A colorful slice of local blue-collar nightlife history came to an end Saturday night. With Southern Culture on the Skids presiding onstage, the Berkeley Café’s big music hall had its final night as a live-music venue.
The Berkeley’s café space will remain open and continue doing shows on a smaller scale. But Saturday was it for the 200-capacity big room, which is closing to make way for a retail tobacco store. The space has hosted everything from hip-hop to hard-core punk over the past two decades, and Tift Merritt and Ryan Adams were among the locals who played it on their way up to national stardom.
“It’s an honor to play the last night, although it’s sad,” Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist Rick Miller said before taking the stage. “I’ve got a soft spot for dark venues like this. But they come and they go.”
Even before the music started, Saturday was a very Berkeley kind of evening. Flashing emergency-vehicle lights greeted clubgoers, the aftermath of an altercation between a patron and David Finch, frontman for opening act the Dune Dogs. Finch was unfazed and led the band through a set that drew on covers by regular Berkeley acts from over the years, including the Bottle Rockets and Texas roadhouse icon Billy Joe Shaver.
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In the crowd as well as onstage, there was a lot of reminiscing about Berkeley performances past, epochal mid-’90s shows by local alternative-country favorites the Backsliders and Whiskeytown. Southern Culture bassist Mary Huff gave a between-song salute to Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson, another Berkeley regular. And Greg “Grog” Mosorjak, who used to book concerts and wrestling events at the Berkeley, recalled the night in 1998 when singer/songwriter Richard Buckner responded to hecklers by hiding under the stage.
“I’ll miss seeing people I like walk through the door here,” said Tracy Davis, a frequent Berkeley patron with her husband, Gregg. “But there’ll be a new place with new stories.”
Indeed, the next chapter is already in-progress. Local promoter Marianne Taylor, who booked a lot of the Berkeley’s high-profile roots and country-leaning acts, will move her shows a mile north to the Southland Ballroom. And Berkeley managing partner Jim Shires was already talking about future Saturday nights.
“We’ll take about a month off from shows, put a stage back in the corner of the café, do some reconfiguring and start over as a small room again,” Shires said.
But even though the music will go on, losing the Berkeley big room’s history and funky vibe is unfortunate. Though never the best-sounding or plushest joint (Christmas lights were a big part of the décor), it was nevertheless the perfect place to see beer-soaked bar bands like Southern Culture on the Skids. They were in fine form Saturday night, led as always by Miller’s indefatigable guitar on the band’s usual mix of voodoo rockabilly and vampire surf.
So was the sold-out and very well-oiled crowd, who let out numerous whoops for both bands and would have danced if there had only been room to do so. “Everything changes,” said Dune Dogs singer/guitarist Dusty Baker. “Bands, clubs, lives. I’m just happy we got to be here the last night, for a full house.”