Bands are supposed to move to Los Angeles to make it big. Or else New York, specifically Brooklyn these days. For the past 50 years (and maybe longer), bands from across the country have packed up and headed to one corner of the country or the other in the hopes that the magnificent flying rock and roll unicorn swoops down and carries them off to stardom.
The Parson Redheads followed that formula after college. The band moved from Eugene down to L.A. with rock and roll dreams in tow and soon found themselves part of the burgeoning Silver Lake/Echo Park indie rock scene. Anchored by Evan Way on guitar and vocals and his wife Brette Marie on the drums, the band was quick to gain a following and continually added to their lineup, taking the stage with eight or more members, some of which were there solely for tambourine duties. And they'd all wear semi-matching white outfits and take on goofy nicknames, all with the last name Parson, giving them the appearance of a folk pop cult.
But now, after five years in Los Angeles, The Parson Redheads have returned to Oregon, setting up shop in Portland with a trimmed-down lineup and a far less rigid dress code. The Red Heads are just one of many bands that have found refuge from L.A. or New York in a smaller city where rent is more affordable, yet recording and gigging opportunities are still easily within reach.
"It was tough. The hard thing about the move was leaving not just people we played with but that whole music community," says Evan Way. "That was where we all felt we learned how to be a band."
The band plans on continuing its habit of heavy touring, which Way says is easy to accomplish from the new Portland home base. The Red Head's first jaunt out of Portland is an easy one, says Way. They're on the McMenamins Great Northwest Tour, which places them around Oregon and Washington, often playing cozy venues.
"This will almost be like vacation because the drives are short and the venues are all really cool," says Way.
The Parson Red Heads are best known for their wild live shows that give us a sampling of their vastly broad range - big rock flashes coupled with quaintly excellent acoustic folk number. The band has always been tagged as a retro folk pop act, like The Byrds for a new generation, but when they played in Bend this summer, the trimmed down lineup seemed to be employing a different approach. Harmonies dominated their set at McMenmins Old St. Francis School, where they'll play again on December 4, and there was nothing necessarily "throwback" about them. This is something Way says can be heard on the band's new album, set tentatively for a spring 2011 release.
"The idea was to put something out that focused more on the vocals and the harmonies. With a lot of the songs we were writing, we were doing that anyway. There was a little more dynamic and we wanted to add more to the range [between] quiet and somewhat loud," says Way.
In some respects, Way says that he and the other Parsons have been rethinking the band's approach, but haven't totally abandoned the visual and sonic presentation on which the band has thrived. But if they show up somewhere to play and aren't feeling like suiting up in all-white getups, then they won't.
"There were shows three years ago where we thought we had to wear all white, but you know, there's a time and a place," says Way.
On the other hand, while they may have left some of their ancillary and honorary band members back in L.A., the Red Heads hope to continue the all-inclusive community feel in Portland, where there are, of course, plenty of musicians to join in. Because they are, after all, a family band.
The Parson Red Heads
7pm Wednesday, December 1. McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 NW Bond St. Free.