Journeyman musician Michael Rennie has found a home in San Diego, in Normal Heights, where the Rio Peligroso singer-guitarist frequents his favorite neighborhood pub Rosie O’Grady’s and sates his beer munchies at Blind Lady Ale House.
“The soy chorizo pizza is awesome,” says the gourmand.
Rennie tells me that he settled on Normal Heights after renting an apartment in Hillcrest for the better part of a year. “Being a small-town guy, the move from Hillcrest to Normal Heights seemed substantial. I thought, Aw, hell, I’m way out in East County. Now I’m just about the biggest Normal Heights patriot you’ll meet.”
Interesting neighborhood, then?
“Oh, yeah. Not long after I moved in — this is a few years ago — I was held at gunpoint by the police. Had to go facedown, spread eagle on the sidewalk right outside my complex front gate. I was waiting for them to say ‘Welcome to the neighborhood!’ They had been keeping a guy on the phone who was holed up in his apartment with a shotgun. I was on my cordless when I walked outside to see what the commotion was about. They saw me on the phone, and the next thing I know I’ve got lights in my face and an earful of guns cocking. They thought I was the bad guy they were on the phone with.”
Next door, huh? You got a guard dog?
“Guard cat. She’s a fuzzy gargoyle — looks just like Phyllis Diller. Freaks people out.”
Rennie started honky-tonking roots-rock outfit Rio Peligroso after a decade of “band-hopping” cross-country through other people’s projects, from the Bicycle Thieves in Gainesville, Florida (known for musical exports Tom Petty, Less Than Jake, and Against Me) to San Diego bands AM Vibe, Inigo, and Roxy Monoxide. A cover project, Rio Peligroso mines deep cuts by fringe artists. Rennie’s vision saw light when he surrounded himself with a talented batch of players, including Kite Flying Society’s rhythm section David Lizerbram (bass) and Todd Caschetta (drums) and former Seventh Day Busker Dan Broder (guitars).
Tell me about the band and the “alterna-tonk” scene in San Diego.
“The band was a reaction to a number of things, including a lifetime spent playing in all-originals bands. Like most musicians who came of age in the post-punk era, I’d been conditioned to believe that playing covers was an artistically bankrupt — even morally bankrupt — practice. Thing is, all of the great bands of the rock era — the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, the Byrds — cut their teeth playing covers. So Rio Peligroso was an attempt to balance life as a player in all-originals bands with a desire to play in different venues for a different audience. I wanted to form a cover band that I would want to see.
“The ‘alterna-tonk’ scene seems pretty darned healthy right now. Seems every gig we play we’ve just missed Brawley, Three Chord Justice, Bill Cardinal, or Bartender’s Bible. I’d say we have the same booking agent except I’m our booking agent. I went to the John Meeks/Donkeys CD-release show at the Casbah a couple weeks back and all I can say is ‘Wow.’ Both great bands; both great CDs.”
Which local bands have proven kindred spirits and good stagemates?
“I love Billy Midnight. Been a fan for years. We finally got a chance to book a show with them last December and it was one of those shows that was modestly attended, but people came away gushing about the experience, especially me. Paper Planes out of Long Beach were a treat to play with. Our show with Greg Gibson at Bar Pink last month was also a highlight. Great guys, great band. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. Sorry, someone.”
Are you guys more comfortable playing a “country” club or to a country crowd?
“We haven’t really targeted ‘country’ bars or country-music nights. We just book venues we’d like to play and it all sort of works out. Humphrey’s Backstage is always a good time. Hensley’s Flying Elephant has become our North County stop-over. We’ve had great shows in crap venues and uninspired shows in tremendous venues....”
Is there a lot of recognition from audience members regarding your, I dunno, obscurist set list?
“That’s one of the biggest perks — the wild-eyed guy who grabs you as you’re coming offstage elated because he heard a band play Hank Snow, Camper Van Beethoven, late-era Byrds...or a Band song that isn’t ‘The Weight.’ I like to call what we do a ‘curatorial exercise’ — like hanging paintings in a museum. I don’t want to sound too high-brow about it ’cause at the end of the day it’s about shaking booty or squeezing out a few tears in your beer, but you won’t hear us doing ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ ”
Good for you. So, what’s on tap?
“We’re making a pilgrimage to Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown this weekend for a show on Saturday [June 19]. Barbecue heaven. That’s a place this band was built to play. And we got the second annual ‘Rio P-BBQ’ coming up this summer sometime somewhere, an appearance at the San Diego Pride Fest [July 18], and a return to the lounge at the Riviera Supper Club [July 31] out in La Mesa. Then some downtime. In August we’re putting this horse in the barn for a short time. I think we all need some time to fall in love with it again...and you know what they say about absence and the heart growin’ fondler.”
“Wha’d I say?”