The Performant: Music men

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Mark Growden's solo show and variations on a theme with Hand to Mouth 

There’s something so charmingly unassuming about the Red Poppy Art House -- a by-now venerable institution on the Mission District’s quirk-centric music scene -- it makes you want to invite it home for a Hangtown Fry and mimosas. From the mismatched chairs to the frayed curtains, the whitewashed walls to the cramped toilet, the Red Poppy’s overall ambiance is that of a sort of ramshackle country parlor, right down to the upright piano.

Though you’d never mistake him for a church lady, Bay Area bard Mark Growden does exude a touch of the rustic — a down-home demeanor rooted in his rural Northern California upbringing. From the moment he opened his set on Friday night at the Red Poppy with a haunting, desert lament played ingeniously on his signature set of bicycle handlebars, it was as if he were unfolding a map of the hidden pockets of America and inviting us on an introspective journey through them.

Assisted ably by trumpeter Chris Grady, who employed a number of mutes throughout the show, probably to keep him from blowing the heads off the front row seated literally at his feet, Growden worked his way through a repertoire of old songs and new which hearkened to the barroom backrooms of the South, the windswept plains of the American West, and the lonesome riverbanks of the Truckee, and the Mississippi.

Though much of Growden’s music is tinged with a fragile darkness, the mood of the evening was light, jovial, the banter flying thick and fast between stage and oddience, and slyly humorous counterpoint provided by Grady. By the time it came around to the group sing-a-long, we were all good friends, a chummy crew, no doubt assisted in part by the closeness of our quarters, the conviviality of claustrophilia.

Music was also the theme at monthly comedy event Hand to Mouth at the Dark Room Theatre. Since 2011, Hand to Mouth has been hosting eclectic lineups of funny-persons who are encouraged to perform sets that relate to a pre-announced topic, and much of the fun comes from discovering how each comic will interpret the theme.

Sure, there were a few comics who merely riffed on the topic by dissing bands they didn’t like or making fun of raves, easy targets all, but co-host James Fluty broke the trend by coming out onstage with a guitar and playing a lewd ballad about Mormons (take that Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and Jesse Elias shattered what was left of it by giving a totally hilarious power-point presentation he called “A Lecture of Music History.” Ostensibly a comparison of the evolution of classical to contemporary music, Elias spent time comparing music from “Der Gloeckner von Notre Dame” and “Wicked,” introducing us to the “orchestra hit” sample, and comparing the “two distinct sounds referred to as ‘electric piano’” which involved a straight-faced comparison of various video games soundtracks versus Disney credits music.

Keeping it weird, DJ Real (a.k.a. Nick Stargu) contributed a retiree version of a NIN tune (“I Want to Play Some Canasta”), the Unwatchables sold their souls to the devil in order to be able to play the blues for Bruce Willis, and Drennon Davis ended the show on a literal high note by turning himself into a radio with the help of a loop station and station-appropriate DJ patter that ranged from the growling bro-down of hard rock station “Radio K-O-C-K” to the passive-aggressive mellow of “Free Jazz Radio” (“just want to clarify something about our name, we are not ‘free’. We are listener-supported.”)

It would appear allowing comedians to stretch their creativity to encompass yet redefine a specific theme is as good for them as it was for us—and makes it easy to look forward to their February installment at Lost Weekend Video, when the theme will be “Jobs”. Hell, I’ve got a few jokes about that myself….

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