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Best of the Bay 2014: Arts

Music fests, sexed up readings, improv theater, and more ways to get cultured.

1AM Mobile is the app that finds the master of your favorite urban art.

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First City Festival at Monterey Fairgrounds.

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Fairfield rapper, Sage the Gemini.

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The 17-story, technicolor, Bayview Rise.

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READ MORE: The Rest of the Best of the Bay 2014

X-Rated Escapade (Best Reading)
This town does not want for author series, but none has had the sole purpose of getting you hot and bothered. Now, Red Light Lit, a reading series from the editors of Sex + Design magazine, is spicing up the Bay Area’s literary scene. “Literary events can get pretty dark,” says editor Jennifer Lewis. “Then, on the other end of the spectrum, when young writers talk about love, they tend to use ‘I will never forget you’ clichés.” Red Light strikes a delicate balance: highbrow, but not too chaste, and always with tongue in cheek. The results, stories of the mothering qualities of Hooters, a steamy affair with a grocery store bagger, and the erotic potential of eating spaghetti, will make you giggle—and squirm.
Adam L. Brinklow

Woodstock 5.0 (Best Music Fest)
It’s hard to top Paul McCartney at Golden Gate Park last August, but for most attendees, he was just a speck on the stage hundreds of feet away. So First City Festival comes with a sigh of relief: Maximum capacity is 10,000, the Monterey Fairgrounds are easy to navigate, and the lineup is full of bucket-list bands like Beck and the National, as well as indie up-and-comers like Future Islands, Quilt, and Geographer. It’s more about discovering new bands up close than seeing über-hyped ones from a thousand people back. Plus, it has amusement rides (set up for the county fair that takes place the weekend after). It’s the perfect recipe for a boutique music festival—let’s just hope it never gets too big. 
Annie Tittiger

Indie Act (Best New Sound)
Groan if you must at another made-up hybrid music genre, but the best description of Oakland’s new sizzling-hot indie rock quartet Trails & Ways is “bossa nova dream pop.” The band’s syncopated percussions, coupled with melodic bass lines and vocals that alternate between English and Spanish, make you feel like you’re basking on the beaches of Rio. It’s that transportive nature that has garnered the band national attention from countless music blogs and snagged it a slot at Outside Lands this August. But the band’s still malleable: “We don’t feel too settled down in our genre,” says rhythm guitarist Keith Brower Brown.
A.T.

Museum Without Walls (Best Roving)
Art When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art closed its SoMa space for a major overhaul last year, it didn’t miss a beat. Thanks to SFMOMA on the Go, you can see all the masterpieces showcased in a different light. The Matisse exhibition at the Legion of Honor displays four decades of the artist’s career in one room, the monumental Mark di Suvero sculptures at Crissy Field are accented by their Golden Gate backdrop, and at Gorgeous, at the Asian Art Museum, Jeff Koons, Marilyn Minter, and 70 others “confront the extremes and ambiguities of beauty.” Who needs a building, anyway?
Scott Lucas

Much-Needed Facelift (Best Landmark)
Before its closure in November, the 80-year-old Coit Tower more closely resembled a Greyhound station than a valued piece of city culture. So the Recreation and Parks Department spent five months and $1.7 million to refinish the exterior, repair the lighting and plumbing, and replace the ’30s-era lead-based paint, transforming the tower into a sleek union of 20th-century architecture and 21st-century standards. Best of all, the WPA murals have been returned to their former glory. Once-faded colors are popping, and formerly lost faces in previously blurry crowds can finally be distinguished again.
A.L.B.

Multiplex (Best Screens)
It doesn’t take much to bring us to an art house theater, but reclining chairs and ushers do make the experience more enticing. Landmark Theatres poured $2.1 million into revamping its Embarcadero Center Cinema to make it the ultimate moviewatching experience, with a new lounge that serves microbrews and vino, ushers to help you find a seat, and, yes, cushy chairs that recline like your grandpa’s favorite lounger. Just because you’re going to see an indie movie doesn’t mean you have to sit in scratchy old theater seats.
One Embarcadero Center (near Clay St.), 415-352-0835
S.L.

Outsider Art (Best Convicts)
Every art buff in town is giddy in anticipation of Ai Weiwei’s @ Large exhibit, which comes to Alcatraz in September. But until then, the Rock is home to Telling Our Stories, an exhibition of works by current inmates of San Quentin prison. “The inmates become positive contributors to society,” Carol Newborg, the project’s program manager, explains, noting that programs like this mitigate incarceration costs in the long run. Never mind that the works are moving in their own right: Paintings and watercolors depict regret and pain; a series of block prints illustrates alternatives to prison and advocates for better social programs; and an excerpt by a member of Brothers in Pen, San Quentin’s writing group, offers hope that “six cubic feet is not / six feet under.” Proceeds go toward purchasing supplies for inmates, so even you get to be part of the solution. Mar. 4–Aug. 31.
Jessica Pishko

