San Francisco Chronicle DateBook Cover Story: Sunday, November 29, 2015
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The new wedding singer: emcee, front man, after-hours DJ
By Sam Whiting/ November 25, 2015
The new standard for wedding entertainment is acoustic guitar during the ceremony, a jazz singer crooning Sinatra during cocktails, a wisecracking emcee for toasts, a bandleader doing Bruno Mars for dancing, and a late-night DJ for the after-party.
If that seems like a lot of expensive talent to hire, it all comes in one man — Jefferson Bergey of the Lucky Devils Band which is reinventing the wedding band, holiday and other special-events business model.
“We are giving new life to a tired old formula,” says Bergey, a 35-year old vocal teacher in Oakland. “There are times when I am consulting on an event, running the sound for the ceremony, emceeing, lead singing, leading the band, and a rodeo clown on top of that.”
LDB does not think of itself as a band but a collective of professional musicians who are in other bands. Each event it plays is a customized five-hour show of interchangeable parts and expandable proportions.
“The style of music is, ‘What are you looking for, because we can do it,’” says Bergey, who has a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Iowa. “We cover the last 75 years of popular music, rock, soul, country, bluegrass, jazz. We do a little salsa, and if you want us to rap, we will.”
An LDB show is priced according to how far the band has to travel from its San Francisco base, and the number of musicians the client wants — horn section, background singers and so on. Size scales up from a jazz trio to a 16-piece band.
The clients can choose what songs they want and what musicians they want. To aid this mix and match, LDB hosts a monthly no-cover, one-hour showcase at Neck of the Woods on Clement Street in the Richmond District.
The next one is Dec. 8, at 8 p.m. sharp and, based on the October showcase, you can expect a classy affair, with the performers overdressed for the dark and grimy rock club. From the bottom of the stairs a string quartet can be heard playing “Canon in D” by Pachelbel. These violinists are part of the LDB, available separately or in the band package.
A woman in a cocktail dress greets you with a handshake. She would seem to be a business manager, but LDB has no business manager, and a few minutes later, after the string quartet folds up, she is onstage belting out Alicia Keys.
After doing “If I Ain’t Got You,” Gabriela Welch introduces the crowd to Bergey, who is out there in jeans and sneakers. Though LDB has no manager, Bergey is among three band members who are “consultants” and handle price negotiations and the set list for each event.
He is not performing on this night but out on the floor working prospective clients, mostly engaged couples, wedding coordinators and event planners checking out entertainment for corporate events and Christmas parties.
The showcase starts as a trio led by Anthony Francisco putting his smooth tenor voice on the love song “Thinking Out Loud” by redheaded British warbler Ed Sheeran. It is followed by “Sugar,” by Maroon 5, with a few more musicians coming up from the floor with each advancing number, “to show the different band sizes that we offer,” says Bergey.
The showcase is also an audition for musicians, who must come on recommendation of a sitting member, like museum boards.
“We’re so snobby about it that we can’t take the risk that somebody might not be up to snuff,” says Bergey who claims not to know how many musicians are in the collective. But there are enough that he can put 16 musicians onstage and do it in five places on the same day, like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
That’s one complaint from the client’s point of view. Katie and Will are a Marina district couple attending the showcase after finding LDB on www.weddingwire.com. They also found some complaints that the band seen at the showcase was not the band that arrived at the wedding. There is only one Jefferson Bergey, though there are seven or eight bandleaders who do his job.
“My only question is that you get to pick who you want from the band because there are so many members,” says Katie, who is seated on the lap of her fiance throughout the showcase, though there are plenty of empty chairs and banquettes. “Some of the complaints are when people chose members and didn’t get the ones they picked.”
Some might also complain that LDB is a canned concept. Separate collectives that go by the name Lucky Devils Band operate in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego and Fresno. The San Francisco franchise works 150 nights a year, hired at a five-hour minimum. Beyond that, everything is negotiable.
When you see Bergey in action, it is clear why everybody wants him. At a lakeside wedding reception in Tahoe under a full moon in September, he first took the microphone as master of ceremonies during dinner.
While introducing family members and managing the toasts, Bergey kept the schedule moving along, “like I have a clipboard and whistle,” he says. He does music comedy as a sidelight, and he’s quick to pick up on a family joke. Hearing the brother of the bride get needled, Bergey piles on by calling him a “pin cushion.”
LDB has a list of at least 200 dance songs listed on its website (www.luckydevilsband.com) and if you request a song they don’t know, they might learn it and surprise you.
The dancing on this night commenced with oldies — “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by Frankie Valli, “My Girl” by the Temptations — then ramped up when Bergey jumped off the stage and onto the floor for “Shout” by the Isley Brothers. Then he turned over the mike to soul singer Judy Padilla for “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder.
After the first break, it was “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars and after the second break “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon, leading into “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz.
The encore was “Don’t Stop Believing,” a duet with Padilla hitting all the high notes that Bergey can no longer hit (and neither can Steve Perry).
The nine-piece band was sent into the casino, but Bergey didn’t want to give dancers enough dead air to leave the floor. So instantly he was working the iPhone and tablet that have replaced turntables and records as a DJ’s tools.
“It’s a privilege doing these events,” he says, “because we are in the private sector of people’s families.”
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.comTwitter: @samwhitingsf
Video: Jefferson Bergey hosts the Lucky Devils Band showcase at http://sfchron.cl/1kWDreu