By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A leading light of the Bay Area heavy rock underground during the late 1990s and 2000s, Oakland band Drunk Horse reunites this Friday to play its first hometown show in more than a decade at Eli’s Mile High Club.
Formed in 1998 by guitarist/singer Eli Eckert (formerly of local garage-punk outfit the Pants), drummer Chris Johnson (aka Cripe Jergensen), guitarist John Niles and bassist Cyrus Comisky, the band eschewed the Sabbath-worship of countless stoner-rock bands trying to retrofit ’70s hard rock and metal sounds for the modern era.
While the band’s original label, poster artist Frank Kozik’s Man’s Ruin imprint, released plenty of albums that genuflected before guitar giant Tony Iommi, the Oakland quartet dealt out a unique style of Southern-fried boogie that evoked the chugging tempos and muscular six-string heroics of early ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers, Foghat, and more obscure blues-rock bashers like Cactus on the band’s self-titled Man’s Ruin debut in 1998. Their subsequent sophomore effort, Tanning Salons/Biblical Proportions in 2001, would add touches of experimental blues skronk indebted to the fractured sound of Captain Beefheart as well as the blazing guitar heroics of fusion master John McLaughlin’s seminal ’70s band Mahavishnu Orchestra.
When Man’s Ruin dissolved, Drunk Horse was left looking for a new label to partner with, but before too long the band had teamed with SoCal hard rock and psych mainstay Tee Pee Records. With the departure of Niles, the remaining members reached out to a pair of friends to help with their third album, enlisting the F–king Champs guitarist Josh Smith and multi-instrumentalist Joel Robinow to fill the open spot for Adult Situations in 2003.
The band built on its Bay Area following with tours of the U.S. and Europe and several appearances at South By Southwest in Austin. While the band’s 2005 offering In Tongues stood out as their most focused effort yet with a set of blinding tunes like “Strange Transgressions” and “Priestmaker” once again featuring furious slide licks from Smith and shades of Thin Lizzy Eckert’s vocal swagger and his adroit harmonized interplay with Robinow on “Self-Help” and “Vatican Shuffle.” But despite the album earning the band some of the best reviews of its careen, Drunk Horse would cease regular activity not long afterwards outside of occasional live performances in the Bay Area.
The musicians involved would move on to new projects. Comisky recorded and toured with noted Oakland metal stalwarts Saviours for several years, while Eckert and Robinow joined Comets on Fire guitarist Ethan Miller’s more roots-minded psych band Howlin Rain, filling out the line-up that recorded 2008’s Magnificent Fiend for producer Rick Rubin’s American Records. By the time the group was working on its ambitious magnum opus The Russian Wilds that finally came out in 2012, Eckert had left and Comisky had taken his place in the powerful quintet version of the band that also included drummer Raj Ojha and Earthless guitar virtuoso Isaiah Mitchell.
More recently, Johnson has been playing drums with punk crew Andy Human and the Reptoids as well as another band fronted by Miller, the fuzzed-out power trio Feral Ohms. Meanwhile, Robinow and Eckert (now playing bass) have teamed with Ojha and guitarist Raze Regal in their celebrated prog-pop outfit Once and Future Band, releasing an album and EP and touring with such notable acts as Tool and Chris Robinson’s As the Crow Flies, while Comisky has been working with a new group of Oakland vets in the punk band Smokers.
Still, with Drunk Horse never actually announcing a break up and all the members on good terms, it was only a matter of time before circumstances and the steady badgering from friends and fans would bring the quartet back together. Invited by the organizers of annual Portland, OR heavy psych celebration Stumpfest on 4-20 weekend (the three-day festival that will include performances by Elder, Kinski, the aforementioned Earthless and Once and Future Band among others), Drunk Horse plays this warm-up gig at Eli’s Friday night. It will mark the first time the band has played a hometown show in over ten years. Joining the group will be like-minded SF rockers Banquet and Very Paranoia, a new high-octane local proto-punk band featuring members of Hot Lunch, Annihilation Time and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound.
Friday, April 12, 9 p.m. $12-$15
Eli’s Mile High Club