Talk about first responders. South First Billiards has become the go-to place for quickly organized disaster relief efforts in the South Bay, a tradition that continues this weekend with the Japan Now benefit concert. Besides raising money for victims of the tsunami in Japan, and before that the earthquake in Haiti, South First has organized events promoting research for breast cancer and M.S., and aiding area school groups.

In other words, the unassuming SoFA venue has been working overtime for causes both near and far. And that’s exactly what owner Ben Soriano and booker Matt Gonzales intended when the popular pool spot began hosting music five years ago.

“When we started doing this is 2006, we were always going to use it as a tool for the community,” says Gonzales. “That was one of the main reasons we wanted to create the venue. It’s just our philosophy: help out.”
Large-scale disasters like the earthquake that struck the coast of Japan on March 11, triggering a catastrophic tsunami and a continuing nuclear-plant catastrophe, are overwhelming even in a place like the South Bay that doesn’t feel the immediate effects. They can leave even those here who don’t have family or friends in the devastated area afraid (especially, in this case, with the ongoing bad news about the nuclear crisis) and without a clear idea of how to help.

“The only thing you can do in your immediate surroundings is come together and raise money,” says Gonzales. And that’s just what Japan Now allows the South Bay to do. It features music from almost a dozen local groups, including everything from the rock of Those Charming Crooks and Powder Train to the world music of Aivar and Middle Eastern jam band Native Brew, El Dulce Lobo’s Latin funk, Mountain View soul singer Lani Grooves, up-and-coming metal band Abaddon, and even a performance by popular Japanese singer-songwriter Kazushige Gorai.

Clearly, Gonzales is not kidding when he says he “wanted to have something for everyone.”

“It’s almost a music festival,” says Ricardo Jere, who plays guitar in Those Charming Crooks and leads El Dulce Lobo. Jere and his band mates don’t consider this benefit some throwaway appearance they’ve been dragged into by Gonzales; in fact, they see it as a unique opportunity and El Dulce Lobo has even put together a special set.

“We’re playing a format we’ve never done before, just for this show,” says Jere. He’ll perform acoustic, accompanied by two percussionists, a bass and accordion.

The fact that Jere has time for the show at all, let alone to put together a special program, is impressive, since he’s been busy with all of his projects. Those Charming Crooks just put out a video and an EP, and Jere has spent four months of the last year, off and on, recording in Mexico for his other project.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life,” he says. Still, he sees the show as an opportunity to do something “bigger and better” than musicians usually get a chance to do.

The Japan Now benefit also features a live-art component organized by Freddie Vega, a core member of the Heart of Chaos collective. After moving from Miami to the South Bay six years ago, Vega discovered his passion for supporting and promoting artistic vision through the artisan collective. Since then, he’s been helping to build a community of artists, so he understands SFB’s commitment to the concept very well.

“When a crisis happens, who do you have to rely on?” he asks. “Basically, just your community.” He sees the live-art component as bringing almost a “current events” aspect to the event, as artists interpret everything that’s going on around them through their work in real time. “It’s like the news on canvas,” he says.

One thing that won’t be at this weekend’s benefit is Gonzales’ band, the Blank Manuscript, since a member of the band is out of town. The band usually performs at SFB’s benefits (as well as for other causes), and one might wonder if the band ever gets impatient with Gonzales for volunteering them. Luckily, they’re all on the same page.

“We’re always doing shows like this,” says Gonzales. “We all share the same philosophy on that.”

All proceeds from the show will go to Doctors Without Borders, the volunteer group that provides medical care to disaster-stricken countries.

Japan Now Benefit Show
Saturday, April 9, 8pm
$5 suggested minimum donation
South First Billiards, San Jose

Get More Info on the Japan Now Benefit Show at South First Billiards