Author: Kuster, Ted

Donít Forget Amnesia

My favorite jam in San Francisco happens at the Amnesia bar. Amnesia is an odd place for a bluegrass jam. Itís located on Valencia Street, in the deep, dark, throbbing heart of our townís hipster district, and it hauls in a deeply stylish crowd in search of the eclectic and the ironic. But Monday nights the berets and drainpipe jeans give way to cowboy hats, and we take over the joint for bluegrass night. The picking goes from 6:30 or so to 8:30 or 9, after which the pros take the stage.

The elite Bay Area bluegrass bands are Monday night regulars. Long-time attractions such as the Earl Brothers and Bell Monroe alternate with sharp new acts such as Front Country, the newest addition to my top 10 favorite bands in the world. The most reliable draw in recent years has been Toshio Hirano, whose wry stage persona and Japanese accent belie a profound understanding of the Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams repertoire. Sometimes I go home after the jam, but I always stick around when Toshio is scheduled to play.

The Amnesia jam is famously open to players of all levels. Iíd had a banjo for about six weeks when I showed up the first time, lured by word of mouth to the effect that there was beginnerís jam going on. Mando player Dave Zimmerman, the founder and host, explained that it wasnít specifically for beginners, but I was welcome to get a beer and join in if I heard a song I could handle. That was about five years ago, and Iím still pretty much a beginner, so itís a good thing for me that the Amnesia jam is still a welcoming environment. Dave has moved on, but the stalwart Dobroist Bruce Sadownick has filled his shoes nicely.

Which brings me to this: Three years ago the city of San Francisco tried out the brilliant idea of closing down a major street for an afternoon and letting people walk, bike, skate and sashay where the cars usually whiz. Valencia Street was one of the first to get this treatment. The program, called Sunday Streets, has been a big hit. People come from all over the city and from out of town, and if the weather is nice thereís no nicer way to spend a Sunday afternoon. A few of us Amnesia jam regulars realized that all the event was missing was a bluegrass soundtrack. Amnesiaís management obligingly agreed to open early that Sunday afternoon, and the Amnesia Sunday Streets Wide Open Open-Air Jam was born.

Sunday Streets has spread to almost every neighborhood in the city, and we hit them all, but the Valencia event remains my favorite. Last summer there were four Sunday Streets days on Valencia, and we showed up to pick at every one of them. We gather outside Amnesia around noon and keep picking until the cops come to shoo us off the street along towards dinner time. Last year we started putting out a tip jar. There was enough in it to purchase a couple of rounds for all the die-hards who made it to the end of the afternoon.

Why am I telling you this? Because Sunday, April 14 is almost upon us. Itís the kickoff for the third year of the Amnesia Sunday Streets Wide Open Open-Air Jam. Weíll be out there at noon tuning up, and weíll pick as long as the authorities will tolerate. I hope youíll join us. Everyoneís welcome, even banjo players. Amnesia is at 853 Valencia, between 19th and 20th Streets. Parking is tight in the Mission at the best of times, so take public transit or a bus if you can. I look forward to seeing you there!

Posted:  3/26/2013

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email