Ramblin' Jack Elliott at The Freight
Photo: Hail McGrath
Historic Berkeley Folk Venue Freight & Salvage Welcomes A New Generation Of Music Fans
When The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse opened its (original) doors in 1968 in Berkeley, Calif., the intention was to create a cafe and gathering place for the community. Housed in a former used furniture store (thus, the name of the venue), it began to attract local musicians—acoustic guitar strummers, banjo pickers, fiddle players and more. It soon became the nexus for the burgeoning traditional folk and old-time music scene that was rooted in the anti-establishment, counter-culture, radical and experimental ethos of the iconic '60s and '70s eras.
Now, 51 years later, this legendary establishment is still going strong. The Recording Academy spoke to several of the people who help run the venue to learn how it's still shining bright.
What an AMAZING time we had at @The_Freight Monday night. It was truly one for the history books!! Thanks to everyone for packing the house and celebrating the legacy of our East Bay black artists. May the music live on forever!! #FayeCarol #Berkeley #FreightandSalvage pic.twitter.com/KpTxhLkjJE
— Faye Carol (@TheDynamicMiss) September 25, 2019
In 1983, the popular club became a nonprofit, "the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music," to be exact. Five years later, the Freight moved to a slightly larger venue nearby, in 1988, eventually moving to its current home at 2020 Addison St. in 2009. The newer space offers an inviting, architect-designed 400-plus seat performance hall with a state-of-the-art sound system from Berkley's Meyer Sound. Yet even as they've grown, their space—and those who perform there—retains the rustic and intimate atmosphere.
Just down the block from other popular cultural institutions—Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theater Company and the California Jazz Conservatory—it is firmly planted in the heart of the Downtown Berkeley Arts District. A large, eclectic group of local and international artists, like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Teresa Trull and David Grisman, have graced its stage, in genres ranging from traditional folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass, world and classical music.
GRAMMY-nominated Windham Hill Records artist Barbara Higbie has served on the Freight's Board of Directors for 14 years, and is currently its Co-Chair. A pianist, composer and fiddler, she began performing there 42 years ago, alongside fiddler Daryl Anger and guitar and mandolin player Mike Marshall.
"The City of Berkeley really wooed the Freight to come down there [to the current area], because they wanted to create an arts district, and at the time, the club was bursting at the seams," Higbie explained. "The Freight has so much goodwill. In the East Bay there are a few big communities that have supported it in a big way—the bluegrass community, the women's community, the blues community, the people who really love singer/songwriters and the alt-country community."
Deeply passionate about preserving the integrity of the club, she initially had some concerns about the new venue, based on what she had seen happen to other spaces in the Bay Area. Now, 10 years later, she believes they are on the right track.
"I had experienced so many clubs getting bigger and either going out of business or changing beyond recognition," she explained. "I am so loyal to the Freight and I want it to survive, so it was a really a big concern to me that we didn't become just a commercial venue."
This Saturday is the newest episode of Live from the Freight & Salvage! Featured are remarkable vocalists Tracy Nelson, Dorothy Morrison, Angela Strehli, and Annie Sampson, who join forces as The Blues Broads! Tune in September 21 @ 8pm on KRCB 22 in the North Bay. @The_Freight pic.twitter.com/R7bOdOlNgN
— NorCalPublicMedia (@norcalpublic) September 18, 2019
Three years ago, Peter Williams was hired as the new Program Director at the Freight and has been giving their programming a fresh, worldly spin. With a resume that includes prominent positions at the Green Music Center in Sonoma, the Napa Valley Opera House, and Yoshi's in Oakland, his eclectic musical background made him the perfect choice.
"When the position became open I was really excited about it, because they wanted to diversify the programming and the audience a bit, so it sounded like a great opportunity for me to get creative and put all my musical tastes to work," Williams said over the phone.
He explained the Freight's focus for many years had mostly been Americana and bluegrass music before he came on board. He began mixing it up by booking a healthy mix of Latin and world music artists, including bands from Haiti, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
"Since Peter came, it's been phenomenal—he's such an expert at booking," Higbie revealed. "He is balancing it out amazingly between big draws, keeping all the constituents happy, bringing in new communities and trying to expand. He is a really visionary booking person and I think it has made a huge difference."
Stopped by the @The_Freight Fest today in downtown Berkeley where my sister’s kid performed with the @alphabetrockers. Their music of tolerance and inclusion is so inspiring. pic.twitter.com/s4HloKCukL
— Jenny Wong (@JennyTheAuditor) September 28, 2019
Not long before Williams, current Executive Director Sharon Dolan came onboard in 2015, after many years as a patron and volunteer. She is committed to preserving the Freight's original ideology of diversity.
"When I first got there, I saw the potential to fully live out our mission of preserving and promoting traditional music from a variety of cultures around the world," she said. "Historically we had focused on music from the folk revival from when we were founded in 1968—bluegrass, old-time and Celtic music. We still continue to do all that, but we also saw an opportunity to broaden our thinking and reach more people, partly by community outreach and partly by what we were putting on stage."
Dolan feels that the newer venue has maintained the comfortable, welcoming atmosphere it has always been known for. "There's kind of a special feeling when you walk in. It's like you are walking into someone's extra-large living room with a bunch of your close friends—a shared experience that we have. It's different from being in a large stadium show where the audience is so far away. You are right there, and there's much more of a connection between the performers and the audience, and that's a really key part of what happens here."
Along with the innovative and eclectic programming, the Freight also offers music classes for adults and kids, open mic nights and education and community outreach programs, to further its mission.
"Our new education programming is part of our longer-term planning. We are continuing to work with adults, but the new part is the collaboration with middle schools in Berkeley, and we are definitely reaching a more diverse population," Dolan added. "The program is about mashing up traditional music with something more contemporary that the kids can relate to. For example, we have a program mixing traditional Indian vocal percussion with rap that the kids are really enjoying. We have only just started it and it's really cool."
They are also set to work on a new project with their local Recording Academy chapter in early 2020. PC Muñoz, who was recently hired as the Freight's Director of Education and Community Engagement has been an active member of the Recording Academy San Francisco Chapter. He explained by email they are working on the details of a collaboration with Academy members who are educators, for a professional development event for the Freight's teachers.
With an exciting and ever-expanding roster of performers, classes, events and numerous other collaborations, the Freight seems to have found a sweet spot in the arts community that has helped it to retain its vitality and relevance in the Bay Area.
"I think music and the arts right now are critical," Dolan emphasized. "Music is one of the ways we build empathy for each other and for each other's cultures—we learn about each other that way. It's a way to share with a room full of other people, your despair or your hope about what's happening in the world."