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Dancing In Downtown Oakland

March 5, 2007

Downtown Oakland is a ghost town at the weekend. At 6pm on Friday, when all the government, Kaiser Permanente and Clorox employees go home, the area turns in for the night and turns out the light.

There was hardly a soul about when I went over there on Saturday afternoon with James. It was warm and the sun reflected off the concrete sidewalks and parking lots. I felt like I was in a slow-heating clay oven. As a I turned the corner of 18th Street on to Jefferson, I noticed a ramshackle little storefront. The store, the Funky Soul Stop, was open. I gravitated towards it because it seemed like an oasis in the middle of this silent, urban desert. There were some wonky looking rotating wire stands with old books on them out front. I picked up a used copy of Death of a Salesman (am reviewing a production of the play in a few weeks' time and, frankly, it's about time I owned a copy of the play) and went inside to pay.

What a sight greeted my eyes. The inside of the store was packed with old soul and funk records. Autographed posters and album covers by Stevie Wonder, The Commodores and Marvin Gaye stood out from the melee. There was hardly an inch of wall or shelf or floor space free. It was a music-lover's paradise. A couple of guys in their 20s were setting up a drumkit and plugging in some amps. "Come back in an hour," said the store owner taking my dollar for the book. "There'll be a band. Free music. Free wine."

An hour and a bit later, James I returned. Downtown Oakland was still dead, but the Funky Soul Stop was hopping to the sounds of the Paris King Band. The place was packed. Toddlers danced with their parents. Hipsters in leather jackets, faded jeans and retro sun glasses sipped wine and swayed. Older people stood in between stacks of records at the back of the tiny store, nodding with approval. We squeezed our way to the front, had a drink and took in the sounds.

The Paris King Band was sublime. The quartet's music was raw and passionate and unfinished. Appropriately for the Funky Soul Stop, it was funky, soulful and couldn't stop me from dancing. We bought a couple of the band's CDs and went away smiling an hour or so later.

Like old records (even this temple to old sounds displays signs advertising "vinyl to CD transfer $15.50") the Funky Soul Stop is a rare species. Downtown Oakland is gentrifying. In a couple of years, the Funky Soul Stop might be endangered. We have to do all we can to keep it alive.

In the meantime, the store offers free live music every Saturday afternoon. The schedule through March is as follows:

March 10th -- Rhonda Benin
March 17th -- Positive Knowledge
March 24th -- Funk E. Bongo Party
March 31st -- Mocha Velvet Combination

Funky Soul Stop is located in Downtown Oakland at 1811 Jefferson Street at 18th. The nearest BART stop is 19th Street. The phone number is 510 452-2452. Opening hours at Monday-Saturday 2pm -- 6pm. Be there or be soulless.

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