“Imagine the face of the first person you think of when I say to think of someone you miss,” Baltimore-based electronic producer Dan Deacon instructed from the stage during Wednesday’s Oakland United benefit concert at the Fox Theater. “It could be someone who is no longer in your life or someone who is no longer of this earth.” Dozens of rows of people stood on the floor of the theater with eyes closed, hands held and arms stretched to the sky. The soft glow of blue light washed over them as they became ephemeral monuments to love and unity.
Planned in just under eight days, the Oakland United benefit concert brought together dozens of Oakland-based artists and storytellers to raise funds for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts’ Oakland Fire Relief fund. Each artist illuminated an entirely different facet of Oakland’s diverse arts scene.
Some spun graceful webs of emotional vulnerability around the crowd. Kennedy Ashlyn of Them Are Us Too and Anya Taylor dedicated their set to Cash Askew, Ashlyn’s bandmate and Taylor’s girlfriend who was lost in the fire. Taylor’s ethereal vocals fit themselves gently into the synth-pop melodies crafted by the duo. The two etched a delicate inscription to the memory of Askew into the night air.
Some brought with them a roaring enthusiasm. “We came to play with the joy and ferociousness that people lived their lives with,” announced Boots Riley, frontman of hip hop group The Coup, as he took the stage. “We came to funk.” And with that, the night burst into 1,000 funky metallic flames as Riley sang, rapped and danced across the stage. Even when he took a pause and sat on the edge of the stage, he pulsed with a vibrancy that was enough to captivate the entirety of the sold-out theatre.
Some took the stage without a word letting only their art speak for the spirit of Oakland. The air was still as tUnE-yArDs entered silently and began recording live drum loops until the thinly built silence gave way to frenzied dancing. It was the first time that anyone had danced all night.
Between performances, local journalists and long time members of Oakland’s underground arts scenes shared their own stories of the night of the Ghost Ship fire and of the years they’d spent in warehouses and arts spaces throughout the city. Equal parts commemoration, celebration and call to action, their stories helped to tie together the eclectic ensemble of artists who had contributed their time to the four-hour long show.
“Aerial photos of the Oakland warehouse venue where dozens perished in a fire December second resemble a rib cage parted and relieved of its heart,” Sam Lefebvre of East Bay Express began. He was reading a piece that he had written celebrating those who had been lost and constructing a harrowing portrait of the night of the fire itself. For each victim’s name he read, he crafted a loving characterization to illuminate their stories. Small cheers erupted from the audience after each.
Lefebvre brought to light the importance of the physical spaces that house the shows and studios that make up the backbone of Oakland’s unique arts scene. “These homes and venues known by cryptic names rarely recorded in the press cradle scenes that slip between categories,” he lamented, citing the city’s growing “selective civic neglect” that was compromising the security of these spaces and the sense of security they gave to the artists who lived and worked within them. “They’re where as-yet-unnamed subcultures gestate, and for non-conforming bodies harassed and abused in regular clubs, they’re sanctuaries.”
The night ended with a highly anticipated performance by funk metal band Primus. Fans of Primus swarmed to the front of the crowd and greeted the band with cheers of “Primus sucks.” Primus, for its part, excited the already frenzied crowd into an even more feverish state. Between songs, bassist Les Claypool paused to speak. “There’s this heaviness and this darkness,” Claypool said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a show that’s been surrounded by so much pain.” He spoke as a father, as a Bay Area-based musician and as someone who, like many of the other performers that evening, was intimately familiar with warehouse spaces.
Something in Claypool’s words captured the crowd of crowd surfers, moshers and casual dancers. Everything was still as his words slowly sank in. Just a moment later, the crowd regained its momentum and continued to release its energy long into the night.