Reality check time. Ok, so is it just Oakulture, or is Oakland’s arts and culture scene percolating at an extremely high level already in 2014? It’s just February, and hot event after hot event is making the Bay Area’s so-called winter bearable – too many events to keep track of them all, it seems. We keep getting reports of world-class DJs being spotted in Old Oakland watering holes, Superbowl champions mingling with crowds downtown, numerous art exhibitions with deep cultural aspects, and murals and street art exploding everywhere. Even the cancellation of First Friday due to rain didn’t slow down Oakland’s cultural momentum too much.
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artists and organizers of Elevate Oakland

artists and organizers of Elevate Oakland

The latest affirmation of Oakland’s artistic ascension was called, appropriately enough, Elevate Oakland. The benefit concert for music programs in Oakland schools, produced by 510akland and the Elevate Hope Foundation, took over Oakland’s best live performance venue, the Fox Theater, for a what ended up being a memorable—and possibly historical—evening.

Future Shock Quarter with Kev Choice

Future Shock Quartet with Kev Choice

Elevate Oakland was very much an all-star affair. Organized by local legend Sheila E., the concert bill included alt.rocker Michael Franti, Latin fusionistas Ozomatli, singer-songwriter Judith Hill, Oakland diva Goapele, Aussie guitar shredder Orianthi, and emcee-pianist Kev Choice. Extra star power was added by soul singers El DeBarge and Martin Luther and comedian/actor Marc Curry. Another nice addition to the marquee names were youth musicians, who held the stage impressively in both solo and in group settings.

Judith Hill, Orianthi, Castlemont Singers, and Center of Hope Choir

Judith Hill, Orianthi, Castlemont Singers, and Center of Hope Choir

There was a nice flow to the proceedings. After an opening set by DJ D-Sharp, up-and-coming youth ensemble The Oakland Future Quartet—think a jazz version of PopLyfe—started the show off with a version of “Red Clay.” That segued nicely into a collaboration with Choice, who not only brought out Luther for the new song “Make Believers,” but managed to sneak two other tunes into his allotted five minutes of stage time, including “Crazy Illusion,” an ambitious, socially-conscious polemic inspired by Gil Scott-Heron which is already being hailed as an instant classic.

surprise gues El DeBarge

surprise guest El DeBarge

Orianthi showed off her six-string pyrotechnics on “Filthy Blues,” then made way for Goapele—looking regal with a short blonde natural and a black leather dress—who thrilled the crowd with her motivational anthem “Closer,” followed by a cover of Prince’s “I Wanna be Your Lover.” Hill started her set with an acoustic tune, “Forever,” then pulled off a cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” which led to a rousing version of Michael Jackson’s “Do You Remember,” accompanied by the Castlemont Singers and the Center of Hope Choir and Orianthi on lead guitar.

Ozomatli

Ozomatli

Ozomatli followed with a typically uptempo, energetic set which was over almost before it began. Their three-song performance happened very quickly and ended with guest vocals by Sheila E and more youths. Sheila then introduced 11 year old Trinity, a future star who killed Adele’s huge hit “Skyfall,” then led a band featuring more young talents—trombonist Remy Ashly and saxophonist Lorice–through her two biggest hits: “A Love Bizarre” and “The Glamorous Life.” Ms. E’s extended timbale solo was a highlight, as were the extended solos by the youthful brass section, who worked the Fox stage like old pros.

Young musicians nearly stole the show

Sheila E. sideman Eddie M.  shows his sax appeal

Sheila addressed the crowd at one point, noting how she had been a juvenile delinquent in her youth, running with gangs, before finding music as a career path. She also showed her fundraising acumen by live-auctioning a titanium timbale—which, she noted, she had played while in Prince’s band—for a reported $3,500.

Got Goap?

Got Goap?

Michael Franti closed the show with a four-song segment – two acoustic numbers, followed by two full-band numbers. Ever the showman, he ramped up the adrenaline levels by wading deep into the crowd at the end of “Life is Better With You,” before bringing all the musicians onstage for an ending sing-along of his hit “Say Hey (I Love You).”

