Author: Sargent, Geoff

Tour de Jam Stage 3

Here it is at 10:30 on Saturday evening before my column is due and I’m still writing. It wasn’t due to procrastination, I’ve been noodling on this for the past week, but all the same I haven’t finished it……ok…..nose to the old fretboard and see if I can make a wrap.

What is it about long narrow pubs in the Bay area? I recently hit two jams in my tour and both reside in taverns with excessively rectangular footprints. Even though one pub has more square footage, both seem to be designed by the same architect obsessed with long and narrow dimensions…one consequence is that the venue footprints create some challenges for patrons to negotiate in and around the musicians on their way to the loo. One might think that bluegrass jams would migrate to venues friendlier to jam circle geometry…after all when was the last time you played in a square jam right outside a bathroom door. Maybe the architect responsible for these came to us from the sister galaxy that gave us coneheads…does that mean these rectangular alien architects should be called blockheads? Well, tavern geometry aside the two pubs in question are the Plough & Stars and Amnesia, homes of some longstanding San Francisco Bluegrass jams worth checking out….and for the record their footprints help to give their resident jams a certain unique flavor.

The Plough & Stars ( is located in the Richmond district in the city, not too far from the Golden Gate Park and not too far from UCSF. This jam is hosted on the first Wednesday every month by Jeanie and Chuck, veterans of the Bay area Bluegrass scene, and the jam is a CBA sanctioned event…..if you attend, be sure to notice the CBA banner prominently displayed behind the musicians. One of the fun things about doing this Tour de Jam is experiencing jam personalities…..which seems to somehow reflect the sum of the musician personalities…..the McGrath’s jam is raucous for a reason and certainly reflects Bruno Brandli’s subtle, understated influence. The Plough and Star jam is no exception to this and unique.

My first impression on walking into the pub was…well it’s like other long and narrow pubs in the Bay area, tables in the middle, bar along one wall, dark wood, Guiness on tap, and microphones in front of the musicians in the back of the room……..strange thing that! Wait a minute…is that a band up there performing…did I get my evening correct…or maybe it’s the wrong location…and why are the folks sitting at the tables applauding? While these things were seeping through my feeble, overtaxed brain I do what I usually do in times of confusion which is sit at the bar, order up a Guiness, and study the scene in front of me.

Ordering a Guiness is actually an important delaying tactic that I use when assessing unusual and abnormal situations. It kind of works in the USA, but is much more effective in Ireland and the UK where bartends actually know how to pull a proper pint. In the UK, and I believe Ireland too, there is a pour line on the pints and bartends are required to fill liquid, not head, up to the pour line……otherwise they are pulling a short pint and cheating the patron out of their full enjoyment…it’s the law. Regardless of the reason, it takes time to pull a proper pint of Guiness, which may be accomplished by a variety of techniques. Some pubs take the “pull and settle” approach where most of the pint is pulled into the glass, the head is allowed to settle, followed by more Guiness, until a full pint is present with the appropriate aesthetic amount of thick, creamy head. For these pubs you order a good 10-15 minutes before the pint you are working on has succumbed. The other technique, that I’ll call the spatula technique, is quicker but involves the sacrilegious wastage of good beer. I probably don’t need to go into detail on this technique except to say the price of getting a quicker pint is watching excess head scrapped off the pint and dumped in the sink to make room for a full pull. I always have mixed feelings when I see this and take delight in watching my pint prepared by pull and settle, and take even more delight anticipating the first sip. Now the reason for this prolonged diatribe is that most American pubs just don’t get it. They pull a straight shot into the glass and who knows how much beer and how much head you get. My Guiness arrived far too quickly, with a thick a head, too little body, and before I had opportunity to properly reconnoiter the happenings.

During the wait I did make a few key observations…..yes it did appear, in fact, to be a jam in progress…..and there were several friends playing which prevented any hope of making an anonymous escape if I was having an off night. So I opened up my gig bag and jumped in.

The thing that threw me into confusion on walking into the pub is what makes this jam unique….it’s what I’ll call a performance jam. The microphones are set for the jammers to step up and play or sing……bit of a different approach to the jams I’ve been frequenting……..but how cool. When a song comes around that you’ve got some chops on, you get to play like you normally would, but in a quasi-gig situation. And for someone like me, any mic time I can get helps; apart from helping to flush out the usual stage jitters, it is an opportunity to make mic mistakes in a relatively harmless setting. The novel challenge here though is to think quickly and make a jam break work in a more performance setting…..great practice for working those jam band bones. Chuck and Jeanie run the show by organizing the songs, breaks, and musicians all on the fly, though it was a little nerve wracking the first time when Chuck came over and said “you’re up next”…what’s a newbie to do? Some of the regulars did mention that there is often a group of less experienced jammers that hang out in the back under their respective “domes of silence” and play the periphery. This jam ends pretty promptly at 11PM so don’t wait too late to drop in and miss the fun.

Amnesia ( is a very different scene…pubwise and jamwise. Yeah, ok, it’s long and narrow….a right beanpole of a pub, a tall drink of beer. While the Plough and Stars is fairly well lit, Amnesia’s ambience is dusky…….I felt right at home…lots of people, crowded, noisy conversations, dimly lit, and a decent selection of beer. Do you ever get the feeling I’m biased about the drink I prefer? Monday nights are bluegrass nights on the calendar and the bluegrass jam, hosted by Dave Zimmerman, is on the third Monday every month, followed by a show, which on third Mondays is usually Homespun Rowdy, but the evening I visited it was 49 Special.

This jam was the more familiar circle, but with different faces. Dave bills this jam as a beginners jam, and the jam atmosphere was relaxed, some folks more experienced than others, but all in all beginner friendly. Not to say that it didn’t cook on occasion…it did, just not every song.

What makes this jam unique are the onlookers……..since Amnesia is a bit on the narrow side, and the jam is located in the back of the pub right in front of the stage….folks waiting for the performance to start, park their stools right at the edge of the jam. The neighborhood Amnesia is in has a pretty diverse population and some of the more interesting citizens seemed to end up perched right at the edge of the circle, which means I had my choice of music or conversation….and sometimes both at once. Then there were the dancers……..some that felt moved by the vibes wanted to get really close to the music…….

Since the performance starts at about 8:30 you need to get there at the crack of 6:30 to enjoy the full jam….this is one I’ll hit again….maybe it was the ambience, the interesting patrons, the conversations with the other musicians post jam, or maybe it was the jam…this is a fun one and well suited for beginners looking to try out a new jam or jump into a more public jam situation.

Ahh…it’s now 1AM<
Posted:  11/15/2009

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