Like four beer-chugging, smart-ass Jimmy Carters, the distinguished gentlemen of Drunk Horse once served as official ambassadors, representing my soon-to-be home base of Oakland. Dateline 2003, once upon a time in the Midwest: Mere weeks before abandoning the cozy cow-humping environs of Ohio for the entirely alien and exotic East Bay, I witnessed the dudes in all their grandeur at a tiny Columbus club, before a tiny Columbus crowd. And suddenly the West Coast seemed far less alien.
Gloriously, the Horse loved like it’d never been hurt, and rocked like no one was watching.
Nothing will soothe your relocation-jangled nerves like bearded gents with lion’s-mane haircuts laughing it up and wielding their guitars like chainsaws (not in a gimmicky Jackyl way, but in the badass metaphorical sense). The band’s full-length Adult Situations had just come out, inspiring fawning press raves that nevertheless began with lines like “I hate ZZ Top.” It’s classic rock for people who hate classic rock. Drunk Horse embodies the surly swagger of Southern boogie — vaguely obscene blues rhythms, specifically righteous guitar solos — while avoiding the dunderheaded stigma of the real thing and the winking Ain’t We a Hoot insincerity of most modern-day Skynyrd disciples.
We live in Oakland, baby, frontman Eli Eckert declared, and abruptly, Drunk Horse became the East Bay’s finest rock band.
Two years later, Drunk Horse remains the East Bay’s finest rock band.
Perhaps you have forgotten this. The lull between Adult Situations and the upcoming In Tongues (out June 28 on Tee Pee Records) has allowed the band to recede into the background a bit, but judging by its recent bravura Sunday night hoedown at SF’s Bottom of the Hill — climaxing when Eli tossed his guitar into the crowd — Drunk Horse is once again a vivid, 3-D experience of Butt Rock excellence. Let’s fall in love all over again for the first time.
Stoner rock looks fun to play. More fun than listening to it, in many instances. Genghis Khan opened the Sabbath festivities with, well, Sabbath festivities, abandoning the Bottom of the Hill pool table (where they discussed their shitty day jobs and the pot they’d just acquired) to pound out thirty minutes of Tony Iommi mash notes. Slaves to the Almighty Riff they are, and reasonably competent at slavishly delivering it. Issue: The drummer sings. No, no, no, no, no. Dude bounced around so violently that roughly every fifth word was audible, creating the same effect as when actual frontmen point the mic at random people in the crowd and goad them into singing along, poorly.
Granted, Mr. Khan had charisma: “This song’s called “Ohhhhhh God Damn!!!!'” he thundered at one point; verily, “Ohhhhhh God Damn!!!!” is profoundly well named.
Still, the evening’s middle child, Parchman Farm, was ultimately better equipped to inspire “Ohhhhhh God Damn!!!!” sentiments repeatedly. The song remained the same, as it were — a whole lotta love, a little bit of cowbell — but the delivery improved dramatically. Bassist Carson Binks thrashed about with an amp cable that, appropriately, resembled a bungee cord. What would it take to get you undressed? growled Goth-lookin’ frontman (and occasional Express scribe) Eric Shea, in a thoroughly convincing approximation of outsize machismo. But paradoxically, lead guitarist Allyson Baker was running this show, shredding and shrieking like a Guitar Center Cleopatra. To quote Charlie Sheen in Being John Malkovich, “Ouch. That is hot.”
But the night, the year, the Bay Area — they all belonged to Drunk Horse. As a tearful nation bid adieu to the pope, the quartet began its set with a moment of silence … for brilliantly disheveled stoner comedian Mitch Hedberg. “A waffle is just a pancake with syrup traps!” someone shouted (“Nice moment of silence!” the band shot back), and this Hedberg quote somehow personified the Horse perfectly: plainly spoken wisdom delivered with precision and humor.
These guys smile onstage. At each other. While kicking your ass. It’s revolutionary, a perfectly pitched blend of the scared and the profane — reverence delivered irreverently. Furthermore, any antirock turntable geeks who no longer acknowledge the hypnotic power of electric guitars need to see Eli and new guitarist Joel Robinow unfurl six-string hesher symphonies while drummer Cripe Jergensen, his face nearly obscured by his hair-farmer waterfall, pounds out new tunes like “Nice Hooves” as though he’s a one-man Bay Meadows racetrack.
Quite a few songs have lived long and prospered since that Ohio ambassadorial performance, particularly “National Lust,” with its exuberant Woo woo! chant and dynamic transitions so slick and witty you’ll crack up and bug out simultaneously. But the imminent In Tongues is a monster in its own right: “Strange Transgressors,” a highlight of Sunday’s set, is the latest Horse track to ascend to Ultimate Air Guitar status, and though verbally there are no pun theatrics quite as satisfying as Adult Situations‘ “The Bitch Is Bach,” new tunes such as “Priestmaker” and “Vatican Shuffle” are remarkably timely. More important, the Grinning Monsters of Rock delivery is remarkably timeless. When Eli ended the set by leaning precariously out over the crowd, still furiously hammering at his guitar, the effect was like a salacious ZZ Top video (“Legs,” maybe) suddenly pushing through your TV screen and invading your living room.
Yes, two years later, the Horse still lords over us all, aggressively pursuing a progressive approach to famously regressive music. When Eli finally stopped looming and threw his guitar into the crowd, someone caught it as though it were the keys to ZZ Top’s magical hot rod. Which it is, really. For equal measures of debauchery and diplomacy, the choice is obvious, whether you’re farming hair or peanuts.