In the aftermath of the show—which may have been the largest number of local performers to appear on the Fox stage since its reopening in 2009—a feeling of general awesomeness pervaded the musician community. AS KBLX DJ Sterling James announced on Facebook, “Oakland and the spirit of many got lifted. The youth were showcased and paired up with some of the world’s greatest musicians, singers, teachers and producers The Bay has ever seen.” James might be a little biased—she served as the show’s master of ceremonies—yet it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. There was definitely a feeling of coming together as a community, but also of a couple generations of artists giving back and inspiring future artists to shine. For a city which has never lacked talent, but has suffered from lack of music industry infrastructure, the prognosis seems hopeful.

Michael Franti

Michael Franti

Two days after the show, singer Jennifer Johns—who watched the proceedings from backstage—was exultant in her remarks. “I can’t recall another time in Oakland when so many Bay Area artists came together for a cause like this,” she said. “It felt as if every person in the room– spectators, performers and production alike–agreed to be vessels participating in a spiritual experience. Every artist slated to perform remained stage-side for the duration of the show in awe of the energy. Oakland was certainly elevated that night.”

Sheila E. with young mentees

Sheila E. with young mentees

Choice, who noted he’s been an artist-in-residence at some of 510akland’s programs, said the biggest impact of the concert was on the youth musicians, who “got to be featured, encouraged, and exposed to professional music environment, and also see from behind the scenes how professional musicians function in real performance atmospheres. The smiles on their faces were priceless.”

Organizers report that Elevate Oakland ended up being wildly successful, raising more than $110,000 and drawing 1,500 attendees. There are already plans for it to become an annual event, which definitely counts as good news in Oakland.

fox marquee

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A little more than a week earlier, Warehouse 416 presented the opening of “In Search of Sheba,” a new gallery show which doubled-down on the venue’s annual Black History Month exhibit by celebrating women artists.

The idea to do an all-female show came from gallery owner Angela Scrivani, who noted the under-representation of black women artists in prior shows.  In curating the show, guest curator Pamela Mays McDonald envisioned the artists as “queens without kingdoms,” which led her to revisit the legend of the Queen of Sheba. A historical figure mentioned in the Bible, Sheba represents “the type of queen to which a [modern] black woman could relate,” McDonald said, adding, “her character is ripe for rediscovery in 2014.”

"In Search of Sheba" opening reception

“In Search of Sheba” opening reception

At the opening reception, McDonald recounted the story of the historical Sheba, who lived 1,000 years before Christ and bore a son by king Solomon, whom she called “an adventurous spirit rich with virtues” and possessed of not only beauty but “a fierce intellect.” African dancers dressed in tribal costumes sealed the deal, and a roomful of onlookers schmoozed and checked out the artwork, which ranged from a humorous series of captioned photos to serious fine art pieces. The exhibit runs until March 22, so there’s still time to discover Sheba and her modern counterparts.

“In Search of Sheba,” it should be noted, is just one example of the enriching Black History Month cultural arts programming happening throughout the Bay Area in February. For more current and upcoming BHM events, click here, here  and here.
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This week’s picks:
DJ Mark Farina, J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, Hey Love, Feb 13, $10-$15, 9pm, New Parish, 579 18th St.

Valentines Day Happy Hour, Feb 14 , 6-8pm, $10, Runway Style Boutique, 455 17th St.,  Second Floor

Valentine in Paradise featuring Kimiko Joy, Feb. 14, 6-9pm, no cover, Kingston 11, 2270 Telegraph Ave.

Blackalicious, Jahi and the Life, Antique Naked Soul, Feb 14, 9pm, Slims, 333 11th St., San Francisco

Alta California Full Snow Moon Dance Party with Las Bomberas and Falso Baiano, Feb. 15, 7:30 pm, Cloud 9, 1320 9th St., Berkeley

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