If there's one thing the East Bay indie band Bento doesn't suffer from, it's a dearth of swooning female fans. In fact, of the few dozen folks who attended Bento's recent show at the Cherry Bar in San Francisco (which actually boasted a good turnout for a Wednesday night), about 80 percent were young women in improbably high stiletto sandals and Suicide-Girls mascara, sipping Midori sours and self-consciously clutching their purses while they made cow eyes at the guys onstage. When the band burst into its syrupy rock ballad, "Beautiful Girl," it seemed like everyone in the room was listing toward the stage. These guys may be schoolteachers and microbiologists in their early thirties, but hell, they look about ten years younger -- and they've obviously got the bobbysoxer crowd on lock.
Yep, Bento could easily win the heart of anyone whose memories of the '90s are best characterized by Nirvana, the Pixies, Gus Van Sant movies, and Hot Topic paraphernalia. The group's style recalls that glowing era when grunge suddenly catapulted into popular culture: MTV was taken over by flannel-shirted stoners with divorced parents, and the new teenage heartthrob was that sensitive sissy guy who should have been target practice for the high school football team. These sissy rock bands were, in fact, the bandmembers' introduction to popular music.
Bento can actually trace its genesis to 1993, the year in which Scott Iwata spent a semester studying in Stratford-upon-Avon. Though he'd never played in a for-real band, Iwata was an avid alternative rock fan. Inspired by Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream and Nirvana's Nevermind, he frittered away his mornings in a neighborhood guitar shop, plucking out chords and learning basic fretwork.
Iwata eventually got the itch to "start some kind of band" (the connection to Stratford is murky at best). He bought an old guitar for ten pounds, brought it back to the States, and called up the bassist Angelito Mesina and drummer Jamie Quon, whom he'd known since childhood. Together they formed the haphazardly named rock outfit, Like Squish Squash Virgins, which never actually made it beyond Iwata's garage in Union City. Though the fledgling musicians mostly covered Beatles and Weezer tunes, they wrote and recorded one song together, the moony emo ballad "1000 Ways." Iwata could see Blake's on Telegraph and DNA Lounge on the horizon, and within, throngs of careening, screaming girls.
Named for the Japanese word that means "combination" -- think of the frightening variety of tempura and fish in a bento box -- Bento bills itself as a blend of influences, though most of them apparently fall in the alternative-rock camp. Once they aborted their cover-band shtick, these guys ventured into confessional grunge and bubbly indie-pop territory. Last year Iwata recruited another guitarist, Elvin Reyes, who turned out to be a boon: He produced most of the band's 2004 album, Absent Without Leave, and started juicing up its live shows with fancy, melodic guitar solos.
Having run the gamut of Bay Area rock clubs and faux dives, Bento is writing songs for a sophomore album, projected for 2006. Quon says the songs have improved over the years, so hopefully Bento's next effort will have more wallop than Absent. But they'll keep the sensitive-guy thing going, too. After all, chicks dig it.
Bento performs at 12:30 p.m. this Sunday at the Chinatown Street Fest, which runs Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Oakland's Chinatown, covering ten city blocks from 7th to 11th streets and from Broadway to Harrison streets. The free festival also features taiko drumming, jazz and soul bands, a variety of foods, crafts by local artisans, martial arts demonstrations, lion dancers, rides and carnival games for kids, and much more. Check out OaklandChinatownStreetFest.com for full details.