I began noticing the signs soon after moving to the Bay Area: Arthur Magazine, revivals of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies, and print dresses and feathers all pointed to a vogue for the psychedelic aesthetic extending beyond the tie-dyed Haight. Psychedelic rock is the 800-pound gorilla of San Francisco music, though subsequent punk scenes clustering around Mabuhay Gardens and 924 Gilman defined themselves in direct opposition to its flower-power. I was surprised, even a little put off, by what seemed like a fundamentally conservative revival.
That was before I saw Comets on Fire. The group reclaimed the mad, exploratory spirit of ’60s psychedelia precisely by not being overly dogmatic in their interpretation of the original sound. Just as vintage outfits like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Blue Cheer to name two local bands often championed by the current crop deconstructed bluegrass and R&B, so too do the artists following in Comets on Fire’s wake reconstitute old school psychedelia into freshly disorienting supernovas. In the case of Comets, the game-changer lay with showing how you could collapse the distance between the Grateful Dead and the Stooges. The set I saw at the Hemlock Tavern was as much a piece of music criticism as it was an explosive performance. They made psych-rock seem a realm of possibility instead of the tattered rump of a dancing bear.
Five of 10 ensembles playing the first Frisco Freakout are based in the Bay Area, with all but Mythical Beast hailing from within the Golden State’s borders. Each band dials in subtly different equations of texture and influences, though Sleepy Sun’s MySpace message probably speaks for all involved parties: "Let’s get weird." Inspired by the legendary bills at the Fillmore and Matrix in the ’60s, Relix contributing editor Richard Simon and Wooden Shjips shredder Ripley Johnson collaborated on organizing the all-day showcase.
Music journalists use the word psychedelic to describe everything from Beach House’s gauzy organ trip to My Bloody Valentine’s overripe swan-dives not to mention the adjacent freak-folk scene so it’s probably worth specifying that most of the Frisco Freakout groups are close to the original psych-rock article, as defined by the hard, face-melting electricity of the early Dead and their cohorts. Whether listening to the endless spirals of Earthless, the prog-laced kick of Crystal Antlers, or the smooth drip of Sleepy Sun, one is repeatedly tempted to describe the sounds in terms of metallurgy.
"These bands are going to play hard and fuck with your head," Simon bluntly jokes by phone in SF. "I’ve been interested in trying to shunt some of these bands into Relix, to reconnect branches in this family tree that originates here."
Correctives to the jam-band theory of psychedelic rock are always welcome, though one perhaps worries about flying the freak flag too high. "You’re reluctant to identify a scene because once something is a scene it gets co-opted and commercialized," Simon confesses, but I’m in full agreement that it’s better to take a proactive, artists-first approach rather than waiting to be uncomfortably grouped as Pitchfork’s flavor-of-the-week.
Given the friendly demeanor of the event it’s being billed as a "psychedelic dance party" and, more important, it benefits visual art nonprofit Creativity Explored the Frisco Freakout goes a long way toward clearing up the discomfiting idea that a lot of neo-psychedelia is strictly for collectors. This isn’t to question the passion of any of the musicians involved, but simply to wonder aloud when the willfully obscurant approach to band names and releases translates to outright fetishism. In a year in which a black man is running for president, a limited-edition, colored vinyl doesn’t pass as a freakout.
Then again, these performers are compelling because of their attention to aesthetic detail and creative sense of rock historiography. It’s unavoidable that musicians weaned on punk would approach psych-rock differently from those only a decade or two on the Dead’s coattails, but one is struck again and again by their experimental impulse. Certain key reference points are a given: besides the aforementioned ’60s groups, there are usually traces of Neil Young, Spaceman 3, and the Velvet Underground. But so too do most of the groups venture further afield to add dabs of Terry Riley, Can, Morton Feldman, or Skip Spence to their spectroscopic sounds. Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound’s improbable mix of raga, Canned Heat, sci-fi sounds, and Black Flag is batty enough to warrant a Greil Marcus study.
Psychedelic rock exists, like almost any music genre in the Internet age, beyond regional boundaries, but it still makes a special fit with California’s earth-tugging landscape. At the same time that the Western mythos of the frontier crumbled in Vietnam’s shadow, the original Frisco freakouts pushed past the real wilderness for a psychic one. These newer bands thrust us even more precipitously into this "lost" mental space, seeking to refurnish psych-rock with its dangerous luster. 2
Sat/11, 2 p.m., $15
1600 17th St., SF