It has been over a month since the term ‘social distancing’ has become more commonplace than the terms ‘live music’ or ‘rock opera.’ Sadly, that trend shows no signs of changing anytime soon, that is unless we start to change the discussion.
With that in mind, let’s flashback to a time where the San Francisco live music scene was thriving, and a small musical theater company that partnered Buzz Productions, Skycastle Music, and Lunar Eclipse Records was lighting up San Francisco stages with stellar performances of a series of rock operas that defined the era’s fertile musical underground from 1998 to 2003.
The ‘Buzz/Skycastle’ partnership was spawned from an all-star collective of San Francisco’s underground rock scene of that time. A grassroots mash up of deeply talented musicians, singers, dancers, and creative, artistic minds. The brainchild of Michael Xavier (current President of the Haight Ashbury Street Fair), Daniel Knop (singer/director), and Kurt Brown (musical director), the threesome had a vision that for most would have been a pipe dream.
With no discernible bank roll and a lot of DIY ambition, this team of punks and rockers, sporting mohawks, long hair, and lots of tattoos, got kick started because they were largely longtime friends who supported each other’s bands on the rock scene. Drawn together by invitation from Xavier who was promoting local underground shows, the group honed their skills in the rehearsal rooms at Lennon Studios.
Coordinating a cast and crew that at times swelled to over thirty, Xavier made it clear that he wanted to bring something different to San Francisco live music fans by injecting a heavier dose of ‘rock’ into live musical theater. Buzz/Skycastle would accomplish this by leaning on the deep pool of talent in their cast and sprinkling in a large element of theater of the mind.
When it came time to put up their initial show, they shot for the stars. Using the stage of the venerable DNA Lounge as home base, the troop dove into the deep end, staging a three-month run of the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) starting at the end of 1998.
This of course was no easy feat. JCS is a show that is widely known to the minute details by generations of diehards. The fact that the initial performances were rolled out around Christmas time further added to the hype.
While many of the early JCS goers knew the talents of the individuals in the cast from their respective bands, most admitted that they came into the first shows with high curiosity and low expectations. After all, what could this ragtag group really do? Surely at best this would be a thin facsimile of well-known classic right?
Wrong. Anyone who held that assumption going into the opener had another thing coming. Opening night saw a house that was a bit more than half capacity. As it would become tradition for Buzz/Skycastle JCS shows, the wailing tones of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ soundtrack signaled the start of the evening’s festivities.
As the tribal instrumentals faded out, the JCS band (led by guitar wiz Kurt Brown, the inimitable Kymry Esainko on keyboards, Steve Mathews on drums, and Mark Ledford on bass) charged into the JCS overture. Immediately all attention was locked into the performance.
The minimalist stage setting left the background scenery to the imagination of the viewers and emphasized the talents of the players. While the music coaxed the crowd closer, it was the performances of the singers, particularly the big three of Daniel Knop (Jesus), Jennifer Courtney (Mary Magdalene), and Freeman Young (Judas) that served up the knockout punch. By the end of the second act attendees were awestruck, giving a standing ovation during the curtain call.
The next performance saw a noticeable increase in the crowd as the diehards brought their friends. After the third show there was less open space on the DNA floor, and velvet couches were brought in to create front row seating for those lucky few who arrived early enough to procure them.
The string of inspired performances kept getting better, with bigger and more raucous crowds in attendance. Accordingly, the chatter about “this JCS show you have to check out” grew louder and louder, eventually being lauded by the SF Weekly as their “pick of the week” for the final shows. In particular, Knop’s strikingly effortless rendition of Jesus was recognized as being as good if not better than anyone else who had played the role
By the time the finale of the inaugural JCS run arrived, the line of people waiting to get inside DNA went down 11th street, around the corner, and halfway down Harrison….an official sell out, with some being turned away…a phenomenon was born.
The thing about success is that it raises expectations. And the thing about Buzz/Skycastle is that like bees to flowers, they were always moving onward to something else. In the case of their second production, that something else was to take on ‘Tommy’ by The Who.
Also, different this time around was the fact that Xavier held auditions to cast the show. The triumphs that came with JCS brought a lot more interest from new folks wanting to get involved…folks from outside the circle of friends. Drama majors and serious actors auditioned for ‘Tommy’, and this drastically changed the dynamics of the show.
While the performance (again with Knop in the lead role) was still high caliber, highlighted by Brown directing the musical expertise of the band, ‘Tommy’ lacked the electricity of the JCS run. Maybe it was because ‘Tommy’ was not as well known as JCS, but the crowds at DNA paled in comparison. It did not go unnoticed by fans that the homegrown heroes were not all present, and despite quality shows, after two months ‘Tommy’ closed without the fanfare of its predecessor.
The turn of the millennium was a natural time of metamorphosis, and for Buzz/Skycastle the changes of 2000 brought a completely new challenge which was to be met by the return of a number of the ‘family’ cast that performed JCS. This would be another mammoth undertaking – Richard O’Brien’s ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’.
The re-energized group was up to the task, and from the outset the creative spark that characterized the JCS performances was back, only this time with a dark and freaky twist to the festivities. Later start times were always a signature of Buzz/Skycastle shows, and with Rocky it was more pronounced. Each show was more like a party with an alien rock opera in the middle, and the fans came dressed for the occasion.
