The iconic Bay Area hip-hop artist Lyrics Born, pictured at San Francisco's Pier 14, will headline an in-person Cruise-In Concert this Saturday at Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo. (Photo by Scott La Rockwell)

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For live-music lovers in the Bay Area, the pandemic has been a study of deprivation. But take heart, this Saturday, a living local hip-hop legend, Lyrics Born, is playing — in real life — at a drive-in venue, Cruise-In Concerts at the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo.

“I’ve loved Lyrics Born since 2003,” says promoter Greg Keidan, the owner of Mr. Hat Presents, which is putting on the Cruise-In Concerts. “It’s one of the first times I’ve ever felt nervous and giddy about meeting an artist that I’m going to be promoting. I used to listen to his ‘Later That Day’ album all the time, and I feel it influenced me to want to move here in 2005, because he talks about the Bay Area so much.”

Tsutomu “Tom” Shimura, a.k.a. Lyrics Born, was an instrumental part of establishing the Northern California underground hip-hop sound in the early ’90s. As a student at UC Davis in 1992, the baritone Japanese American emcee connected with DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab of Blackalicious to form the Solesides hip-hop crew and record label. Lyrics Born and Lateef created a group called Latryx, releasing their first LP, “The Album,” in ’97. That same year the label was renamed Quannum Projects — also the new name for their ever-expanding crew  — which relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2003, Lyrics Born released his first, funk-infused solo LP, “Later That Day,” which soared up to No. 40 on the Billboard Independent Albums Chart and sold Keidan on life in the Bay Area. His 10th full-length solo studio album, “Quite a Life,” was released in 2018, but it has a message of perseverance many of us need in 2020. On the song, “Can’t Lose My Joy,” featuring Aloe Blacc, Shimura raps about watching his wife, R&B singer Joyo Velarde, battling cancer. Blacc sings, “I won’t lose hope, and I won’t lose faith.”

Since shelter-in-place started, the endlessly charming Lyrics Born has been posting words of encouragement for his fans on Instagram, as well as cooking-show videos he calls #DinnerInPlace featuring him making healthy meals at home. In May of this year, he started hosting a podcast show, #MobileHomies, directed by Evan Leong and produced by Arowana Films, in which Shimura interviews friends and celebrities like Lateef the Truthspeaker, Cut Chemist, Chali 2na, Davey D Cook and, this week, “Always Be My Maybe” actor Randall Park. In August, Lyrics Born hosted Inside Lands, the virtual version of the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco.

If you can’t make it out to the Lyrics Born show this weekend, never fear. Keidan has also arranged some killer Cruise-In Concerts for Halloween weekend: On Oct. 30, esteemed East L.A. Chicano rock band Los Lobos headlines a show with Doobie Decibel System featuring Jason Crosby, Roger McNamee, and Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz opening, and on Oct. 31, the Mother Hips, the beloved San Francisco roots-rock band founded by Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono in the early ’90s, will take the stage.

Longtime Chicano rock band Los Lobos will headline a Mr. Hat Presents Cruise-In Concert on Oct. 30. (Courtesy Los Lobos)

Food trucks and a full bar will be available at the fairgrounds during all three shows, which are sponsored by Hella Dank, a local cannabis company. At all Cruise-In Concerts, a psychedelic liquid light show by Mad Alchemy will be projected onto screens behind the stage while the bands play.

“I think he’s the best in the world at what he does,” Keidan says of the artist known as Mad Alchemy. “He’s like a mad scientist. He’s got a five-person team that he brings out — and a lot of equipment — to make it happen. When I started having these Cruise-In Concerts, it just so happens that the Solano County Fairgrounds has this giant archway that I built the stage under. It’s very similar to the setup at a festival that Mad Alchemy used to work at called Desert Daze, in terms of having that giant arch to hang screens from. And that’s his favorite kind of setup to showcase his artwork.”

Mr. Hat Presents’ Keidan has been producing concerts for 20 years, mostly club shows at venues like the Great American Music Hall and Brick & Mortar in San Francisco, the Ivy Room in Albany, and Toot’s Tavern in Crockett. For a large part of those two decades, promoting music was a passion project he did on the side. In 2019, Keidan came up with the idea of producing concerts on cruise ships, starting with the Grateful Dead-themed Dead Set on the Bay. Before he knew it, Keidan’s Mr. Hat Presents bloomed into a full-time business. He put on two more Dead-themed cruises, and then cruises in honor of Led Zeppelin and Phish. 

Only one of Mr. Hat’s concert cruises featured all-original music, by former San Francisco Giants coach Tim Flannery and his band, the Lunatic Fringe, and by Willy Tea Taylor & the Sam Chase. “We sailed out to Giants stadium on Fireworks Night and got there as the fireworks were starting,” Keidan says. “It was really cool.”

After the pandemic struck, one by one, all of Mr. Hat Presents’ concert cruises and club shows were cancelled. Keidan, who was facing financial hardship, started pondering how to bring live music back to the Bay Area.

“Probably back in March, I saw that drive-in concerts were going to be the way to go,” he says. “I saw it was happening in Europe, and it wasn’t causing coronavirus to spread when they were doing it properly and safely.”

