By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A tag team of two influential punk outfits that have made a lasting impact on the scene top the bill at the Great American Music Hall Thursday night when T.S.O.L. and the Dwarves share the stage.
Founded in Long Beach in 1978 by singer Jack Grisham and guitarist Ron Emory, True Sounds Of Liberty have charted a unique path across musical sub genres over the course of four decades that have run the gamut from politically charged hardcore to gothic deathrock to bluesy metal. Filled out by bassist Mike Roche and drummer Todd Barnes, the group issued its seminal eponymous debut EP in 1981, followed by the more gothic full-length album Dance With Me later the same year.
While the EP was filled with left-leaning hardcore anthems, Dance With Me would prove a far more eclectic and influential effort, focusing on Grisham’s horror-themed lyrics and ominous atmosphere that predated the dark-hearted sound of the Misfits and the Lords of the New Church. The album remains a certified SoCal punk classic that still makes up a solid portion of any T.S.O.L. setlist to this day.
On the band’s subsequent EP (Weathered Statues) and second album Beneath the Shadows in 1982 for Jello Biafra’s SF-based imprint Alternative Tentacles — the first to feature new keyboardist Greg Kuehn — T.S.O.L. would move further into a post-punk, gothic rock direction that confused some hardcore fans but broadened their base. Unfortunately, interpersonal turmoil would lead to Grisham, Barnes and Kuehn departing acrimoniously the following year.
Despite the loss of Grisham’s creative direction (he went on to lead new projects Cathedral of Tears and Tender Fury into the early ’90s), T.S.O.L. would continue under Emory’s leadership with new singer Joe Wood, gradually moving from their Doors-influenced gothic sound to a more straightforward hard rock approach over the course of three albums for Enigma Records. Eventually Emory and Roche would depart from their own band, leaving Wood and drummer Mitch Dean in control of the T.S.O.L. name.
Grisham and the rest of the original line-up reunited to lead a competing version of the band in 1991, but the reunion was short lived. The members would branch off on other projects for much of the decade while engaging in an ongoing legal battle with Wood over the rights to the band’s name, eventually regaining ownership in 1999. Sadly, drummer Barnes died at the young age of 34 of brain aneurysm late that same year.
Despite that tragedy, the remaining original players have since toured regularly and recorded four albums of new material, most recently 2017’s The Trigger Complex that was produced by noted LA punk pioneer Paul Roessler (the Screamers, Nina Hagen, 45 Grave). The band stole the show this past December when it appeared with local headliners the Dead Kennedys at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, a bill that also included their partners for Thursday night, SF punk rock legends in the place to be, the Dwarves.
With roots dating back to earlier Chicago-based garage rockers Suburban Nightmare, the Dwarves were started in the mid-1980s by principle troublemakers Blag Dhalia (vocals) and He Who Can Not Be Named (guitar). The band embraced a hardcore punk aesthetic that nodded both to the concise ferociousness of Bad Brains and Circle Jerks as well as the economic melodies of the Ramones. The Dwarves quickly established a reputation for dangerous onstage antics and explosive live shows that were as ferocious as they were brief, often ending within ten or fifteen minutes and often due to an injury to a band or audience member.
Despite the band’s raw, chaotic approach (or possibly because of it), early independent recordings would catch the ear of Seattle-based label Sub Pop, which started releasing the band’s albums in 1990. Dealing out brief, furious tuneful blasts — their Sub Pop debut featured an even dozen songs in just over 13 minutes — the Dwarves began to amass an ever expanding following with their caustic live shows. The band relocated to its current home base of San Francisco and the laid groundwork for such high-octane punk disciples who would follow them as Zeke, REO Speedealer and, much later, Jay Reatard. The band continued to record for Sub Pop until the label unceremoniously dropped them in 1993 after they announced that guitarist He Who had been fatal stabbed in Philadelphia (as it turned out, he had simply left the band, though he would later return to the fold).
Despite the setback, the band landed on its feet with the 1997 Epitaph release The Dwarves Are Young and Good Looking, their first to include current bassist and onetime member of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age Nick Oliveri (aka Rex Everything). While their live performances have become decidedly less brief and bloody, the Dwarves have evolved to become a consistently entertaining stage act that never fails to stir up an animated mosh pit at punk shows. This evening at the Great American Music Hall will also include sets from Santa Rosa-based outfit Decent Criminals and opening Misfits-inspired Oakland horror punks the Memphis Murdermen.
T.S.O.L. and the Dwarves
Thursday, April 4, 8 p.m. $25
Great American Music Hall