Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival | The Independent | 12/17/23

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Thursday, December 21, 2023

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival came to town and performed “without a net” at The Independent on Sunday night, December 17, 2023. The venerable San Francisco club was full of talent, musical and otherwise, for the 18th annual fundraiser produced by Keefe (Hot Buttered Rum, BeatMower).

Nat and his HBR bandmates

Billed as an “All-Star Cabaret Variety Show,” this year’s Carnival featured music from Keefe and a few of his bandmates from Hot Buttered Rum (Erik Yates, Bryan Horne), as well as Elliott Peck of Midnight North, members of AJ Lee and Blue Summit, the Coffis Brothers, and many more.

AJ Lee | Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival

Keefe’s annual holiday-season Concert Carnival was launched in 2006. After five years of nonstop touring with Hot Buttered Rum, Keefe says he was “looking for something to mix things up and reconnect myself with my favorite parts of music – and to have an excuse to work out tunes with new and old music friends.” His vision extended beyond music and evolved into a variety show with all sorts of performers. “We’ve had aerial dancing, a trick dog show, movie premieres, circus arts, theatrical shorts. Every year a different recipe.”

Femme Fatale | San Francisco, CA

The ”recipe” at this year’s Carnival included a rated-PG burlesque comedy routine by Femme Fatale, a screening of a short film, The Taste of Sound, and Patrick Ball's "Field of Flowers," a unique and colorful visual display on the edges of the stage.

Nat Keefe | Nat Keefe's Concert Carnival

Make no mistake; the core ingredients for Keefe’s annual Carnival “recipe” are (naturally, organically) the musicians. Over the years, the Carnival has featured members of The String Cheese Incident, Railroad Earth, Cornmeal, the Brothers Comatose, Poor Man’s Whiskey, ALO, New Monsoon, and more.

Elliott Peck with Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival

This year, Keefe assembled an all-star Carnival troupe featuring Elliott Peck (Midnight North), Katia "Pixie" Racine (Pixie and the Party Boys), country/Americana singers Jessica Malone and Hattie Craven, and Kyle Ledson and Mei Lin Heirendt (Broken Compass Bluegrass). A Santa Cruz contingent included the Coffis Brothers Duo (Jamie and Kellen), AJ Lee, and Lee’s bandmates Jan Purat and Scott Gates. Award-winning California bluegrass guitarist Yoseff Tucker and drummer Anna Elva rounded out the bill.

Scott Gates & Yoseff Tucker | Nat Keefe's Concert Carnival

Raffle tickets for a good cause

Josh “Gelf on a Shelf” Gelfand | The Independent

Also on hand were local DJ Cibby, spinning before and between sets, and emcee KC Turner. Josh “Gelf on a Shelf” Gelfand roamed through the crowd selling raffle tickets and spreading holiday cheer. Femme Fatale’s French Kiss lesson was charming and funny.

Nat Keefe & Erik Yates | San Francisco, CA

The Carnival is all about fun and games (Turner told the crowd, “Every year the Nat Keefe Carnival gets a little spicier), but it’s more than that. The event is always a fundraiser for a worthy cause. Keefe says, “For the last couple of years, I’ve decided to focus on SF-local small nonprofits, where our modest fundraiser can probably make the biggest difference.”

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival

This year’s beneficiary is San Francisco’s City of Dreams, whose mission is to help build brighter futures for youth in underserved communities. City of Dreams’ services include mentorship, a gardening and financial literacy program, and afterschool programs with homework help and enrichment activities at two public housing sites.

As Keefe puts it, “I sometimes think of the parallels with the nonprofit world and the ‘not- profitable’ early stages of being a musician.” The performers Keefe selects each year reflect that sensibility. (My first Carnival was in 2011 when the daughter of some very good friends of mine was in high school, and Keefe invited her indie band The She’s to play a short set.)

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival | San Francisco, CA

Certainly, music was the main event of the Carnival. Musicians rotated on and off the stage for two long sets of bluegrass, folk, and Americana featuring a host of singers. Jessica Malone sang the first number along with Keefe, accompanied by Keefe’s HBR partners Bryan Horne and Erik Yates, among others. (Keefe produced Malone’s soon-to-be-released album, and it’s a good bet that this song, “On & On & On,” will be on that record.) Mandolin prodigy Kyle Ledson followed with a barn-stomping version of the bluegrass classic “High on a Mountaintop.” Several pickers took turns on leads, each playing their respective instrument with the mindfulness and sensibility required by acoustic players on a crowded stage.

Kyle Ledson | Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival | The Independent

Shortly after that, following Femme Fatale’s fun and frolicsome “French Kissing Lesson” interlude, the stage was given over to AJ Lee and the Coffis Brothers for a stripped-down rendition of the Everly Brothers classic “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” A few songs later, Elliott Peck took the mic for a rousing “Oh, Atlanta” (a Bad Company song many know from the Alison Krauss version). Salt Lake City’s Pixie closed the first set with a jaunty “Club Thing.” Like many benefits of star-studded stages, the audience wanted more from everybody!

Jamie Coffis, AJ Lee, & Kellen Coffis

After a short break, emcee KC Turner touted the fundraising raffle while the resident holiday spirit “Gelf on a Shelf” prowled the crowd to plea for raffle purchases. All the proceeds were designated for City of Dreams, the evening’s beneficiary. Prizes included the chance to have Nat Keefe write a song specifically for the winner.

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival

Before the music started up again, the audience was treated to a screening of a short documentary, The Taste of Sound, by filmmakers Bria Light and Jennifer Wiley. The film featured an engaging introduction to musical synesthesia, with musicians describing their own sensory experiences. (Google “musical synesthesia” to learn more about this fascinating type of neurodiversity.)

And then – back to the music.

Set Two kicked off with some hell-raising bluegrass by Mei Lin Heirendt and Jan Purat on fiddles, Scott Gates on mandolin, Yoseff Tucker on guitar, and Bryan Horne on the double bass. After some master instrumental picking (Bill Monroe’s “Roanoke” and “Wheel Hoss”), the ensemble featured the voices of Heirendt and Gates on a classic country version of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson.” Heirendt’s vocals were notably fierce on this country crooner.

Nat Keefe's Concert Carnival | San Francisco, CA

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival

As the set continued, the collected musicians in the house again took turns on stage, picking leads, and stepping up to the mic. Peck, the Coffis Brothers, Malone, Lee, and Pixie each had another turn or two at vocals. Keefe sang as well, but predominantly on harmonies, letting his guests steal the spotlight for most of the night.

Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival | The Independent

All of the performers were on stage by the end, including Philip Brezina of the Brothers Comatose (a surprise appearance). For the closer, Erik Yates led the crowded stage on “Joesph’s Dream” by John Hartford. All the angels sang: “Just when you think it can't get no better, then it does!”

Final Bow at the Nat Keefe's Concert Carnival

And with that in mind, a chorus line of Carnival companions took a well-earned bow. The circus was over. That is, until next year’s triumphant holiday-season return of Nat Keefe’s Concert Carnival!