Shea, who is quite soft-spoken when his lips aren't pressed to the head of a microphone, is the gruff soul-shouter for one of this city's better hard rock outfits, the 2-year-old quartet Parchman Farm -- a name taken from a blues tune penned by pianist Mose Allison in 1957 but made famous (for hard rockers, that is) when the San Francisco psych-rock power trio Blue Cheer recorded an explosive proto-metal version for its canonic 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum.
Apparently, Parchman Farm's compact yet potent live show (which I have yet to catch, but that is about to change) is totally fun, totally killer, and chock-full of churning, classic-flavored rock riffage. Lucky for me, three nights earlier -- when I was hanging out and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm with the band over at the pad of guitarist Allyson Baker -- the members agreed that I could stop by their "gross" practice space and watch them run through their live set, which is where I'm heading now, as soon as I figure out where it is.
"Parchman Farm, they are a great bunch of kids, just great," the ragged voice of Dickie Peterson gushes over the telephone. For the uninitiated and those of you too fried to remember, Peterson is the bassist and vocalist for that band I was just telling you about, Blue Cheer, a thunderously loud band that -- without question -- has influenced nearly every single punk, metal, grunge, and hard rock act to kick out the jams since '69. If you are still in the dark, Blue Cheer is the group that released that feedback-soaked version of "Summertime Blues" in 1968, which is generally considered the birth of heavy metal and which was featured on those mid-'80s Freedom Rock commercials wherein two stoner dudes dressed as hippies played air guitar in front of a VW bus and explained just how indispensable this two-record set was to the "real" rock fan.
Peterson knows Parchman Farm because back in February, as the finale to a reportedly kick-ass gig at Café Du Nord, they jammed together. Actually, let me rephrase that. After Parchman Farm finished its regular set, Peterson, with four-string in hand, climbed onstage to replace Shea and bassist Carson Binx. With just Baker on six-string and the gangly Chris LaBreche pounding his skins, this one-off power trio -- encompassing a 37-year history of chunky riffage and bludgeoning rhythms -- descended into a Blue Cheer chestnut, the relentless psych-blues jam "Babylon."
"Our mutual friend Royce Seader said there is this band out of San Francisco that I gotta hear called Parchman Farm," Peterson explains from where he now resides, on a winery in Cloverdale, Calif. "He hooked us up. I came up for the last song, which was really special because that was the first time I was on a San Francisco stage in 13 years. After the song, I said, 'You guys were on top of that song. You didn't let me down.'"
"After the gig was set up, he first came to our practice space so we could work something out," Baker explains a few days earlier at a generic sports bar on Valencia Street, excitement emanating from her large glass-marble eyes. "He came into our gross practice space. We were all freaked out."
"Then he lit up a really big joint. We all got really high except for Allyson. She doesn't drink or smoke," Shea cuts in smoothly, picking up the story like the lifelong Californian he is. "So, he asks us, 'What do you want to play?' We were like, 'Babylon.'"
"I got to hang out and watch them play," Binx confesses with a mixture of humor and melancholy. Of the four, Binx most fits the image of the archetypal rocker, having formerly blown the saxophone for garage-soul outfit the Deadly Snakes.
"Yeah, Binx and I really didn't do anything," Shea says. His relaxed voice reveals the irony of the situation.
"I will tell you what happened. It was really intense," Baker, with a beaming smile, pipes up, letting me know that this was her moment. Baker's personality throughout the interview gives me the impression that it's her gravity the other musicians orbit around. Her mannerisms are fueled by an anxious, buzzing energy, whereas the dudes are pretty laid-back characters. "So, we start playing the song and I am supernervous, and I'm just playing it cool. But there is this poster of Blue Cheer up on our wall. I was trying to get the band to take it down before Dickie arrived because it seemed lame, but we didn't. So, I'm playing, and I look over and see this poster and it all clicked: Chris and I are really standing in for the original members of Blue Cheer."
"It was a true Frisco dream," I respond.
"It was a cosmic San Francisco dream," Baker half-jokingly reflects. "I don't think I have ever felt so insane playing music in my life."
