Spotlight on Pride at Lyon & Swan: Four Gay Performers are Featured Now through June
Jim Gladstone READ TIME: 11 MIN.
Since opening early this year, the Lyon & Swan supper club, in the basement of Eco Terreno winery's North Beach tasting room has hosted an eclectic variety of musical performers.
To celebrate Pride month, the queer-owned venue's entertainment director Boris Goldmund has booked a remarkable slate of four local gay artists, all worthy of broad attention, to play the intimate room, from an eclectic electric violinist to a singer just setting foot on his own path to pride. The Bay Area Reporter recently chatted with each of them.
Shortly after pandemic restrictions began to subside in 2021, the unlikely career path of Kippy Marks took some even unlikelier turns.
The El Paso-born violinist and composer, whose beaming smile, bejeweled face, and beguiling music (a trippy blend of classical, jazz and EDM) have captured the attention of tens of thousands of visitors to Ghirardelli Square, Balboa Park, and other public gathering places in San Francisco and San Diego, had supported himself largely through busking and selling self-produced CDs for more than two decades.
And then, he recalled, "I was approached by a manager who wanted to help me become an international star."
Such serendipity was not unfamiliar to Marks. When he was a fourth-grader with no musical experience other than singing along with the choir in the church where his father preached, he was invited to examine a violin by a musician visiting his classroom.
Taking instrument and bow in his hands, Marks mimicked what he'd watched the violinist do just moments prior and sawed out an astonishingly credible rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
"From that moment," said Marks, "I knew that music was my calling."
Last winter, 45 years later, he set off on a whirlwind three-month tour booked by his new fairy god-manager, playing high society events in Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, and Dubai.
"My career was at a peak," recalled Marks. But almost immediately after returning to San Francisco last March, "I had liver failure. I got so sick so fast and was hospitalized. I couldn't do any of the work I'd booked, like ten weddings and performing at Pride."
Since moving to the Bay Area from Southern California in 2005, Marks had deeply involved himself in queer community and charitable organizations, including the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Grand Ducal Council, the Rafiki Coalition, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Black Brothers Esteem group. Colleagues from those organizations and others rallied to his aid, fundraising to support Marks' medical care and to keep him afloat financially.
Last June 15, Marks received a liver transplant at UCSF. Over his months-long course of recovery, Marks parted ways with his manager, having come to understand that they didn't share the same values; to Marks, community engagement had proven more valuable than international bookings, regardless of their financial benefits.
While regaining his strength, Marks also composed his tenth album, "Yesterday's Tomorrow," which he'll be featuring along with older originals and covers in his Pride month performances at Lyon & Swan.
"A year ago, I had to watch all of the Pride festivities on TV from my bed," Marks said. "I'm so grateful to be able to get out to connect with my communities and share the gift of music again."
Marks plays Saturday evenings through June, 5 pm-8 pm.
"I lost my joy in L.A.," said singer-songwriter Max Embers, who has made a new home for himself in the Inner Sunset following four eventful, if ultimately unsatisfying, years in Southern California.
After graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music in 2016, Embers relatively quickly ticked several boxes on what many young performers might consider a checklist of success.
He collaborated on songs with Kelly Clarkson and Noah Cyrus, gigged at major L.A. nightspots, and was featured on the premiere of NBC Television's "Songland" songwriting competition, on which he worked with super-producer Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift).
But for all the industry cred it may have earned him, Embers recalls the experience as frequently feeling hollow.
"The scene in L.A. is really pay-to-play. If you get a gig and don't bring in 100 people, you have to pay the club. It starts to be more about what attention you can generate on social media than about working to make art.
"I found myself leaning into what I thought I needed to do to be successful. I was writing and pitching very straightforward pop rather than authentically expressing myself."
Embers had worked long and hard to find his authenticity, and resisted losing his grip on it.
Growing up as Max Brandenburg in Herne, a small city in western Germany, Embers started taking piano lessons when he was five years old.
"I was trained exclusively in classical music," Embers said. "I also loved to sing, but for some reason it felt really vulnerable, so I didn't allow myself to explore it openly. I would actually only sing in secret."
That began to change during Embers' junior year in high school, when he was an exchange student in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
"The lady in charge of music at my host family's church gave me a key to the building. I was able to spend time alone in this space with great acoustics and a grand piano, which is where I really found myself as a songwriter and started to feel like that's what I wanted to do with my life."
Two years later, Embers returned to the U.S., matriculating at Boston's Berklee College of Music to study songwriting and, as it turned out, sing a song of himself.
"I didn't come out until I was in college," he said. "I just pushed the idea of being gay away in my early teens. I thought I would never acknowledge it."
The confluence of coming out and refining his ability to express himself through writing made Embers' college years especially fulfilling. But the seemingly obligatory post-graduate move to L.A. turned out to be soul-curdling.
"The whole scene started to feel really wrong for me," Embers recalls, "And as the pandemic set in, I reexamined my thoughts about my career."
He rented a trailer in the woods of Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains for three weeks to see if he could get back to writing on his own, without the collaborative, consensus-driven approach that dominated in Los Angeles.
"Something magical happened for me there. My passion for music really got reignited from being alone out in nature. I'd always loved nature when I was growing up and I realized that for me, nature and art are inseparable, I want my art to celebrate nature."
In short order, Embers packed his belongings into an RV and became a nomad, traveling cross-country and writing songs while exploring national parks, visiting old friends, and playing music at house parties.
As he drove around the country, Embers read up on the world's ecological challenges, becoming fascinated with regenerative farming as "a great way to address global warming issues and build community at the same time."
