By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Jared Griffin believes he was born in the wrong decade. He's seen The Last Waltz, the Scorsese-directed documentary about The Band's famous 1976 farewell show in San Francisco, more times than he can count. Neil Young still moves him to tears. As a senior at George Washington High School in 2002 — when Linkin Park and Nickelback were topping the rock charts — Griffin was tagging the "The Who" on his desk with a Sharpie.
"I almost didn't graduate high school because I was at the beach, listening to Tommy over and over again," says Griffin, the gritty voice of San Francisco's Sioux City Kid, perched on a bar stool at one of his favorite hometown dives, the Ha-Ra Club on Geary. "Some door just opened at that age. Then I got big into Robert Johnson and the blues, and then Bob Dylan, then Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly. At a certain point it was: Okay, I don't want to do anything but listen to music, I'm walking around actually in pain all the time from how beautiful this music is. Maybe I should try to...play it?"
A decade later, his band is releasing its second full-length album, Minutes, Miles, Troubles and Trials, nine tracks of red-blooded, blues-heavy rock 'n' roll. There's jangly ragtime piano, gospel-style backup vocals, and shout-along choruses. These are drinking songs to dance to and vice versa, all full of empty-bottle regrets, gypsy heartbreak, deals with the devil, and storms brewing in New Orleans. The record is dedicated to Levon Helm; the inside cover bears the directive "This album should be played loud!" as a callback to similar instructions at the beginning of The Last Waltz.
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Americana has become something of an overused descriptor for everyone with a beard and a stringed instrument, and it's easy to see how Sioux City Kid's subject matter might come off as posturing in the hands of a twentysomething, California-born songwriter. But that doesn't account for the assuredness in Griffin's voice, a gravelly tone that sounds deeper, older, and far more world-weary than his years. It draws frequent comparisons to Tom Waits (Griffin doesn't agree) and Howlin' Wolf (he'll take that one). There are some demons in it.
"I'm a defeatist, absolutely," says Griffin, noting that he's drinking vodka at the moment because whiskey has been making him "get a little dark lately." He's been working on the band's social media stuff all day, and Facebook — and the fact that he had to join it last year for promotional purposes — is among the realities of the modern-day music industry that depress him immensely. "I've always been like that. I'm an only child who grew up on a dead-end street. The glass isn't half-empty, it's very empty."
Sioux City Kid formed officially in 2009, when Griffin returned to San Francisco after a few years of roaming, and decided that the kind of blues songs he was writing would sound better with a little help from similarly classic rock-obsessed friends. In Griffin's earliest solo efforts in S.F., he'd been writing mainly political songs: "After seeing Sicko and An Inconvenient Truth, like, five times each in the theater, it was 'I'm gonna change the world with my politically minded folk!' Which, hilarious." So Griffin recruited a rhythm section out of acquaintances from the Hotel Utah's open mic scene. Since then, through a handful of lineup changes, Sioux City Kid has played as a duo and (at least at one point when we saw the band back in 2011) a rollicking eight-person steam engine that includes a two-man horn section.
It's a dynamic bunch: Jake Smolowe and Adam Finkin, who've been with Griffin from the beginning, are both forces to be reckoned with on the keys and bass, respectively; Laura Wiese's bright vocals add a welcome layer of contrast to an otherwise testosterone-heavy sound. But with a stage presence that's equal parts sweat, adrenaline, and high-proof bourbon, Griffin is often the focal point of the room. "The first time I played Great American I was crazy, spastic, basically doing voodoo rituals on the ground," he says with a laugh. "I've become a little more interested in controlled madness, where it's sort of bubbling on the brim, just about to push the envelope." The band will be playing Great American Music Hall again, one of Griffin's favorite venues, for the record release show on Sept. 27. The title of his absolute favorite venue goes to the Fillmore, a place that inspires Griffin to cross himself and blow it a kiss each time he passes by, because "it's like a cathedral."
Playing there, and touring nationally on a semi-regular basis, are goals for the future. "I don't see myself making old bones, but if I did I'd be happy doing that for a while," he says; there's not another career path that feels even remotely acceptable. (His other forms of income over the past decade have been landscape work and participation in "over 20" medical research studies at UCSF and S.F. General Hospital — ask him about the effects of mixing malaria pills and HIV medication on people who have neither!) And if he has to learn how to use Twitter along the way, he'll do it. "Playing music is still the only thing I really ever want to be doing, so this is it," says Griffin. "It's not like I've got a plan B."