“Sometimes I wanna fall asleep and die off in a dream.
“The music takes me back to my old past when I was young and feelin’ mean.”
-Opening verse from The Beat Farmers’ first single, “Bigger Stones.”
Music can viscerally kindle memories and emotions.
Just ask those who on Tuesday witnessed the Beat Farmers with its three surviving members onstage to start their first tour in 28 years. White-hot lights shone upon bassist Rolle Love, guitarist Jerry Raney and an orange beam backlit guitarist Joey Harris. His hair was perfect.
Joel “Bongo” Kmak was on the drum kit, which featured the likeness of the founding bandleader on the kick: Country Dick Montana’s self-portrait sketch.
The Beat Farmers storied reign ended when Country Dick – Dan McLain – died during a Vancouver, British Columbia, show in November 1995. Bongo Kmak, who went to high school with McLain and shared drum roles with one of San Diego’s most popular bands, the Penetrators, is like a family member and the obvious choice to join the band.
Santa Rosa resident David Kiddoo arrived early at Novato’s HopMonk Session Room on Sept. 26. Like so many in attendance, he’d witnessed the “mobile musical pleasure unit” back in the day at a now long-closed-down club. Upon learning of the band’s comeback, he said, “‘Holy shit!’ I couldn’t believe it. I want to hear a lot of their old tunes. Joey and Jerry are exceptional musicians on guitar.”
Indeed, the show consisted entirely of the old tunes, to the delight of the old and some new fans. The radio hits were played along with the song they played on the “Letterman” show, the classics written by Snuggle Bunny bandmate Paul Kamanski and those reimagined, refined covers by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Waits and the Kinks that were staples of the alcohol-addled spectacles.
“No doubt, there was a tribe vibe,” said Shelley O’Connor of Kernville. It was O’Connor’s first Beat Farmers show, and afterward she decided to go to make the drive across the bay on Thursday to see them again at Menlo Park.
It was surreal when the pioneers of cowpunk took the stage. With just one rehearsal before piling into a van, the band ripped through four songs with not a lot of interaction with the rapt, smiling, astonished fans.
The first song on the Beat Farmers first record was a nostalgic early rock ‘n’ roller penned by Kamanski called “Bigger Stones.” A great tune, to be sure, but seemingly uncommon for brand new group to be boldly circumspect right out of the gate. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate tune to play at the beginning of the show. Multiple concertgoers wiped moister from their eyes, and it wasn’t from thick smoke. The artificial haze emanating from behind the drums for ambiance was puffy and diminutive, as Raney joked after everyone loosened up. There might’ve been as much haze from a bong hit.
While the atmosphere was light, and lighter and the night went on, the musicianship was tight. Muscle memory from hundreds of shows during a one of a kind 12-year run with dual lead guitars, a powerful rhythm section, brilliant songs and loud-plowed performance, the live shows were incredible.
“God is Here Tonight,” Harris sang. That may well be, but so were the Beat Farmers, and that’s even bigger, for Chrissakes.
When Country Dick sauntered from the drums, he took over the event.
“Country Dick was a master showman,” San Diego cohort Mojo Nixon said. “He’s like a guy who sticks his head in the lion’s mouth. He used to balance on these tables and try to avoid the ceiling fan over his head. It was some sort of hillbilly ballet, drunken, mushroom artistry previously unseen on the planet.”
That other dynamic to a Beat Farmer show thrilled the live audience but confused a record label. Was this a rock band or a novelty act? Country Dick’s singular entertainment greatness distracted from the fantastic music, and instead of being, in Country Dick’s baritone description, the greatest band in the world, it was destined to merely be the greatest bar band.
Before Tuesday’s HopMonk show, Novato’s Bob Guice recalled his first Beat Farmers experience. “Country Dick was being carried around on some guy’s shoulders,” he said. “I first saw them in a little dive called I-Dean. In the early eighties there were great news bands that played there: Los Lobos, Romeo Boys, Violent Femmes, the Cramps.”
