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 only its second Bay Area show in over a decade at Winters Tavern Friday.
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 and — 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 in 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. Their 2005 offering In Tongues stood out as their most focused effort yet with a set of blinding tunes like “Strange Transgressions” and “Priestmaker” spotlighting furious slide licks from Smith, with shades of Thin Lizzy audible in 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 career, 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. This year, the band was 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), leading Drunk Horse to play a warm-up gig at Eli’s in Oakland last spring that marked the first time the band played a hometown show in over a decade.
For this anticipated Nov. 1 show at Winters Tavern in Pacifica, Drunk Horse will be joined by a pair of local powerhouse groups. One of the most unique sounding bands on San Francisco’s experimental punk rock fringe, Pins of Light features a talented quartet of musicians with solid pedigrees including former and current members of such noted SF bands as Dead and Gone, Triclops!, Hightower, Peace Creep and Night After Night. Armed with a desire to push the boundaries of heavy music, the group put out it’s eponymous debut for Alternative Tentacles in 2012.
The album showcased bassist Shane Baker’s growling vocal delivery and a sound that split the difference between two bands anchored by late bass legend Lemmy Kilmister: the pulsing, riff-driven space rock of Hawkwind and the pummeling, raucous attack of Motörhead. In 2016, the group self-released a second collection of songs entitled Home that boasts more sci-fi sound effects and some of the group’s most compelling songwriting yet including the feverish anthem “Adoration,” arguably the best Killing Joke song not released by Killing Joke since the new millennium.
Opening the show will be prolific psych power trio Carlton Melton. Made up of guitarist/synth player Rich Millman, drummer/guitarist Andy Duvall (both former members of late, lamented SF blues-punk Zen Guerilla) and bassist/drummer Clint Golden, the band has been putting out its guitar-heavy instrumentals for over a decade. Starting with a live CD-R of freewheeling improvisational jams that the band recorded in 2008 at their geodesic dome studio in the small coastal town of Point Arena, Carlton Melton makes music that hearkens back to early Pink Floyd (the band covered the Obscured By Clouds gem “When You’re In” on their proper debut album Pass It On…), the corrosive six-string squall of Hendrix and Tangerine Dream’s expansive, meditative soundscapes.
Collaborating in the studio with such notable players/engineers as Phil Manley (Golden, Trans Am, Terry Gross) and former Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain, the band has put out an impressive string of recordings with UK psych label Agitated Records and on their own Mid-To-Late imprint along with a number of singles and splits via other record companies, including their most recent double-album effort, last year’s Mind Minerals. Advance tickets for the show are available here.
Drunk Horse with Pins of Light and Carlton Melton
Friday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m. $8