There was a period in the early to mid-’80s when Dieselhed absolutely ruled the San Francisco music scene. Like the previous generation’s Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 or Primus, or maybe today’s Joanna Newsom or Deerhoof, fans enthusiastically lined up to catch the popular quintet every time the group played. To see Dieselhed once was to love them forever. You’ve got that chance, as they’re re-forming for one night at this year’s Mission Creek Music Festival.
What made them so fucking great? For starters, the music: crashing cow-punk guitars alternating with twangy tearjerkers and, over it all, Virgil Shaw’s and Zac Holtzman’s sweet, incandescent harmonies. Dieselhed was a band with a fully formed aesthetic whose keenly observed stories (and all their songs told stories) wheeled out quintessentially quotidian Northern Californian lives: dreaming of a world beyond Humboldt County, summers spent working on fishing boats in Alaska, weddings on the Hornblower, buying titty mags at the 7-Eleven, touring Sonoma Valley small towns and playing breweries, the guy who makes the hash browns at the local greasy spoon.
It was easy to imagine they were singing about you, and sometimes they were: Dieselhed’s number one fan was always the taxi dispatcher and perpetually tipsy Corinne, and, heck, they wrote a song about her: "Corrine Corrine/ Look at you spin / You’ve got me in a half nelson." The shit was funny — because it was so real — to everyone, including the characters they sang about in their songs: the girl who whispers into her poodle’s ear, the waitress at the truck stop, the guy studying for the forklift operator’s exam.
The band was wonderfully inclusive: Sing-alongs quickly came to include audience-participatory gestures, like the big O-shaped upstretched arms we all flew to represent the diamond ring in "The Wedding Song." Shaw’s then-adolescent sisters, who were budding songwriters in their own right, made guest appearances.
In another example of Dieselhed’s absolute command of who they were and what they meant, there were the improv numbers that charted their growing popularity and the changes in their lives. In "Someday We Won’t Be a Band," each member took to the mic to weave an always different story of what someone else in the group would be doing years hence. What will that tune sound like this time around? It’s guaranteed to have us laughing and crying.
The main thing is this: Dieselhed will always be relevant, and they never fucking lost it. Shaw’s now an acclaimed solo act. Holtzman formed the Cambodian pop group Dengue Fever and is licensed in Chinese medicine. Drummer Danny Heifetz up and moved to Australia. And I can’t wait to hear what bassist Atom Ellis and guitarist Shon McAllin are up to. "Someday we won’t be a band," Dieselhed sang, "but for now, we totally exist!" SFBG
With Fantasy, Sonny Smith, and Marc Capelle
May 21, 8 p.m.
2565 Mission, SF
$10 advance, $12 door