On the phone, Shea supplied me with detailed directions to the rehearsal space. I, like a total knucklehead, smoked weed before attempting, in vain, to jot his message down (because getting high and listening to loud rock 'n' roll is awesome). And so to make a long story short, I'm now lost inside this maze of sheetrock-lined hallways and security reinforced doors and there's live music blaring throughout the whole place. Everything here is identical, like in THX 1138, but dimmer and with stained walls. On the verge of banging on random doors, I hear the echoey sounds of a chain wallet rattling and boots scuffling across pavement, kicking aside tattered show fliers and "musician wanted" advertisements. It's Binx.
"Hey." He walks on over and greets me.
"I'm fucking lost. Is this your space?" I point to a door from which Santana-style jams are emanating.
Ignoring my utterly stupid question, Binx coolly says, "No, man. We're down there. We're taking a short break."
Upon entering the band's space, I immediately notice how tiny and cluttered it is (but not with the obligatory assortment of empty beer bottles, ashtrays, and roaches). All four walls are covered with posters of rock 'n' roll legends: Kiss, Gram Parsons, Randy Rhoades, and that Blue Cheer poster featuring a young Dickie Peterson.
"So, what do you want to hear?" Baker asks me as she adjusts various knobs on her axe.
"Don't ask me. Do whatever you would do if I wasn't here," I explain, sitting in this soiled, overstuffed armchair. My thighs hug a Foster's oil can.
The band quickly decides to run through its 25- to 30-minute set, which is the perfect length. All of us present are television babies born in the wake of punk rock. We endorse the "keep it short and sweet" approach.
"Let's do it a bit faster this time," Baker says, looking toward LaBreche. He nods his head as I hear Shea spritzing what looks like Binaca into the back of his throat.
The band breaks loose. LaBreche lays down this born-to-be-a-breakbeat groove. Binx's fingers dance across his thick, metallic strings, generating a throbbing yet melodious bass line. Baker -- black hair masking her face -- adds a succession of funky riffs. Then Shea, who possesses this deep, rich voice, comes in, and the dude can really fucking sing (not scream), betraying his country-rock roots as the former vocalist for the San Francisco band Mover.
A couple of tunes in and I already notice how different Parchman Farm's new material is from the songs on its self-titled five-song EP, released last year on the San Fran imprint Jackpine Social Club. Those jams were by-the-numbers Alice Cooper- inspired FM rawk. Each of the new tunes, on the other hand, feels like a crafted sequence of carefully layered grooves. Every musician in the room is thinking rhythmically at all times, which reminds me of something that Shea and Baker had said to me earlier.
"We have this one tune that sounds totally like an Eric B. & Rakim riff," the singer told me. "Then I bring in some Byrds-y kinda vocals."
"Over the past year, I have been around all these hip hop guys," Baker, who recently married underground rapper Aesop Rock, informed me. "I have watched them make music, and I've always thought it would be cool to apply that to my own band. We put the songs together the way a hip hop song is put together."
So that explains the patterned grooves I'm hearing, but I also pick up another quality lacking in most modern hard rock: a tight, jazz-derived vibrancy. Or, to paraphrase the immortal Dickie Peterson, Parchman Farm is really on top of these songs. Most classic rock-influenced bands these days regurgitate the lay-back-in-the-groove "cock rock" of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, or the now-rote stoner-rockisms of Black Sabbath. Relying way too much on gratuitous volume and arrogant swagger, very few modern groups follow the lead of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band and the early Allman Brothers Band, both of which employed a jazzy, groove-heavy swing instead of simply turning their amps up to 11.
Parchman Farm, like these latter two groups, possesses some serious chops and is perpetually pushing its grooves forward, like a jazz or funk band would. This band's music is all about the movement and flow. That's why Baker, in between every song, keeps reminding LaBreche, "Let's play this one a bit faster." She doesn't want that "Feel Like Makin' Love" lethargy to seize control of her music. It's also the reason why so many of the posters plastered to the walls seem so ill-fitting. Parchman Farm is not some cheesy fucking retro-rock band. This group is operating on a level far, far above the "fingers forming a set of devil horns" hard rock cliché that these Kiss and Randy Rhoades posters imply. On the other hand, Parchman Farm isn't quite there yet. Baker's intriguing concept of constructing rock grooves as if they were hip hop beats can be taken even further. Thus, the group is still a work in progress, but probably always will be. If I learned anything meaningful about these four musicians over the past week, it's the fact that they are tireless workers who believe their jams can always be performed a little bit better, tighter, and faster.