Zeller)

Even as Bedard kept his eye out for touring talent coming through town, he kept the emphasis on new, local acts, including bands like Vetiver, Kelley Stoltz, Xiu Xiu and Hunx and His Punx, not to mention other Northern California groups like Comets on Fire. The focus on unknown bands was part of the inevitable limitations of a small performance space, but also stemmed from his commitment to making sure new performers had a place to start.

“At the time, you would aspire to certain rooms,” Chen says. “For some people, the Hemlock became that room, but because it could be cozy, it was an attainable goal to have.”

“I think of all of the bands that would not have gotten a toehold otherwise,” says Bedard. “There was really a high bar. If you wanted to get into Bottom of the Hill or anything like that, it was really tough. There was this whole underground scene bubbling up, right?”

“That’s why with my shows, too, it was to help these bands out because I felt like they needed to be heard," says Zeller. "Eventually they did gain a following and grew to bigger clubs.”

The affordability crisis curbs the good times

Bedard says he approached Zeller to help with booking because she liked bands with a cleaner sound while he preferred noise and chaos. Aside from booking emerging local favorites of the 2000s, including Film School and the Stratford 4, Zeller was also instrumental in putting on a famed secret show by Chan Marshall, who performs as Cat Power.

Cat Power at the Hemlock Tavern in 2002.
Cat Power at the Hemlock Tavern in 2002. (Debra Zeller)

“This was an infamous day and night at the Hemlock,” Bedard says, recalling how, per the artist's request, the bar had to borrow a piano from a local music store. "After that show was over, we had to roll the piano out the side door, roll it down Hemlock Alley towards Polk to the piano store. It started to get away from us! So flashing in front of our eyes, this piano’s going to go rolling into Polk Street traffic and we were trying to wrangle and manhandle this piano into the front door of the club.”

Bedard and Zeller have plenty of other stories about memorable shows. On a wholly separate evening in 2007, the late underground rocker Jay Reatard took offense to a clock meant to keep bands on time onstage and smashed it over his own head—to Bedard’s admitted relief, as he wasn’t fond of said clock to begin with.

Following the booking of surrealist anti-comic Neil Hamburger, Bedard also began booking monthly standup comedy shows under the name Club Chuckles in 2003, leading to early appearances by now-famed comedians like Ali Wong and Amy Schumer. “[We pulled] out the all the bar totals for some rock 'n' roll shows versus these comedy shows I had booked, and we came to the discovery that Neil Hamburger had set the all-time single bar record,” Bedard recalls.

With booking giant Goldenvoice recently taking over Slim's and Great American Music Hall—as well as the Hemlock's impending closure—independent booking is becoming increasingly scarce in San Francisco's live music scene. But Bedard says the bigger concern for his community of musicians and fans is the city's affordability crisis. “It maybe impacts us somewhat, but this is more about Dotcom 2.0: real estate prices, musicians and audiences and bar patrons being priced out of San Francisco," he says.

Statham, for his part, takes a slightly longer view. “I moved there in the late '80s, and by the early '90s, I was moaning about how much it changed. But I’m sure I rented somebody’s apartment that they couldn’t afford any more and I’m sure they looked at me exactly the same way. I think different generations deserve the opportunity to make the best out of what they can make out of it.”

“Up-and-coming bands will find places to play, it’s just going to move somewhere else. In some way, shape or form, it’s going to exist,” says Bedard.

“People are asking, ‘Oh, are you going to do a big last show at the Hemlock?’" Bedard adds. "At this point, I don’t think there’d be any way to really sum it up.”

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Statham returns with his longtime band Fu¢k for two shows at the Hemlock on Aug. 25 and 26. The Hemlock Tavern celebrates its 17th anniversary on Oct. 6. Details here

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