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Brass N Burlesque: A heady blend of New Orleans jazz and showgirl shimmy
Café Van Kleef is my favorite place to out in Oakland. To be honest, it may be my favorite place to go out in all of the Bay Area. I hesitate to write this so publicly because I never know who will read this and show up at this tiny little jazz bar and I’d hate to see it ruined by overpopulation. However, if you are reading this you must be an intelligent, savvy citizen and therefore worthy of the eclectic deliciousness of Van Kleef.
Smooshed into a block of nondescript office buildings, Café Van Kleef crouches in the belly of downtown Oakland, keeping it’s head down. Other than a few café umbrellas and the usual throng of smokers on the sidewalk out front, it would be easy to drive right by without ever realizing that you had just missed this little gem. Once you gain entry, you will never forget it.
It is tiny. Not Manhattan pizzeria tiny, but small enough that if you spend an hour inside you will have knocked elbows with everyone else in the place at least once. And the layout is impractical, a long hallway of the room with the stage almost five feet off the floor and tucked into a corner making it hazardous for any hapless performers suffering from vertigo. Every inch of wall space is crusted with a thick, barnacle-like layer of bizarre artifacts of American life. A photo of Marilyn Monroe hangs by a statue of Jesus covered in artificial flowers, a plastic (I hope it’s plastic) rhinoceros head juts out of the wall, a life-sized statue of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” writhes in agony beneath a silly hat. Add to this a boisterous and diverse clientele and a reliably attractive team of bartenders and you have an irresistible atmosphere capable of inducing a sense of timelessness that can easily make you forget that you were going to make it an early night.
On the first Saturday of each month, this barcrawler’s paradise is further enhanced by the sights and sounds of The Blue Bone Express and The Hot Pink Feathers. Like red wine and chocolate, these two groups work so well together one begins to believe in divine providence.
Blue Bone Express is a New Orleans style jazz band directed by trumpet player Jara Qeeto. Their style harkens back to the early days of jazz, when it was a key part of a risky, explosive, sweaty subculture. Their eclectic mix of original tunes and old favorites (I was grooving to Axel F and the funky music from the Star Wars bar scene) guaranteed that even the creakiest knees were flexing and bouncing on the narrow dance floor. Plus they have a tuba. Tubas make me giddy as a schoolgirl.
The Hot Pink Feathers, winner of the SF Guardian’s Best Dance Troupe, is directed by the vibrant Kellita, the reigning Queen of SF Carnival. She is a 1000 kilowatt bulb on stage, emanating so much light from the slim filament of her muscular body that she illuminates the entire club. She is always joined by a host of smiling Feathers, all showgirl legs clad in feathers, polka dotted tutus, or not much of anything at all. They strut and shimmy through the crowd, close enough to count the sequins on their eyelashes, close enough to catch a fever.
And feverish it is. A riotously entertaining evening where the proximity and radiant humanity of the performers makes you feel like part of the show. I love Oakland.