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When you live in downtown Oakland, and you’re a fan of the arts — especially the arts of the esoteric, historic, gutsy, raunchy, edgy, sexy, even a little bit naughty variety — you get damned used to two things: BART and the Bay Bridge. Hey, it’s really not much of a drive to San Francisco, and the train gets you there in record time — but at two in the morning with a snootful of bourbon and a candy-colored smear across your French collar, no commute is a good commute, and any distance between you and the Alka Seltzer is too far.
More importantly, downtown Oakland is the perfect setting for a late-night latter-day film-noir masterpiece — when you wander down alleys in the streetlight shadows of Prohibition-era edifices and the blasted shells of fancy old theatres rimmed by cyclone fences under billboards tagged FREE THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE, with frequent clouds of cannabis smoke drifting past you between fresh breezes off the bay, it puts you in the perfect mood to enjoy a little midnight New Orleans style jazz and a crew of the prettiest dancing girls Tom Waits could ever want to moon over.
I’m referring, of course, to the monthly Saturday-night gig featuring the Hot Pink Feathers, San Francisco’s own samba-burlesque troupe, and Blue Bone Express, an eccentric little combo mixing NOLA-style Dixieland with bop, blues and bachelor-pad improvisation.
This cooled-off cauldron of retro-smooth goes down at Cafe Van Kleef, a funky little joint in the heart of downtown Oakland that provides a sweet taste of Bohemia where it’s most needed. The walls are decorated with an explosion of fin-de-siècle freakout, German Imperial regalia, kitschy collusion and mid-’60s bachelor-pad etchings, adding up to a lovable blend of boho elegance and oddball chic. The drinks are great, too.
The flyer says 9pm, but down here things run on Jazz Time, so don’t expect a tuba note ’til the hour hits the double digits. Still, you’ll want to get there early, because this outfit draws ‘em in from all over, and if you show up at ten you’ll have a hell of a time finding a decent seat in this close-packed club. Besides, who’s watching the clock, with Sierra Nevada on tap and Van Kleef’s crunchy popcorn available at the bar?
Blue Bone Express warms you up with a set of their Southern gumbo, played on trombone, tuba, keyboard, bari sax and drums. The group’s as hot to play as you are to listen — one song and you’ll know these people love to play jazz as much as anyone’s ever loved anything. Once the Express has got you good and liquored up on Louis Armstrong and Charles Sheffield, the voodoo starts in earnest when the Hot Pink Feathers take the stage — or, more accurately, wriggle and watusi themselves onto the cafe floor, where the tightly-packed Temescal types clear a path for perdition. The polo-shirted patrons clutch their Campari and sodas protectively, as hips and headdresses twirl in a frenzied fandango of brisk bumps and gutsy grinds.
The Feathers, to oversimplify, are a brightly-costumed ensemble of burlesque dancers whose spirited samba is as funny and fun as it is outrageously sexy. With a playful mix of sultry moves and flirty sight gags, the Feathers, led by the captivating Kellita G, mingle feisty Latin moves with more traditional burlesque bumps. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing burlesque dancing performed to live jazz, then this is the place to start. It’s like slugging down a pint of Uncle Peppy’s moonshine after ten years of Nestea. It’s sexy, spunky, sassy retro fun with all the heart and soul of Rio de Janeiro and the French Quarter, right there in downtown Oaktown.
If you’re looking for the perfect date, the perfect diversion, or just a chance to see an eminently sexy group of gifted hoofers grinding to hot jazz played by true enthusiasts, order a whiskey sour and settle into your seat for one of the best evenings the Bay Area has to offer.