Here’s a tip, musicians: Take an electric guitar, play a catchy chord progression and fuzz it up with an array of effects pedals, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to win whatever part of my heart powers my ears.
That’s what The Parson Red Heads and The Mother Hips did on St. Patrick’s Day at McMenamins Old St. Francis School. And it was glorious.
I was overdue to see both bands. The Red Heads — longtime L.A. kids who moved to Portland last year — have been through Bend a few times, but other obligations always kept me away. And San Francisco’s veteran Hips were scheduled to play Mountain’s Edge in early 2010, but that show was canceled.
So I thought it was pretty exciting when I saw that both would play McMenamins’ movie theater on one of the popular complex’s busiest nights of the year.
Indeed, when I arrived at 8:30 p.m., there was a line at both the front and back door, and doormen were following a “one in, one out” policy. Never seen that before at McMenamins, but then I’ve never gone there on a party night.
Even so, my wait was not long; after maybe five minutes, I was inside the theater, where the Red Heads were already playing to a decent-sized but distracted crowd.
The quintet was clad in mostly white, with one bearded male redhead on lead vocals and one bead-adorned female redhead on the drums (that’s where the ginger ended). The beardo out front was Evan Way, a man with a knack for melodies that bounce and weave like indie-pop pushed through a psychedelic prism.
The band excelled on the fluttery “Out to Sea,” cranked up the six-string crunch for “Got It All,” and killed extra time with a faithful version of the Traveling Wilburys hit “Handle with Care” before closing with “Burning Up the Sky” family-band style: tambourine, hand-claps, harmonies and so on. The Red Heads are like a ’60s-inspired, hippy-dippy lovefest merged with the hip, current Hollywood indie scene, and when you throw genuinely good songs in the mix, the result is a band that oozes folksy, unassuming charm.
As The Mother Hips began to set up their gear, the crowd thickened considerably, and I heard more than one conversation about how long it’d been since so-and-so saw the band. I don’t know for sure, but my speculation is that I was surrounded by a number of folks in their 30s who had gone to college in Northern California in the 1990s, attended a party or three, and seen the Hips back when they were a hard-touring bunch that played an appealing mix of rock, country, pop and the occasional jam.
They’re still that band, really. My introduction to the Hips was their 2010 album “Pacific Dust,” which is an enjoyable slab of heavy-lidded pop-rock that sounds like it was left out to bake for days in the California sun. But their earlier work is in more of a melodic country-rock vein, and they’re unafraid of meandering out into funky jam land on occasion. Imagine a broke-down truck stop out on some desolate desert highway where a band plays Beatles and Neil Young songs for burnouts and bloodshot eyes and you have some idea of what the Hips do.
That’s not to denigrate their catalog. Tim Bluhm, Greg Loiacano and company came to town to play a ton of songs, kicking things off with the jagged “Third Floor Story” and “Esmerelda,” an affable tune that would fit in nicely on classic-rock radio playlists.
The thing is, the same can be said of most of the songs in the Hips’ set. “Do It On the Strings.” “Toughie.” “Later Days.” “Smoke.” All are well-written, with sweet choruses and swaggering guitar riffs. But when you string ’em together one after another, it really highlights where the Hips’ range begins and ends. And it’s not exactly a wide swath, not that it matters much to the couple hundred devout fans who showed up for the show, pumped their fists and mouthed every word.
There were peaks, of course. I loved the ragged chug of “Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear,” the astral reverb and ascendant chorus of “Magazine,” and the wonderful “White Falcon Fuzz,” an easygoing rocker than sounds imported straight from your dad’s record player, circa 1975. It’s also an insidious earworm that I’ve been singing to myself (and others) for, oh, about six months.
“Falcon” is my favorite Hips song (that I’ve heard), and I took its performance as a cue to head home and leave the evening to those with more stamina than I. So I fought my way to the door, made a quick stop in Father Luke’s Room to see the Moon Mountain Ramblers holding court (looked like a cool vibe in there), and popped out onto Bond Street, where an endless stream of taxi cabs were creeping up and down the block, ready to swoop up St. Pat’s revelers and take them home to hazy dreams of corned beef and fuzz-rock.