He began reaching out to farmers, offering to visit and perform, eventually gravitating toward the Bay Area, where he settled two years ago.
"It really caught my heart," he said, praising the region's abundance of ecological organizations and regenerative farms. "I think my music has become more organic, folky, and oriented around storytelling."
Embers last year released his debut album, "Nomad," which he'll showcase at Lyon & Swan.
As his career has morphed, Embers has also co-founded the non-profit MORF (Music on Regenerative Farms), partnering with his old Berklee friend, and now roommate, Michael Martinez.
With a languorous, sexy sound that hits a surprising, sweet spot between acid jazz and Jason Mraz, San Francisco native Martinez is a perfect fit for Lyon & Swan's casually swank setting.
And his first single, "Freedom Within," deserves a place on your Pride month playlist. Released last year, it's a tender introspective anthem that Martinez wrote about coming out to his father, who was perhaps more accepting of his son's sexuality than Martinez himself was at the time.
Its follow up, the rhythm-driven "Chill Out" reveals a jauntier side to Martinez, while nonetheless acknowledging his self-professed (and utterly endearing) anxieties.
"I don't want to get my hopes up," he sings, "I wish I didn't care so much. But I just got ghosted for the third time this month."
"I have self-branded the genre I write in as Honest Pop," Martinez joked. "I feel like being open and candid about my insecurities actually helps me connect with people. At Lyon & Swan, I'm thinking of every night as a sort of choose-my-own-adventure. It's a sort of loose musical autobiography; I'll mix my originals with covers, and tell some stories about what the songs mean to me."
During his first show in the room, earlier this month, Martinez took requests as well, effortlessly taking on both Coldplay's "Yellow" and a Michael Bublé-styled rendition of "Fever."
As at the dozens of carefully curated SoFar Sounds concerts that he's participated in (www.sofarsounds.com), Martinez says that patrons at Lyon & Swan are "active listeners," as opposed to the loud bar patrons he encountered during a longtime gig playing piano and singing for the Mastro's Steakhouse chain.
"I was playing along to tracks there, so you have to stick to the song very closely. You don't get to add anything. Here, I get to show some of my own artistry, even when I'm doing a cover."
In addition to his gigs as a musician, Martinez, who studied musical theater in high school and at A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory, has recently returned to Bay Area stages, appearing in the sex-positive Z Space musical "Coming Soon" and the John Hughes musical tribute "Brat Pack" at Feinstein's at the Nikko.
"I played the jock," he admits sheepishly. "Running around half naked."
Martinez plays every Thursday through June, 8 pm-11 pm.
"I remember when I was a kid hearing Engelbert Humperdinck at my grandfather's house," recalled singer Jeovani Abenoja. "I know the name is so silly, but I loved the music."
And so it was that Abenoja, a Pittsburg native, discovered his aural gateway drug, an intoxicating romantic sound that ultimately led him to the melodies of the Great American Songbook and the big-band sound of the early 20th Century.
Growing up, Abenoja, now 38, kept both his musical and sexual proclivities secret from his conservative Polish mother and Filipino father, whose own listening habits tended toward the Carpenters and, later, Phil Collins.
"I hated school," said Abenoja, who was quiet and aloof as a youngster. "I took a lot of bozo classes. Senior year in high school, they put me in choir. I didn't want to do it. Maybe it's because I was in the closet. A lot of people in the choir were much more whimsical than me. But it was a good experience, in a way."
While he learned a bit about reading music in his time with the choir, Abenoja said that today, he learns music and sings "one hundred percent by ear" and has a photographic memory for lyrics.
At 18, after graduating, Abenoja went to work as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
"For fifteen years!" he recalled. "I hated that job. But my dad was a Vietnam vet. He would have reamed my ass if I quit. To get through my days, I would sing while I was delivering the mail."
After overhearing Abenoja as he went about his daily rounds, a postal customer encouraged him to meet with a friend who led the Big Band of Rossmoor. After his first audition, in 2012, Abenoja was invited to join the band. He fondly remembers his parents attending his first performance.
But singing remained primarily an avocation until Abenoja's parents both passed away within a six-month period, shortly after which he left the postal service.
After an extended period of grieving, Abenoja began to focus more seriously on music and, through generous band mates' networks and word of mouth, he began to get well-paying gigs, far more lucrative than his former career.
"I'll get flown to L.A. to do a wedding or an anniversary. There are corporate events, charity gigs. Once I was hired to go to Cache Creek Casino to do a single song. I also do lots of events that don't pay. But I enjoy playing in community centers and nursing facilities for people who are really grateful to hear my repertoire. This kind of music is very precious. I love to bring a smile to people's faces."
Abenoja says that being a part of Lyon & Swan's Pride month program represents a bit of a stretch for him.
"I'm gay, but I've always been a very private person. But I've reached a point in my life where I'm just saying, 'Fuck it.' I have, like, 10,000 followers on social media, and I think that 90 percent of them are from the gay community," said Abenoja, a bit awkwardly and more than a bit knowingly. "I don't think half of them know my music. Maybe it's because of my face."
Whether they turn out for the mug or the music, attendees of Abenoja's Pride weekend kickoff performance may be witnessing the beginning of a new chapter for the reluctant heartthrob.
"Another thing that's important about this," said Abenoja, "is that the room where Lyon & Swan is used to be a famous club called The Purple Onion. Johnny Mathis became famous playing there. And he was gay, too."
Abenoja plays Fri. June 23. 8 pm–11 pm.
Lyon & Swan. 140 Columbus Ave. (415) 429-5200. www.lyonandswan.com
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