Sam Fowles and Evan Way, the Parson Red HeadsWhile a large chunk of San Francisco’s concert-going population was crowding Golden Gate Park for that big ol’ Outside Lands festival, Saturday night, August 23, 2008, at Kimo’s was a mutual reputation-building affair for the well-informed handful of folks in attendance.

The under-new-management venue, Kimo’s, has a colorful history, rife with stories of shady characters, assaults, and other blemishes typical of the nearby Tenderloin neighborhood. Put it this way – it’s the neighborhood where transvestite hookers have shouting matches in the street, and crack cocaine can be bought out in the open just as easily as organic fruit at a farmer’s market (maybe even more easily). So something fishy is bound to spill over into adjacent neighborhoods every now and then.

For the night’s headliner, the L.A.-based group of family and friends known as the Parson Red Heads, it was an historic night – their first headlining gig in San Francisco. Granted, it was at Kimo’s, but all was well. The venue’s new management claims to be more artist-friendly. And in truth, there were no oddballs to be seen in the place (none that we could visibly identify, anyway). So out-of-towners like the Parsons were spared the wrath of San Francisco’s finest. And at the end of the show, a live personal announcement was made from the stage, thanking the band and informing the audience of upcoming shows. Ah, just like the olden days, when clubs cared. None of that “show’s over, now get out!” attitude from some unseen goon in a corner booth. Now, if Kimo’s can just get their web site working and add upcoming shows to their MySpace calendar, we can really say they’re getting somewhere.

They can also get their doorman to his post earlier. Had I arrived with a dishonest group of friends, they all could have weaseled in for free. But they’re not like that, so they just kept their bills in hand and made sure they were spotted by the doorman when he returned.

By this point, the Red Heads were sound checking. Even this was worth hearing, as drummer Brette Marie Way tested her vocal mikes with a charming, off-the-cuff rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” After run-throughs of the band’s already classic yet still not released set opener “Time is Running Out” and a cover of Herman’s Hermits’ British invasion mega hit “Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good,” the opening acts took care of their sound checks with little time in between. The night was running smoothly, and would continue that way to the end. Nobody even thought about bullshitting the audience with interminable waits between sets and sound checks. Anyone who missed their train home couldn’t blame Kimo’s or the bands.

Jake MannShowtime was set for 9:00 p.m., and it was maybe 20 minutes past when the first act on the bill took the stage. Not bad, all things considered. The faithful would be hearing the Red Heads soon, after a couple of local acts. First up was local artist Jake Mann, playing without a backing band, just his lonesome bespectacled self and a reverb-drenched black electric Fender. Looking a lot like Elvis Costello and playing as if he were emulating Billy Bragg (which Mann confirmed was indeed the case when I spoke with him after his set), Mann’s set of brandy-new tunes, some slightly less new tunes from his 2007 full-length album Daytime Ghost, and some golden moldies from his old band the Zim Zims offered up a decidedly different slant on his music than what’s heard on his full band recordings. “Flames at my Feet,” from Daytime Ghost, comes closest to capturing how Mann’s set went down, though it wasn’t one of the songs played that evening. For the setting, it was perfect – crowd just shuffling in, mostly attendant and polite, and setting up the next act rather well.

The Dazzling StrangersAnd again, the Bay area collective the Dazzling Strangers played it differently than what’s represented on their latest album, The Stars are Ours. Lead Stranger Chris Streng fronted a noisy trio edition of the band as he slurred words in a seemingly drunken Dylanesque drawl. No keyboards or other sprightly electronics in this set – it was all washes of guitar effects and droning compositions, a la Mission of Burma or Sonic Youth, only with much shorter songs. Though again, to hear how they came across live, the closest you’ll find on disc is one song – “Single Girl on a Sunday Morning.” The rest of The Stars are Ours veers all over the place, from solo acoustic, to new wavey electronics, to blues like “Taxi Cab” that are more straight-up than what goes down on stage. Streng’s lackadaisical, slightly inebriated stage presence (only more greatly underscored by my friends’ mishearing of the Strangers’ frantic cover of the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” as “I Had Too Much to Drink Last Night”) drew folks in, closer, and added some mystique to the evening…

The Parson Red Heads…just in time for the grand headliners – as per usual, all dressed in white, stage decked with flowers, and crowded with band members: three guitarists (Sam Fowles, Aaron Ballard and the chief Red Head, singer/songwriter Evan Way), a bassist (David Swensen), a drummer/vocalist (Brette Marie Way, Evan’s wife) and a keyboardist/vocalist (Erin Way, Evan’s sister), who were clearly inspired by the more jammy, noisy textures of the Dazzling Strangers. Having only met online via MySpace prior to the show, they were hearing each other in their natural element for the first time. Unlike the last two Red Heads shows in San Francisco, the band went for a Lightning Bolt-style start, with Evan beginning to jam randomly off-stage with the house lights still on. Actually, Sam hadn’t made it to the stage yet, and as the band started to follow Evan’s lead, Sam quickly ran to the stage to grab his axe and join in. Winding down, they eventually began what has been their regular set-opener this year, the gorgeously uplifting “Time is Running Out.” Evan must be getting tired of me asking when this song is going to come out, as I bring it up directly or indirectly every time we meet. This time, he would only suggest that *hopefully* the band will be hitting the studio before Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy sees release.

The song goes something like this, in the first verse:

Give all the love that you have
Finish the things you began
All of the time that we spend giving up
Could be spent on the things that we have

…and then the next verse that wraps with “think of the man that you used to be / he is less than the man you’ve become” turns sage advice and consolation into a self-affirmation that buzzes like a drug. Seriously, combined with those familial Byrdsian harmonies, “Time is Running Out” can’t help but feel like a classic from the first listen. But you have to get out of your bed and into a small rock club to hear it, which actually is way cool, trust me. There’s no better place to get a song’s full effect than in a social setting, as it’s played in the moment, no pause or rewind allowed. Pay full attention. Savor every moment.

Evan Way, the Parson Red HeadsIn addition to some excellent unfamiliar numbers showcasing the band’s effortless dual lead guitars that will hopefully find their way out into the world along with “Time is Running Out,” the first three tunes off this year’s Owl and Timber EP formed a high point of the Red Heads’ nine song set. A smooth segue linked “Out to Sea” with the always excitement-inducing “Got it All,” though a botched ending to “County Line” elicited some laughs from Evan and Sam. No matter, nobody else seemed to notice. And besides, it sounded cool.

The band is getting tighter and tighter, amazingly so. Like a lot of young indie bands out there, most of the Parson Red Heads hold regular hours at full-time day jobs. And yet, they manage to cruise up and down the West coast, adding a little noise and jamming here, a little extra harmony there, sharpening their sound every step of the way. They will be back in San Francisco twice more (at least) before the year is over, and from here, they begin a short tour with Everest (who, themselves, will be touring with Neil Young in the Fall). It must be those flowers and pure white uniforms that keep them from losing their collective minds. Laugh if you must, but I’ve not seen anybody walk away from a Parson Red Heads show feeling blue. There’s a positive vibe happening with them, and it’s infectious. For now, they’re L.A.’s best-kept secret. How much longer that’ll be the case, who knows – the cat’s bound to get out of the bag sooner or later.

The Parson Red Heads MySpace
The Parson Red Heads – “Days Of My Youth”
The Parson Red Heads – “Hey, Man (Dry Off)”

The Dazzling Strangers MySpace
The Dazzling Strangers – “Single Girl on a Sunday Morning”

Jake Mann MySpace
Jake Mann – “Flames at my Feet”