Cafe awakens recognition of Oakland talent with music festival

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On Friday and Saturday nights, Awaken Cafe hosted a celebration of what according to 2,200 community members and nine music industry experts is the best music coming out of Oakland right now. Awaken Cafe — a coffeehouse by day and music venue by night — opened its doors Friday to a crowd of mostly 20-somethings for five hours of music from six local artists, all winners or honorable mentions of the Oaktown Music Festival.

The festival, a new project by Sarah Sexton of Oaktown Indie Mayhem and Cortt Dunlap of Awaken Cafe, was set up as an online-based battle of the bands. Soliciting nominations from the Oakland community and putting together an all-star jury of local music giants, including Glynn Washington of NPR’s “Snap Judgment” and Steve Hogan of Pandora, Sexton and Dunlap awarded prizes in four categories: Best in Show, Best Song by Oakland Band, Best Song by Oakland Solo Artist and Best Video by Oakland Musician. Winners were determined by the number of nominations they received through the festival’s website and the discretion of the jury and creators. In its first year, the Oaktown Music Festival received more than 2,200 nominations for more than 250 Oakland-based bands in one month.

Along with other perks, winning artists were given the opportunity to perform at Friday’s show, the official winners’ party of the Oaktown Music Festival.

From a small stage at the far end of a dimly lit Awaken Cafe, bowler-hatted Jamie DeWolf, who served as master of ceremonies of the winners’ party, spoke over a low hum of voices and clinking beer and wine glasses to introduce Oaktown Music Festival.

“This festival is about promoting local independent music,” he said after a few jokes about hipsters. “That means artists who aren’t signed by a label — the ones who can record themselves smashing their heads against walls and call it music.”

In interviews before the winners’ party, festival creators said they hoped the festival would serve to put Oakland’s unique music scene on the  map, both nationally and globally. And judging from the array of talent displayed Friday night, it seems like Oakland is on its way to more widespread recognition.

The winners and honorable mentions of Oaktown Music Festival reflected a diverse local music scene. Friday’s show featured acoustic solo acts, duos, an indie rock band, rap, turntables and a kazoo.

Friday night’s headliner and People’s Choice Winner Emily Moldy — who received nearly four times more nominations from the community than any other solo artist or band participating in the festival — seemed to best capture the unique blend of genres and traditions at work in Oakland’s music scene. Backed by a five-piece band that included a stand-up bass, trumpet and rap artist, Moldy sang an eclectic set that toed a line somewhere between indie folk-rock and hip-hop, incorporating electronic beats as well as live, jazzy drums played with brushes.

From DeWolf’s first demand to “make some noise for your city” to last call, Friday’s show was a community’s celebration of itself. After DeWolf’s animated introductions, artists emerged from among the audience to take the stage, and it became hard not to suspect one’s neighbor of being the next performer. Once onstage, artists spoke casually to friends in the crowd. At one point, everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to Trevor — if you didn’t know who Trevor was, you were probably in the minority. At another point, DeWolf facilitated an impromptu “beard-off.” There were times that Friday’s show felt like a neighborhood block party.

At the end of his band’s set, Kelly Warren of Hotel Eden addressed the crowd.

“Don’t forget, guys —we’re always available for house parties,” he said. “But if you have a gig at the Fillmore, we’ll take that, too.”

Dunlap and Sexton will be putting on Oaktown Music Festival again next year. They expect the festival to double in size.

Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].