Ryan Christopher Parks knows loud. The musician, who writes and performs solo and as a member of Oakland rock group B. Hamilton, tends to favor multilayered arrangements, esoteric lyrics, and an unyielding bigness of sound. Suffice it to say, the coffeeshop scene doesn't entirely suit him. "I used to do this thing where I'd go up into the city and go to all these open mics with these waifish hippie-singer songwriters singing about trees and nature and shit," he recalls. "And I'd get up there and scare the hell out of them with songs about sex and death." But at the same time, as an artist committed to songwriting, Parks wants to play venues that won't require him to fight for attention. "There's no real place to play my kind of music other than, like, dickhead coffeeshops," he said. "And even there, chances are, there's always something going on — people are talking, they're serving food. It's distracting."
So when his friend Max Allstadt — a Berklee College of Music-trained bassist — came to him with the idea of organizing an electricity-free music show, Parks jumped at the chance. Allstadt had originally been inspired after watching Daniel Higgs of Lungfish perform a set in his living room. "He actually went so far as to turn off all the lights and use no candles or anything. He played banjo in the dark with a mandolinist accompanying him," Allstadt said, via e-mail. "It was really remarkable, because something happened that never happens at shows. All the music geeks and all the hipsters in the audience suddenly shut the fuck up and gave Higgs their undivided attention. He was brilliant, and the whole moment was shockingly beautiful."
Parks eagerly jumped on board, and thus the inaugural Cut the Breakers, then called the Equinox Blackout, was born in Allstadt's West Oakland home last March. There was only one rule: no electricity allowed, period. They killed the lights, lit candles, and served red wine, which doesn't require refrigeration. The audience stayed mostly quiet, because they had to in order to hear the unamplified music. Musicians were allowed to play any genre and bring any instruments they wanted, just as long as they didn't require A/C power. Unlike most acoustic and so-called "unplugged" events, which almost always make use of amps, mics, and electronics of various kinds — not to mention lights — this one was truly electricity-free.
Since then, Allstadt has hosted two more iterations of the party, each drawing a larger crowd. The most recent one filled his living room, which prompted Allstadt to turn over the reins to Parks and move the show to Hatch Gallery (492 23rd St., Oakland). "This is something that should be more accessible than secret invites," Allstadt said. "It's gotta grow up and get out of the living room." On Saturday, March 19, almost a year to the day after Allstadt and Parks first pulled the plug, the show moves to its new venue, with Parks, Anna Ash, and Ryan James headlining. The gallery setting makes sense: Cut the Breakers is, after all, a concert with the high-concept ethos of an art show, an ideological stand as much as a creative experiment. "The idea is, if you want people to pay attention, you don't turn it up," Allstadt said. "You turn it down."
Moreover, Parks said, the ultra-acoustic format tends to weed out less adept musicians: It's easy to mask poor musicianship under reverb and effects, but a flubbed chord or mumbled lyric is glaringly obvious in a stock-silent room. "Don't get me wrong, I love the hell out of amplifiers," Parks said. "But you can fake it when you're loud. There's less tricks when you're quiet." 8 p.m., $5. 510-798-6566 or HatchGallery.org