Though the performances were on point (this time with Knop playing the role of Frankenfurter) and the crowd was hungry to see their favorite musical carnival, Rocky never really got its due chance to succeed. Without a true home stage for the run, the venues and nights changed with each couple of performances. This variability made the Rocky run more like a gypsy caravan.
That didn’t stop the crew from having some epic shows, such as one in the way oversold Lost and Found Saloon on a hot North Beach night that was so on fire that the SFFD made an appearance. The joke was that it was unknown if they were summoned because the performance was so hot or because the venue had people climbing through the open front windows trying to squeeze in.
So, where to go next? Fully established as one of the strongest performance troops in the bay area, Buzz/Skycastle was now drawing the attention of industry heavy weights in 2002. When they put on a show it was guaranteed to be a spectacle that would be talked about for weeks.
With their previous rock opera runs setting a high bar, Xavier and company now had to amp it up even more. This time the mission would be an epic of epics…. Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Rocky show proved that having a solid venue that could consistently showcase the performances would be critical. That venue would be Studio Z (formerly Transmission Theater) which was next door to the Paradise Lounge on 11th street.
A performance of The Wall would surely be scrutinized harder than ever before, both for musical accuracy (Floyd fans are geeks for execution and tones) and for artistic integrity to be true to the story of the film. To pull this off they would need a huge lift, and it came from one of their biggest JCS fans, filmmaker John Jansen (Green Mill Filmworks).
Though Buzz/Skycastle was still just a scrappy DIY outfit, Jansen would provide an element that would take The Wall to the next level and put the show on par with touring shows. Jansen put together a full-length feature film of psychedelic imagery and filmed footage starring Knop (Pink) and other cast members that was ultimately synched to the band’s performance during live shows. The effect was stunning, as the film filled in the fine details of the story, and the ‘surrogate’ band locked in to execute the soundtrack to perfection.
Witnessing The Wall had the audience inundated by near sensory overload, having to split their focus between the live musical performance, the singer/actors delivering the story on stage, and the larger than life film projections displayed on the walls of Studio Z.
From the get-go, The Wall played to packed houses, and it was not inconceivable at any one of these shows to see celebrities such as Kirk Hammett or Rob Schneider or Christy Turlington in attendance. Because of the cutting-edge performance presentation, folks that came out tended to attend multiple performances, as Jansen commented, “Each performance is a completely different experience depending on which element of the show you focus on”.
Riding high on the creativity and success they had built and shared with the San Francisco music community over the five years since inception, it seemed Buzz/Skycastle was poised to explode beyond the friendly confines of the bay area.
Alas, they were struck by a series of truisms that have derailed many “can’t miss” talents destined for stardom. “Life happens.” “Timing is everything.” “Strike while the iron is hot.” These clichés are real when it comes to coordinating a big cast of late 20s and early 30-somethings who were still struggling to pay bills.
Taking a break after the super successful run of The Wall, some in the cast scattered with key members of the Buzz/Skycastle family moving away or having to readjust timing and priorities due to family and work flexibility.
Unfortunately, by taking the foot off the pedal, The Wall became a casualty of timing and life, and was never put up again despite being arguably the best and most successful of the Buzz/Skycastle shows. The final showing of The Wall also marked the last Buzz/Skycastle run that the Bay Area would see for quite some time.
There would be a few one-off command performances of JCS through 2003, and these were still met with enthusiasm, however the electricity that was the hallmark of the relationship between Buzz/Skycastle and their community of fans slightly faded as the duration between performances increased.
In an alternate universe, Buzz/SkyCastle would have spring boarded the success of The Wall to get some backing and really blow out the boundaries of what a rock opera could be. If the core of the group could have remained together and motivated, they were good enough to make that happen.
Even though that existence is not this reality, that existence was not really the objective. Sure, Buzz/Skycastle set out to be successful, but the goal was more to celebrate the San Francisco local music scene by blending the unique and incendiary pure energy and talent pulsing through the scene toward a common endeavor. Those who are lucky enough to recall that magical time should count themselves very blessed, as it will never be replicated.
The saga would not end there, however. As long as there is still a thread of Buzz/Skycastle in San Francisco they should never be counted out. Like an old friend that somehow fades away for years then comes back as if you just saw them yesterday, Buzz/Skycastle will return in some fashion even if it is just rise from the ashes for a quick minute to let everyone know what’s what.
In 2010 Michael Xavier, Daniel Knop, and Kurt Brown would reunite to reinvent the brand of Buzz/Skycastle. Working again with John Jansen and Green Mill Filmworks, they rolled the dice with their most ambitious attempt to date, an original rock opera called Abigail: The Salem Witch Trials.
With an impeccably researched story to tell, Buzz/SkyCastle embarked on a new journey with new original music, and some new faces added to the crew. But that is another story to tell, and none of it would have been possible without those bombastic thoughts back in 1998 that the SF underground misfits as pulled together by Buzz/Skycastle could pull off anything they put their minds to.
Photos of The Wall and Tommy are vidcaps from John Jansen’s films of these performances.
All other photos are by Jeff Spirer from performances of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Watch videos by John Jansen: