Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Matt Alber


Our Musical Ambassador on Russian Bear Necessities

Matt Alber. photo: Nate Feldman Photography
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

Betty Ford: a distinctive name, both distinguished because of the former First Lady and perhaps notorious for its associations with her eponymously-titled rehab center. It also happens to be the pet name Matt Alber, a Bay Area-based singer-songwriter, has given to his unwavering 1989 Ford Tempo, which he purchased used for one dollar in Seattle. Still in use, he pulls Betty over to the curb on a street in the Castro for an interview about everything that's kept him so busy lately.

2014 is shaping up to be quite an accomplished year for the 39-year-old who's come a long way from dropping his jobs when he lived in Los Angeles five years ago to see if he could make his musical dreams come true. One of them was as a cover-band performer for celebrity weddings. Alber considers names like Channing Tatum as part of the upper echelon of his clientele back then.

Now he's his own boss and rather than hobnobbing in Hollywood, he's self-released his new album, Wind Sand Stars, and is looking forward to an upcoming performance at the Great American Music Hall on Friday, July 25.

"I just want everyone to meet my dad and my brother," he says about the concert that will feature not only mallet, vibes, cellists and bass, but his brother Bryce (nine years his junior, he performs under the name Lou Jane) who will play on his arrangements, as well as his father, Kurt Alber, who plays piano. With church-choir roots, Alber's musical background is strong and stems from an upbringing in St. Louis, Missouri.

Alber mainly plays guitar and in his father's footsteps, the piano. Part of his curiosity on whether or not he could earn a living doing what he loves means turning that sense of wonder into work ethic. He designs the artwork for his albums and produces audio on an iMac out of his Walnut Creek home. Booking himself is another part of the challenge, but has resulted in some unique opportunities.

In a couple of days from the time we spoke, he leaves for Bear Week Provincetown. It's his third annual outing where he'll perform at the nine-day, Massachusetts resort town's gay getaway. Alber affectionately refers to the locale as "P-Town" and says he treats it like a "class reunion." With its "party central" overtones where the swimming pools eventually becoming a virtual "bear soup," it's obvious the focus is on having a good time.

When asked about his place or role in the local music scene, Alber isn't so sure he's a part of it in a trendy sense, but he knows the free-follicled subculture is definitely a large part of his audience that has embraced him.

"No place feels more like home than San Francisco. The gay guys here are so supportive," he says.

But is he technically a bear? A little gained weight to his mostly fit figure and a speckled, ginger beard later, and that's how some have labeled him. That may come across as too easy, or like a superficial marketing ploy, but Alber previously said in earnest that that's who he associates with and he doesn't feel limited by his audience.

Matt Alber onstage. Photo Robert Davidson

"I think only half the people there [Bear Week Provincetown] fit the bill of being a bear. I don't feel like a bear on the inside, but I sure can eat like it. It's a lot of corn dogs, nachos, and chicken strips by the pool."

As American as that menu sounds, Alber, along with the Cello Street Quartet (a group he met while they busked hits by Lady Gaga, Queen and classical numbers by Bach in front of Cliff's Variety) were voluntarily sent to Russia, Kosovo and Hungary by the U.S. State Department last May. Together they spent 31 days riding around in embassy vans on a 19-city musical ambassador tour funded by the American Music Abroad program. He said their only instruction was to go and let people meet them. "Bring them your expertise," is what he was told.

The program is administered by the Association of American Voices on behalf of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Food and lodging would be taken care of and they'd get a stipend along with a per diem. Once the group learned they were selected for the program, it would be months before they'd find out where they'd be sent to give concerts, make friends and engage, but not in a political way.

Matt Alber's new CD, Wind Sand Stars

On the heels of the Olympic Games in Sochi, which had largely been marred by a reputation for anti-gay rhetoric and violence that erupted throughout the region, Alber touched on Vladimir Putin's so-called Russian "gay propaganda" laws that make it illegal to promote or teach that being gay is normal to anyone under the age of 18.

"Technically they can arrest you, but my experience there was quite different," he says. "Friends in Moscow go to dinner and you can be gay."

Alber says overall the experience was overwhelmingly positive.

"It was an honor. I never felt unsafe." He lightheartedly reflects on his dad's gesture of offering to buy a ticket to be his son's bodyguard after finding out where he'd be going. "It's like anywhere. Watch your back in a sketchy neighborhood."

There'd be nothing sketchy about playing to a crowd of 1,000 Russians at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, where they were warmly received on a Monday night. They traveled long distances and in each city the local embassy would run the show. Alber giddily admits travelling with the State Department is probably one of the best and safest ways to do Russia.

"Music has a way of creating a force field of oneness against anything that might divide. We were safe and welcome there." And so he sang in that hall and around the region the lyrics to his song, "Handsome Man," a sentimental number indicative of who he is and how he's a romantic at heart.

Matt Alber in Los Angeles. Photo: Adrian Lourie

"I'm definitely a romantic to a fault,' Alber said. "It's hard to be in a relationship. I've given it a few tries. I'm single now, but I'll try again."

In the meantime, he hangs on to Betty Ford, his steadfast chariot. They'll hit the open road together with hopes she'll get him down to his first Burning Man in ten years. He'll probably sing when he gets there and she'll probably bring him back home.


Matt Alber performs at Great American Music Hall, with guests Bryce Alber (aka Lou Jane) and Kurt Alber, Friday, July 25. $21. ($46 with dinner). Doors 8pm. Show 9pm. 859 O'Farrell St. 885-0750.


Follow The Bay Area Reporter
Newsletter logo
twitter logo
facebook logo