Monday, March 22, 2010

SFS Amnesty Night

It’s the middle of March at San Francisco School’s Amnesty Night, two hours of politics, human rights, and rock n’ roll. The San Francisco School is packed with a horde of ecstatic eighth graders, simultaneously excited about the upcoming event and pleased at the arrival of what the kids call the “big envelopes” from their potential high schools. The band, Seize the Sound, is doing a soundcheck. These kinds of soundchecks scare me--I am always worried they have started their set early for some reason, or perhaps someone had made a typo on the Facebook event page. But after the keyboard player, a thin blond kid in a dark grey shirt, runs through the intro to “Hallelujah” ten times or so, I am reassured.
However, Seize the Sound isn’t coming on for an hour and a half. Many were informed previously that they would bookend the show. I find out from the band’s guitarist, my old Blue Bear campmate James Uejio, that the band isn’t doing such a thing after all. People are confused--the crowd of girls breaks into animated chattering, and a dark boy with a strangely dialating eye gets up from his seat and begins pacing around. But they’re in luck--the keyboardist from earlier, Tano Brock, takes a tribal drum and climbs onstage with his mother. He beats out a simple groove, and his mother grabs a beautifully made fiddle and begins playing an Arabic melody. After the end of the performance, they make a point of noting that their final song is an old folk tune, as beloved in the Middle East as “This Land Is Your Land” is here, that every country from the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Biscay has claimed as its own--fitting for an “international event.”
They walk off stage--now it’s political time. The main Amnesty International representative, a thirty-something guy with gelled-up hair and a blue polo tee, begins speaking about the history of the company. It’s a dramatic story--back in 1961, the age of Ben E. King and President Kennedy, a group of Portuguese were arrested simply for toasting to freedom. A group of people in London wrote letters, the men were freed, etc. It’s a compelling story, and he is able to quickly and eloquently answer the complex questions posed by the audience, but he is no match for the simple inquiries of a young boy sitting behind me. “Who founded Amnesty International?” “How many members are in San Francisco?”
Then comes a 15-minute Amnesty video narrated by Patrick Stewart. While it’s an interesting video, it is plagued by technical difficulties. As the audience intently listens to the story of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer’s days as a prisoner of conscience in China, the video suddenly skips ahead thirty seconds or so. The young girls running the projector squeal in surprise and frantically struggle to set it in its right position again. There is laughter and murmuring among the audience members, but it’s soon apparent nobody really missed anything.
After the video ended (and one more half-minute skip during the credits), a venerable-looking Sri Lankan woman walks onstage, sari dragging across the smooth wooden floor. She screens a slideshow of pictures of a heavily guarded school camp in her conflicted home country before giving the stage over to the MC, a guy named Shane Bannon. This master of ceremonies, who also happens to sing in the band, is barely out of eighth grade but comes across as thoroughly adult. With his leather jacket, bicolor hair, and slightly flamboyant demeanor, he emits a vibe not unlike my imagining of a junior assistant in one of Malcolm McLaren’s wacky ‘70s punk lingeries. He applauds the woman who had just been on and then brings on the band. Everyone cheers and goes wild, and I get that feeling that within thirty minutes, the entire event will boil down to some sort of utopian celebration.
The band breaks into the sneaky groove to the Arctic Monkeys’ anti-poser anthem “Fake Tales of San Francisco.” It’s clear they have an affinity for the garage-rock revival movement of the early ‘00s, playing fiery covers of not only the Monkeys but also songs by the Strokes and the View in addition to classics like “Superstition” and “Hallelujah” and even oddities like the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and Gabriella Cilmi’s “Sweet About Me.” They also play a few originals, which have that distinctly Strokes-y sound so beloved by Apple’s ad companies. Bannon just leans forward on the microphone stand and surveys the audience coldly like an assassin perched atop a building, watching the tiny pedestrians below with steely indifference as he scans the cityscape for his quarry. All the band members are like this--there isn’t much movement other than rhythmic bobbing, but they’re clearly having fun with the audience.
Well, my gut feeling was right about the utopian thing. As they break into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” still insanely funky but with an amusing post-punk twist, everyone gets up and starts jumping around like crazy, frantically waving paper plates in the air. Girls cry and couples kiss during Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song which seems impossible to do a bad cover of. Two girls desperately attempt a tango during “Wasteland.” And through the entirety of the last three songs, a third of the crowd is waving cell phones like Zippo lighters. I suddenly have a flashback to that perfect moment at Slim’s in November 2009, when Tyler Stimpson strode onstage with an acoustic guitar and had half the house embracing and crying into each others’ shoulders. This is why rock n’ roll is still beautiful.
They leave the stage; I help clean up a bit. I talk with the sister of one of the Piers, who emphatically denies the rumor that her brother plays his instrument with a drum kit screw. Filled with fresh knowledge about human rights, the power of rock n’ roll, and the dream schools they’re bound for in the autumn, the crowd disappears into the dark Excelsior night, and the air is filled with the sounds of crickets and engines.

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