It was during this seminal time 1983 when the Beat Farmers started out. It had a free Friday, Saturday, Sunday residency and a tiny bar called The Spring Valley Inn. That’s where San Diego State student and Rhino Records rep Dan Perloff discovered the band that would become known as pioneers of cowpunk music. The band soon after cut its first record, “Tales of the New West.” After a steady, sweaty rise, the Beat Farmers agreed to an ill-fated record deal with Curb Records.
Perloff remained close to the band. Raney, Harris and Love have their own bands but the Beat Farmers have reunited around 15 times for January “Hootenannies” at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. Recently the band played two Outlaw Country Cruises with their pal Mojo Nixon. Also, “Tales of the New West” was reissued along with a remastered version of a one-time demo tape, “Live at the Spring Valley Inn, 1983.” In 2016 “The Beat Farmers Live In Germany 1988” was released.
With the Beat Farmers recent activity and a renewed sense of camaraderie, Perloff pitched the idea of playing out-of-town shows again.
Perloff booked a show for Sept. 28 at The Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Word spread and three more venues asked for the band. After the four-city tour, the Beat Farmers will play Oct. 8 in Long Beach at Alex’s Bar with Deke Dickerson and Cadillac Hearse. The show is already close to being sold out.
Last Tuesday’s Novato show was a helluva start. It seemed the world was spinning right once again.
“This guy’s going to poop his pants if we don’t play ‘Road to Ruin,’” Raney said, pointing to one of the many crowd members who shouted requests. “OK let’s play it. If we fuck it up, it’s his fault.”
The song opens with a guitar riff, so Raney and Harris had a guitar solo duel to determine who would “play they hard part.”
Later, there was a call for a certain Country Dick song.
“We can’t play ‘King of Sleaze’ because only Mojo could sing it and he’s in Cincin-fucking-natti,” Raney said.
At the side of the stage taking it all in were Darren Nelson and Jeremy D’Antonio, the guitarists for the opener, a really cool, original and likeminded band called San Geronimo.
“This,” Nelson admired, “is what a band is. There is nothing better than this.”
With seven studio albums, the Beat Farmers have an extensive library of songs. The band played five from the very first, “Tales of the New West,” but not “Never Goin’ Back.” Appropriate for a historic goin’ back-on-the-road performance.
Toward the end of the night, the band strayed again from its set list to play their pal Dave Alvin and the Blasters “Marie Marie,” along with Raney’s classic “Riverside” and Harris’ “God is Here Tonight.”
“We’re merely shells of our former selves, but we’re fighting back like the champions we are,” Raney told the screaming crowd. “We may be Dick-less but we still rock.”
Of course, there was an encore set. And it began with Country Dick’s most famous tune, “Happy Boy.” Three audience members who came up from San Diego to attend all four shows came onto the stage to blow kazoos. Raney assumed the lead vocal role, leaving Bongo to gargle the beer solo.
A half-hour after the show had ended and the stage gear was removed, there were a few folks still around. The San Geronimo guys were outside listening closely to something Rolle was talking about. And inside there was the promoter KC Turner, who also was circumspect. “Well,” he said, “that’s the best Tuesday night we’ve ever had.”
The Beat Farmers
HopMonk Session Room, Novato, California
Sept. 26, 2023
- Set list
Make It Last
Reason to Believe
Girl I Almost Married
Road To Ruin
Gun Sale at the Church
Where Do They Go
Big Boss Man
God Is Here Tonight
20th Century Man
- The Beat Farmers, Back on the Road
- Sept. 26: Novato, HopMonk Session Room
- Sept. 27: Santa Cruz, Moe’s Alley
- Sept. 28: Menlo Park, The Guild Theatre
- Sept. 29: Morro Bay, The Siren
- Oct. 8: Long Beach, Alex’s Bar with Deke Dickerson and Cadillac Hearse\
A trio from San Diego takes the stage to play kazoos on “Happy Boy.”