Looking forward to his gig this weekend at Freight & Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley, longtime Bay Area singer-songwriter Maurice Tani calls the venue “the Davies Symphony Hall of folk music.”
“It’s the nicest place that I or most people who work in Americana will ever get to play _ it’s as large a room you can play and still have an intimate experience with the audience,” says Tani, whose most recent recordings are “Blue Line,” with his band 77 El Deora, and “Two Stroke,” a collection of acoustic duos with bassist Mike Anderson.
Calling the audiences there “sophisticated” and “attentive,” the veteran San Francisco-born musician also likes the fact that he can stretch there, because, unlike house concerts, the Freight also can accommodate light electric material he also likes to do from time to time.
“There’s a 15-year-old kid in me that loves to play electric guitar; the songwriter has to live with the guy that writes this stuff, that labors over lyrics and melody and real singing,” he says.
For Tani, who’s drawn to alt-country music for its lean, narrative quality (“Country’s the only kind of current pop music that uses a linear form that lends itself to storytelling,” he says), songwriting is a slow process involving ideas that “come in dribs and drabs,” a “labyrinthine structure of ideas” and “a lot of nooks and crannies and pieces that all have to fit together.”
Much of his songwriting and musical education came from working with Roy Loney (former lead singer of the Flamin’ Groovies) playing punkabilly and New Wave after what he calls “the jazz and disco scare of the ’70s,” when he started learning how simplicity equals sophistication.
Growing up in the Sunset and a product of San Francisco schools music classes (he played clarinet), Tani got his first guitar – which he calls “painful,” “cheap” and unplayable”_ from his grandmother when he was 12.
In college, he moved to Texas, where he learned a lot about life and clubs, and went on to play seven days a week in places between Dallas and Austin.
He thought that values in the South, so antithetical to the liberal bubble in which he was raised, might be the catalyst for his return to the Bay Area.
"It was the weather that brought me back,” says Tani. “When the temperature gets over 80 or 85, I’m dying, and anything under 50 seems inhumane. I knew about winter weather from Norelco ads with Santa sledding on a razor,” he adds.
Tani did his share of traveling in the 1980s and ’90s, playing in party bands Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra and Big Bang Beat!, an endeavor he enjoyed for a time, thanks to the regular work, pleasant stays in nice hotels, and ample paychecks.
But after awhile, he says, working in the corporate dance bands made him feel like caterer or a florist. He quit his day job (music), built up a graphic design business, began writing his own wry and melodic material, and playing music again for fun.
He says, “Original music pays far less, but I get a lot more satisfaction from this – playing clubs, honky tonk. This is a whole lot sexier and more glamorous than hotel ball rooms.”
The emotional payoff from small house concerts is equally appealing: “You can make this personal connection and it’s so powerful,” says Tani, reveling in his ability to gauge his audiences’ reactions as he plays, and the fact that they actually hear what he’s trying to get across.
Knowing a song affected a listener, he says, has a more positive effect on him than any amount of money: “That’s the heroin that keeps me coming back,” he says.
IF YOU GO
Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. May 30
Tickets: $17 to $19
Contact: (510) 644-2020, www.thefreight.org