Bookworm Beacon (Best Stacks)
Last May, the final installment of the city’s largest library renovation campaign opened to the public: the North Beach Branch. The 8,500-squarefoot, $14.5 million facility is now seismically safe, powered by solar panels, and fitted out with Chineselanguage materials to serve the neighboring Chinatown masses. But its most unique feature is the sound installation from award-winning artist and neighborhood resident Bill Fontana, Sonic Dreamscape. It’s composed of real North Beach sounds—the Green Street marching band, foghorns, sea lions, and the parrots of Telegraph Hill—all recorded by Fontana as far back as 1979.
850 Columbus Ave. (near Lombard St.), 415-355-5626
Gary Moskowitz

Movie House (Best Collaboration)
The Monte Rio Theater, the little cinema that could on the Bohemian Highway, was almost condemned earlier this year—its owners of 20 years short of cash for necessary renovations. Then something beautiful happened: A co-op of 10 notable Bay Area creatives, including Pop-Up Magazine’s creative directors and a former McSweeney’s publisher, bought the theater and immediately launched a monthly “Dinner and Movie” series (for Pulp Fiction, they served Royales with cheese). Future plans include utilizing the theater’s acre of riverfront land to host music festivals, outdoor screenings, and film director talks.
Ilana Diamond

Guerilla Art App (Best GPS)
You’ve had this dilemma: You stumble upon an amazing piece of street art and—unless you’re down with the underground—you have no idea who the artist is. When Daniel Pan, owner of the SoMa urban art gallery First Amendment, realized that his patrons had the same problem, he developed the 1AM Mobile app. It gives you a GPS map of the most amazing street art (including works from Banksy, Gats, Ernest Doty, and Eddie Colla) all over the Bay Area—essentially turning your morning commute or grocery run into a haphazard art exhibition. And if you see something new, you can put it in the archive. So go ahead, add amateur curator to your résumé.
A.L.B.

Lit Star (Best Novelist)
When the New York Times, in its rapturous review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—Anthony Marra’s debut novel, set around the long, messy Chechen Wars from roughly 1994 to 2004—compared the author to Tolstoy, you’d have been forgiven a little skepticism. Oakland-based Marra is, after all, a 29-year-old first-time author with a face that looks more suited to an American Apparel ad than a dust jacket. But Constellation is as elegant, as ambitious, and as fascinated with timeless themes—the smog of memory, the tragedy of war, the generosity of forgiveness—as any work of the great novelists. It’s just that those themes are tinged with the strangeness of a clown crying in a basement as bombs go off.
Ellen Cushing

Theater Humor (Best Improv)
One Saturday each month, the Exit Cafe hosts a trial by combat for the thespian set: Playwrights have a mere half hour to write an original script from an on-the-spot prompt, with the dreaded certainty that actors plucked from the crowd will perform it live onstage within the hour. Sounds like a junior high anxiety dream, but Theater Pub’s Saturday Write Fever produces impressive (if sometimes wacky) results. Part of the fun is not knowing what kind of show will manifest—from the absurd (a war between two colonies, one full of stoners and the other sobrietyminded) to the unsettling (paired monologues examining a murder from both the killer’s and the victim’s perspective).
A.L.B.

New School Composer (Best Classics)
Mason Bates has an unlikely tool kit for an orchestral composer: turntables, electronic drum pads, faders, and his laptop. But believe it or not, Bates is the San Francisco Symphony’s new golden boy. Last January, the symphony partnered with him to present the weeklong Beethoven and Bates Festival (Bates was onstage wearing a T-shirt—yes, at the symphony). Combining Beethoven with Detroit techno and audio from NASA space walks, Bates ushered in a new era of classical music. “Sometimes folks are concerned that electronics will make things too loud,” Bates says. “To which I respond, ‘Have you ever sat in front of a brass section?’”
G.M.

Fly Guy (Best MC)
Think of 21-year-old Fairfieldbased rapper Sage the Gemini as the new E-40, with one main difference: With his bright hazel eyes and sleek physique, he’s more pretty boy than big galoot. Since releasing his first EP last year and his first fulllength album, Remember Me, in March, Sage has already had two singles, “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose,” break into the Billboard Hot 100, and the videos for both have had over 40 million hits on YouTube. His style is by no means revolutionary, but it’s so infectious that it makes even Grandma want to shake it like a red nose (pit bull)—a reference that we hope she does not fully understand.
A.T.

Paint Job (Best Silos)
Driving down 280, it’s hard to miss the 17-story Technicolor towers among the surrounding blighted scrapers. Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, a Washington state pair who specialize in site-specific public art, gave the city’s southeast side a much-needed artistic touchstone with Bayview Rise, a very tall mural with an eye-popping palette on the side of some unused 187-foot grain silos. At night, shifting, multicolored LEDs conjure the illusion of animation. According to Haddad, industrial sites make perfect canvases: No one bothers with NIMBYism, and the lack of ambient lighting keeps the LEDs prominent.
A.L.B.

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco.

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