Chris Peck is a singular artist. The first time I saw him perform was outside the 16th & Mission BART station during one of those Thursday night gatherings, straddling the nerdy and the hip with smart, speed-changing rhymes, a lean-in and an open-faced, underplayed hand-clap. Is this guy serious, I wondered, but the answer was obvious; not only was he compelling -- directly communicating with the loud and often indifferent crowd of Dionysians -- but shouts of "Peck!" and "Peck the Town Crier!" told me he'd earned the kind of respect reserved for only a small portion of the recurring performers there.
The next time I saw the Town Crier was also at the corner, but this time he had a guitar. Instead of leaning into the crowd, he stood calmly in the center and strummed up a cyclic, bouncy refrain that built in positive emphasis each time he repeated it. Every time I saw Peck he seemed to do something entirely different; at home in a multitude of styles and moods, he didn't quite belong to any one clique so much as fit into all of them.
If you ask him, he owes much of this to an accident. After a youth steeped in the hippie/jam-band scene (he saw at least 10 Phish shows before he was 15 and "played in bands that sounded like that, just playing guitar and never singing,") a high school teacher introduced Chris and his friends to the 1970s' electric jazz of groups such as Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His crew -- about 30 in all -- fast became devoted fanatics of the genre and drove into San Francisco from Marin to experience it in person.
"We would go to Yoshi's or something and Tony Williams would be playing, before he died, and one of us would get up the courage to ask him for a lesson and he would say, "Yes, come to my house." That's the weird thing about jazz musicians: even if they're really famous, they're not famous for being famous, like Mick Jagger, and it's like you probably can't hang out with Mick Jagger; but, in the case of Tony Williams you can hang out with him, but you can't play like him. You know? And that's what he's famous for."
Shortly after Peck went to NYU to study jazz, he was building a basement studio and the months of construction resulted in a major case of tendinitis in one of his wrists. This injury prevented him from really playing an instrument for nearly five years. "My whole vibe as a guy was up in the air: like, what am I going to create with; how am I going to be an artist?" Still writing songs but unable to play them, Peck became more focused on lyrics and his studies in liberal arts, on "literature, activism... using a loop peddle and getting into dancing... just, any way to still be a creative guy."
At the time, when he was 20, 21, Peck started frequenting Zulu Nation parties and became immersed in the scene. "The real culture of hip-hop is there -- it's really the folk music of New York still -- and you fill in the gaps of your understanding. I started hanging out with rappers and trying to rap and write rap lyrics. And New York was a good place to steal some tricks."
He transferred to a part of the university where students can make up their own major, and called his, "Navigating Society As An Artist." "It's funny," he says, "because that's what I'm doing now; I'm doing what I majored in."
After finishing school, Peck returned to the Bay Area and was studying humanities at San Francisco State. After bombing one of those GRE tests that instantly give you your score, he decided to head to the Mission to have a drink. "I walked up on the 16th and Mission scene and saw the readings and came back the next week with a piece [to perform]. It was pretty life-changing."
"I used to want to be a virtuoso guitarist; that was my life goal when I was in my early-twenties. And now I just want to be like an over-arching musical mind, pulling from deep literary pockets and, you know, I feel more at home in our little 16th and Mish and Viracocha scene than I feel at home in the music scene now."
Perhaps with good reason: Peck found the corner pretty early. Now in its 8th year of weekly meetings, 16th and Mission has enjoyed nearly 6 years of Peck the Town Crier, who turned 31 this year. But he's also returned to the music scene: after years of trying any- and everything to nurse his wrist back to health -- including hypnotherapy and acupuncture -- Peck's wrist simply started to work again. Not only has he not had any subsequent troubles with it; he now teaches guitar as his day job.
Currently, Peck is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a single vinyl of a double album that showcases both his roots ("Home Phone") and a glimpse of his future ("Ghost of Payphone"). He calls the combination Hist-Hop. "I try to make fresh sounds while staying connected to the past." Funding from the project will go toward professional mixing and mastering, the pressing of 500 records, publicity, patches, posters, and payment for the musicians who will help him perform the albums. Peck starts his first East Coast tour in November.
Before leaving the West Coast, however, Peck the Town Crier will be performing at the Bedrock Records Parking Lot Party on Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 2226 4th Street in San Rafael and the following day, Monday, October 10, as part of Quiet Lightning at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers (100 John F. Kennedy Drive, Golden Gate Park). For more information and/or to help with his Kickstarter campaign, visit peckthetowncrier.com.