An aerial view of Mr. Hat Presents’ first Cruise-In Concert shows concert-goers socially distanced with their vehicles at the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo. (Photo by Arthur Koch Studio, courtesy Mr. Hat Presents)

Keidan studied what drive-in concert promoters were doing around the world, and became fixated on hosting one himself. “But it took me months before I could find anybody who would actually work with me on it,” he says. “I just kept running into dead ends with different organizations that weren’t ready to think about doing something new while they were trying to deal with the pandemic and its effect on their businesses. So it took me a lot longer to get to the point of finding a venue than I thought it would.”

As Keidan toiled away at planning his drive-in concerts, he was certain another, bigger promoter would beat him to it. “I thought I was going to be slower than other people in making that happen, but it turns out there is hardly anybody else doing it still,” he says. “People have been slower to pivot than I expected.”

It’s a new experience, Keidan says, having so little competition. “In the Bay Area, I’m used to having so many other great shows to compete with every time I put on a show,” he says. Before the pandemic, “you never knew after you announced something, if Phil Lesh was going to announce a big show the same night and just kill your show.”

While musicians have popped up around the Bay Area to play small, unsanctioned shows on porches, curbs, and parklets, since mid-March, you could count the opportunities to see an established act in person on your hands. 

The Midway SF, which has frequently held socially distanced DJ events since the summer, hosted another legendary Bay Area hip-hop group, Zion I Crew, on August 12. A few days later, the Red Room Orchestra played the instrumental songs of David Lynch as a benefit for the Independent Venue Alliance outside the Chapel in San Francisco.

Starting in the summer, the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton has hosted drive-in screenings of pre-recorded concerts, called Encore Drive-In Nights, featuring Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton, and San Francisco’s metal giants Metallica, and it’s held live drive-in concerts as well, ranging from dubstep and EDM acts to cover bands such as Petty Fever. Last weekend, Sublime With Rome — featuring Eric Wilson of the hit-making ska-punk band Sublime and singer-guitarist Rome Ramirez — played two nights at the fair.

Jerry’s Middle Finger performed the first Mr. Hat Presents Cruise-In Concert at Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo with the Mad Alchemy Liquid Light Show as the backdrop. (Photo by Josh Huver, courtesy Mr. Hat Presents)

The first Cruise-In Concerts in Vallejo were supposed to take place Aug. 29 and Sept. 12, but Keidan had to cancel the shows because of the hazardous air quality. He was finally able to launch his concert series on Sept. 26 with Jerry’s Middle Finger, a Jerry Garcia tribute band. The parking lot sold out — 230 cars, carrying as many as four adults each.

“People were so happy to be out enjoying a show together for the first time in so long,” Keidan says.  “People told me they were afraid it might be a mob scene, but everybody had their own 15-by-20-foot space, and people told me they felt really safe. And the light show exceeded everybody’s expectations, especially the way it looked on that giant archway. It was pretty amazing.”

Keidan wants to be clear that his pandemic concerts are not on a boat (because he did concert cruises last year, he thought Cruise-In Concerts would be a clever name for his drive-in shows). Also, unlike the recent Encore Drive-In Nights concert movie screenings, his shows feature the actual musical acts performing in person. So far, every one of his concert-goers has been good about following COVID-19 safety protocols. “My crowds tend to be older hippies who are pretty mellow,” he says.

At the moment, Keidan — who might take his Cruise-In Concerts to Southern California in November and December — feels lucky that he’s getting to host so many of his favorite live bands. Before the pandemic, “they would have all been totally locked down to play at the Fillmore or something with AEG or LiveNation,” he says. “It’s only because of the music business being turned on its head — and me being able to figure this out somehow before those corporations — that I get to work with these bands.”

Upcoming Concerts

(Courtesy Mr. Hat Presents)
(Courtesy Mr. Hat Presents)

Cruise-In Concerts:

These live shows, put on by Mr. Hat Presents, take place at the Solano County Fairgrounds, 900 Fairgrounds Dr., Vallejo. Tickets, limited to four adults per vehicle, are available here

• Lyrics Born and San Francisco funk band Collectivity play Saturday. Show is 7-11 p.m. Tickets are $99-$175 per car.

• Los Lobos and Doobie Decibel System play on Oct. 30. Show is 6-11 p.m. Tickets are $129-$249 per car.

• The Mother Hips play two sets on Oct. 31. Show is 7-11 p.m. Tickets are $99 per car.

Drive-In Concerts:

These live shows take place at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton. Tickets, which are limited to 2-6 people per vehicle, are available here

• Comedian Iliza Shlesinger performs “Iliza’s Comedy Tailgate Tour” on Oct. 23. Doors at 5 p.m., show at 6:30. Tickets are $175-$325 per car.

• Boombox Cartel, Stuca, and RemK play on Oct. 24. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets require both a vehicle fee, $50-$100, and a per passenger fee, $35-$50.

• Adventure Club, Kaivon, and Benda play on Nov. 7. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets require both a vehicle fee, $75-$125, and a per passenger fee, $35-$50.

Stay-at-home shows:

If you’d rather stay in this weekend, the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco will be hosting its first livestreaming concerts on Saturday. Tickets are available here

• 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Lagwagon play live on the Great American stage. Tickets are $20.

• 5 p.m., Andrew Bird performs “The Mysterious Production of Eggs” live from Los Angeles. Tickets are $15.

• 7 p.m., Soul Asylum and Local H play live from Minneapolis. Tickets are $15.

The Great American Music Hall will also host an interactive, virtual “Kooky Spooky!” Halloween party with the Aquabats, “coming straight to you from a secret bunker in Southern California.” The pre-party starts at 5:30 p.m., and the 60-minute main event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25-$35, without merch, and available here