The Loading Zone opened for the Who at the Fillmore on the band's first American tour, hung out with Janis Joplin and the Dead, and toured with Jeff Beck. Founded by Richmond-raised organist/vocalist Paul Fauerso in 1965, the rock 'n' rhythm combo was a regular part of Bill Graham's retinue of acts. For several years Berkeley's gloriously eclectic New Orleans House at San Pablo and Cedar served as its home base, but the East Bay group never became a marquee act outside of the region.
Since breaking up in the early 1970s, the Loading Zone has been mentioned most often not for its distinctive blend of garage rock, R&B, and jazz, but as the launching pad for Linda Tillery, who was a teenage soul belter when she took over as lead vocalist in 1967. In one of the most unlikely reunion concerts in recent memory, the band is regrouping (sans Tillery) for its first performance in almost four decades on Thursday, August 14, at Freight & Salvage, celebrating the release of a new recording, Blue Flame on ElderFunk Records.
"Of all the bands playing the Fillmore a lot, we were one of the last ones to get signed," said Fauerso, who now lives in San Antonio, Texas. "We weren't like the Dead or Janis or Country Joe. We were more of an R&B soul act. We didn't really fit in that San Francisco band thing, though we did play a Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. We were probably closest to the Dead as friends. They were the anointed ones. We were scruffy East Bay guys."
With no hit singles and two albums that have never been reissued on CD, the Loading Zone's recorded legacy is obscure, but not totally forgotten. Last year's acclaimed anthology Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970, included its cover of Billy Ward's early '50s R&B hit "The Bells." At the time, most critics felt the Loading Zone's self-named debut album didn't come close to capturing the band's energy in concert, and almost no one heard the second record. Rather than trying to recapture lost glory, the reunion is a case study in enduring musical chemistry.
After the group disbanded, the musicians went their separate ways and didn't play together for about 35 years. In 2005, Fauerso decided to look up some of his old comrades on a whim, and after a few rehearsals organized a recording session with bassist Mike Eggleston and drummer extraordinaire George Marsh, now a member of the Dave Grisman Quintet. They ended up recording five tracks, and Blue Flame features the new material interspersed with three pieces from the barely released 1969 album One for All. The contrast between the two eras is striking, with the raw energy of the old material bouncing against the self-contained jazz-inflected melodies of the 2005 session.
"Listening to those old tunes, I came to the realization that when you're that young you're just punk," said Marsh, who recruited flutist Matt Eakle, a fellow Grisman Quintet member, as a special guest for Thursday's Freight gig. "Punk rock wasn't invented yet, but it sounds like that to me. I've been trying in a way to garner some of that strength again, and it's working fine, but that's not my aesthetic."
A supremely sensitive drummer, Marsh has taught percussion at many colleges and universities around Northern California. He moved to the region from Chicago in the late 1960s and quickly hooked up some of the era's most innovative jazz musicians, such as pianist Denny Zeitlin and guitarist Jerry Hahn. He was drawn to the Loading Zone by the band's commitment to R&B.
"Paul really hipped me how to get into certain funk grooves," Marsh said. "It was a study for me. The thing about the Loading Zone that I loved was that every time we played something, we played it differently. That's kind of my jazz influence, composing on the spot when you can."
Fauerso shared a background in jazz. He started his career in high school with the Tom Paul Trio. After a few months at San Francisco State, he decided to try his hand at music full-time. The Loading Zone's first incarnation featured bassist Bob Kridle, drummer George Newcom, and guitarists Pete Shapiro and Steve Dowler, who had both left Berkeley's early psychedelic rock band the Marbles.
"Our first big gig was the first Trips Festival at Longshoreman's Hall," said Fauerso. "I don't know how we got it. There were at least 1,000 outside trying to get in. It was the first concert where the cops were suddenly aware of how many hippies there were."
The repertoire consisted mostly of R&B covers, but the group mixed it up with some distortion, psychedelic, and jazz. By the time Fauerso put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle seeking a new lead vocalist, the band had expanded with a two-piece horn section. At least half a dozen singers came by the band's West Oakland Victorian to audition, but Tillery got the job almost before singing a note. She had called up beforehand and made sure she fit the bill.
"She said, I'm kind of big, like a Big Mama Thornton, and I play harmonica," Fauerso recalled. "She walked through the door in a post office uniform, with little white cat-eyes glasses, and I said, that's our girl. She just looked right. We evolved as a dance band with a fusion of R&B and rock, and we ended up as a psychedelic soul band once we added Linda. She was singing for us by the time we opened for Cream at Winterland. Her mother made her a floor-length ruffled red leather cape. It was very dramatic."
The band finally landed a record deal with RCA in 1968, but the debut album disappointed both the group and Loading Zone fans. Still, the record sold about 100,000 copies, and the band toured as an opening act for Vanilla Fudge and the Jeff Beck Group. With Marsh's facility for odd time signatures, they became increasingly experimental, which led to scenes straight out of the rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. Opening for Jethro Tull, the band responded to a hostile audience with a jazz odyssey.
"We played a whole second set of free improv," Fauerso said. "We started really quiet and built to this screaming wall of rage, and then all stopped on a dime."
Fauerso produced Tillery's first solo album before the band broke up for good, but by 1971 he was ready to leave the Bay Area to devote himself to teaching Transcendental Meditation. Rarely far from music, he wrote commercial jingles, did some film scores, recorded music for meditation, and produced several albums for Beach Boys' Mike Love. But his ultimate bandstand thrill was a Loading Zone gig opening for soul legends Sam and Dave.
"Linda was singing with us and we played our hearts out," Fauerso said. "Afterwards Sam Moore came up and said, 'You guys are pretty good. If you keep doing what you're doing, you're going to be baaaad.'"
Alas, the Loading Zone never had a chance to live up to Moore's prediction. But with three simpatico players reuniting for fresh musical exploration, the band is seizing the moment to find a new zone.
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