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The Most Versatile Music Venue in The Bay is 50 Years Old

Updated: Sep 08, 2023 09:13
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I’ve set a new goal to explore every music venue in The Bay Area, even though I’ve been to most due to growing up here. However, there are still surprises and unexplored places.  Last week, I attended a show at Ashkenaz in Berkeley and was amazed by its versatility. While it’s known for international music and dance, they might want to add that they may be the most diverse music venue in the area. No other place offers the range of music that Ashkenaz does, and I’m planning to return.

Photo from the Ashkenaz website

It was a friend’s farewell party that led me to a Grateful Dead cover band performance at Ashkenaz. Begrudgingly, I accepted the invite since she was leaving on a jet plane the very next day. It’s nothing against The Dead… it’s more that it’s hard to get into the groove of any band that you don’t know many songs from. My friend joked that I’d be hit with the smell of patchouli and armpits the second I walked into the space – she wasn’t wrong.

Balkan Dancing | At Ashkenaz in Berkeley. | Eugene Kim | Flickr

Balkan Dancing – photo by Eugene Kim on Flickr

What makes it the most versatile small venue?

Ashkenaz has been around since the early 70s. For 50 years they have been hosting events within their small space and the folks who come to these events have been coming for years upon years. The dancehall was founded by David Nadel who was riven by the desire to extend this enriching experience to others, he envisioned a space where global music and dance could dissolve the barriers that divide humanity. David’s vision materialized in the form of a converted warehouse on San Pablo Avenue, now a vibrant dance hall dedicated to showcasing international and contemporary roots music and dance. This distinctive space, designed in homage to his Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors, draws inspiration from the architecture of Eastern European wooden synagogues.

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While I was there, I spoke to an attendee who comes every time there’s a Grateful Dead cover band, knowing the performers’ life stories. This kind of loyal patronage is not uncommon in the Bay Area, yet it’s undeniably special. The fact that people continuously revisit a venue demonstrates its significance within the community.

SambaDá – photo from the Ashkenaz website

On the Ashkenaz calendar, they list dozens of events with eclectic variety which inspires me to want to get out on that dancefloor.

Swing Dancing
Grateful Dead Music
Balkan Music
Latin Dance
Square Dancing to Old Time Music
…you get the idea… lots of variety!

Many of their events are dance events. Some events are DJs and many of them are full bands comprised of some of the best musicians in The Bay. All of their shows are all-ages and some are FREE – like their Soul Sanctuary night on Sundays.

Beyond their amazing shows, they have a variety of dance classes and workshops like their upcoming West African 4-Day workshop which starts September 18th where you will be “Exploring Zaouli, where you’ll learn about and experience the high-spirited music and dance of the Gouro people of Ivory Coast,” according to their website.

Alpha Rhythm Kings – photo from the Ashkenaz website

Other favorite small music venues in The Bay worth visiting:

There’s no way I could put in a complete list – like I said, I’ve set a goal to explore every one of them. However, I am known to see a ton of live music so I have a pretty solid list of recommendations for you. All of these are for sure worth a visit if you haven’t already been to them. This list is mostly smaller venues where you can see a local band play. Not surprisingly, I don’t have a ton of East Bay spots under my belt despite living in Oakland for a while now.

Neck of The Woods
406 Clement St, San Francisco, CA

Eli’s Mile High Club
3629 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA

Eli’s Mile High Club. Photo by Nicholas Taplin

Bottom of The Hill
1233 17th St, San Francisco, CA

Hotel Utah
500 4th St, San Francisco, CA

The Independent
628 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA

The Phoenix Theatre
201 Washington St, Petaluma, CA

Verdi Club
2424 Mariposa St, San Francisco, CA

Boom Boom Room. Photo by Rachel Balik

Boom Boom Room
1601 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA

Cafe Du Nord
2174 Market St, San Francisco, CA

Thee Parkside
1600 17th St, San Francisco, CA

Freight and Salvage
2020 Addison St, Berkeley, CA

The Chapel
777 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA

Alternative Music Foundation (known simply as “Gilman”)
924 Gilman St, Berkeley, CA

Sad that Slims is no longer around

I wish Slim’s was still around. They were by far my favorite place to see small punk shows in The City while growing up. My friends and I would bop between Gilman, The Phoenix, Bottom of the Hill and Slims. Between the four we would be able to see all of our favorite bands. I’m also bummed out that Starline Social Club isn’t around right now.  
Where do you like to see your favorite local bands?

For more information on Ashkanaz, go to their Instagram, Facebook page or website and learn more about upcoming events.

Soul Sanctuary on Sunday Nights


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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy has lived in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.