SF clubs are bringing back live music, with joy and caution

Concerts are on at Bottom of the Hill, The Independent, Rickshaw Stop

By Iris Kwok

Special to The Examiner

The weekend before San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill was set to reopen, co-owner Lynn Schwarz couldn’t fall asleep. As morning drew nearer, her mind dwelled on worst-case scenarios — including a particularly unnerving one in which she forgot to confirm a booking with a band on the bill.

“I am so ready and so excited, but at the same time, I’m really nervous,” Schwarz said, anticipating the scrappy Potrero Hill club’s grand reopening on Saturday, its first show in a year and a half, with thrash band Hellbender headlining. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, and I don’t want my staff to get sick, even though they are all vaccinated.”

Schwarz isn’t alone in her mixed feelings of fear and exaltation. Between financial hardship and difficulties hiring new staff — challenges facing many restaurant owners recently, the road to recovery for The City’s nightlife and entertainment venues has been long and bumpy.

After shutting down in March 2020, The Independent on Divisadero Street resorted to survival tactics such as opening a merch store and hosting pop-up and streaming events, according to general manager Jon Gunton. Furloughing managers enabled the club to remain financially stable.

“We found every way we could to keep things moving along and not feel discouraged by what was obviously a very scary situation,” Gunton said. “Regardless of the uncertainty we’re presented with now, it feels very good to have that portion of the journey past us. Now, we are stronger than we were before, and we’re going to find a way to navigate whatever’s in store.”

The Independent returned July 9 with local soul band Con Brio headlining.

Seeing patrons experience live music for the first time in over a year was a “reaffirming” experience that made challenges they overcame over the past year worth it, Gunton said, adding, “It felt amazing to get back to life to some degree; I know things are changing a lot, but it felt good to hear some music.”

When the Rickshaw Stop in Hayes Valley reopened June 25 with San Francisco singer-songwriter ZOLA to a limited audience of 50 guests, club founder Christopher White said, “It felt slightly strange and foreign, but also extremely familiar.” Feeling “great joy” witnessing live music again, he called it a positive sign that The City persevered through 15 months of strange changes.

Rickshaw Stop managed to retain around 70 percent of its staff, and is looking to fill various positions, White said. It hasn’t been easy, either. He’s found that for many, the pandemic offered an opportunity to exit the service industry and retrain for a new profession.

Keeping Bottom of the Hill afloat has been an all-hands-on-deck effort, Schwarz said. To help ease the financial burden during lockdown, the indie club furloughed its entire staff and began a staff recovery fund, which Schwarz said helped ensure all employees were “housed and fed and not struggling too much.” Selling T-shirts with funky artwork by local artists including Anselm Yew and Andrew Goldfarb netted more than $11,000.

Bottom of the Hill also received a grant through Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ music relief fund, which, according to its website, distributed $1 million to music venues across the Bay Area.

“We found out how much love there is for us in the community and how there’s so many people who just are not OK with seeing their local venues close,” Schwarz said. “It was really heartwarming, all of the help we got. I feel like the safety net was there for us, and I couldn’t be more grateful that we weren’t allowed to fail, we weren’t allowed to close.”

For many of The City’s famed nightclubs and live music venues, government assistance, especially the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, has been vital.

“One thing that this (pandemic) has taught us is that you have no idea what’s around the corner,” said White, of the Rickshaw Stop.

The announcement of a citywide vaccine mandate for most indoor gatherings Thursday has been “wonderful” news for Bottom of the Hill, Schwarz said. It has taken the burden off the club, which turns 30 in September, to make what has become a “controversial” choice. Plans were to require attendees to show either proof of fully vaccinated status or negative test results from within 48 hours of the show.

Schwarz noted that when she contacted customers to notify them of the policy, she was sometimes subjected to cursing, as well as online commenters who accused her of being a “Nazi” and “corporate shill.” She’s since stopped reading the comments section.

The Potrero Hill spot also is enforcing the citywide indoor mask mandate unless someone is actively eating, drinking or performing — perhaps a reminder that, even as crowds begin trickling back into clubs, a cloud of uncertainty still looms overhead.

“It feels a lot like 2020, in some ways,” Schwarz said. “We’ve lost a few headliners on our shows in the first two weeks, and other bands are doing our best to fill all those slots. I can’t blame them for being nervous. But we are so ready to open that, unless we’re told by the health community that we should not open, we are going to continue with our calendar.”

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