The Charities have arrived (and are about to depart)
by Mark McDermott
On a Friday afternoon in January on a partly paved road in the ramshackle town of Todos Santos in Baja California Sur, Mexico, a dusty van came to a stop. A cast of characters poured out, six in total, blinking in the midday sun. One wore a bright red jacket somehow regally, peroxide-dyed hair poking out of a broad-brimmed Clint Eastwood-esque hat. One wore a multi-colored poncho over white pants, while another had long, disheveled firetruck-red hair and wore thick-rimmed glasses. Nobody carried an instrument as the crew walked down the sidewalk toward the town center, but the villagers from the pueblo mágico — as the old, historic part of town has been designated — knew what kind of men these were.
“Llegaron Los Rolling Stones,” said a man standing at a street corner across the way, meaning: “The Rolling Stones have arrived.”
His wry observation wasn’t all that far off. In 1963, when the Rolling Stones first began seriously gigging, they toured alongside Bo Diddley and Little Richard at clubs and ballrooms all through the English Midlands. Critics didn’t know what to make of the band other than the fact they had “caveman haircuts,” as one early review put it. The confusion was understandable. They were a white band from London playing black American music; the world had not yet witnessed such a thing.
The Charities are equally outlandish. They are a soul band from Hermosa, Redondo, and Manhattan Beach. They range in age from 22 to 26 and play a brand of music that emanated from Detroit and Memphis a half century ago. Other than their skin color, the Charities would not be out of place, musically or stylistically, on a concert bill in the mid-60s featuring The Impressions (with lead singer Curtis Mayfield), the Spinners, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
“When you first hear them, you might assume they are covering a mix of Motown, soul, and funk music,” said Jeff Vincent, the CEO of DirtyHippieRadio.com. “Then you quickly learn they are producing original tunes that you end up humming and singing in your head when you are walking the dog three days later.”
The Charities had arrived in Todos Santos for the Tropic of Cancer Music Festival. They played their first gig starting at 1:15 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning to a packed house at a venue called La Morena. Music had been going on since 6 p.m. at the big stage at nearby Hotel California, and so this after hours show attracted what was — at least at first — an exhausted and bleary-eyed crowd. By about 2 a.m., the room was wide awake and bouncing. Lead singer Brock Van Pelt, who in stature and sideburns is reminiscent of a very young Van Morrison, at one point laid down on the stage, the microphone raised above his prone head as he whispered, cajoled, and yowled through a song called “Funk Upon a Time.“
Many people in the audience, which had thronged the stage, laid down on the beer-soaked floor. It was an oddly stirring moment, there in the wee hours in a Mexican club. Only one thing known to mankind has the kind of sway that could lay down a raucous room so tenderly: real soul music.
“A genre is such a mixed-up situation,” Van Pelt would later say. “There are two kinds of music: music that has soul, and music that doesn’t. Sabbath had soul, Jimi Hendrix had soul, but people called them rock n’ roll. There are hip hop artists with soul, and jazz artists with soul. It’s something beyond a name or a genre.”
A second show was added the very next night at a place called La Jardin. By this time, the word had gotten out about the Charities. A lot of young locals had come to check out the band, who did not disappoint, playing an electrifying set of their own songs and crowning the night with a song few bands have the ethereal heft to perform, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” At the front, stage left, a 69-year-old grandma from Iowa, who’d begun the show sitting comfortably in the back of the club, had a wide-eyed smile on her face. The last show she’d seen was Elton John in Ames, Iowa, in 1970.
“That was good,” she said. “This was better.”
First acts of the Charities
The Charities, after a year in formulation, came to full fruition last December in a garage in North Manhattan Beach.
Keyboard player Joe Lopilato had moved into the bottom part of a duplex on Alma Avenue a few months earlier with the understanding that the house would soon be torn down. The landlord had died and developers were circling. It was the kind of situation only artists, or those otherwise acquainted with transience, could appreciate — below market rent in exchange for a very tenuous hold on tenancy. He was only guaranteed a home through February. Back in the Beach Cities’ more low rent days, bands in garages were a more common thing; the Doors famously had their first band practice in a garage a few blocks away, in keyboard player Ray Manzarek’s parents home by Sand Dune Park. Hundreds of punk bands would later form in garages throughout the South Bay. Those days are all but gone; higher rents and less noise-tolerant neighbors make bands an increasingly endangered species anywhere near the beach.
Somehow in the seams of the South Bay over the last decade, however, a bunch of throwback young musicians have subsisted. Seven years ago, Lopilato was part of a band founded by brothers Tyler and Zach Bozeman called Temporal Love that started out as a Cream-esque power trio and evolved into a varyingly large, eight to 12 piece funk band.
Van Pelt was not yet a performer when he first saw Temporal Love, and later a band called Brissey. Both bands were comprised of Hermosa Beach kids, and each expanded Van Pelt’s idea of what was possible.
“I always thought there was no good music going on anymore,” he said. “When I found out about Brissey, I was very skeptical about how they were going to sound. I went over to a huge house party on the 4th of July on 10th Street and they were upstairs singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino. I was so impressed, I had to get to know these guys.”
Van Pelt had arrived in the South Bay only a few years before as a seventh grader. He and his mother, Cynthia, had drifted around LA for most of his life, at times actually homeless. But she was one of those people who somehow managed to make the best of every situation, largely through song.
“She used to make up songs about everything around the house, like, ‘Oh, I’m cooking this toast and making some eggs!’” Van Pelt recalled. “She’d sing songs around the house all day long like that. She’d make a song out of any sentence.”
When Brock was really young, Cytnthia had taken him with her a few times to the bar where she worked as a waitress. She entered the bar’s karaoke contest, and won it, repeatedly. That memory would stick with her son.
“She won $300 and it would help her pay rent, along with her paycheck and tips,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. But she was always a singer.”
So was he, as it turned out. Several times during his early elementary school years, Cynthia would get a call that Brock was getting in trouble, but in a way that secretly warmed her heart.
“I’d start singing out loud and dancing in the middle of class,” he said. “I used to get scolded a lot for that…It’s starting to make a lot more sense now but I remember getting in a lot of trouble for singing and dancing in front of the whole class when I was not supposed to.”
Van Pelt attended Redondo Union and then Redondo Shores High School, the latter an alternative school where a lot of unusually creative kids end up after struggling at the larger, more conventional RUHS campus. Through a mutual friend at Shores, he’d eventually meet a younger kid named Matt Robinson who was already an advanced musician. Matt’s father was Doug Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist one-man-band who has performed upstairs at Old Tony’s restaurant for the last 25 years. Rebelling against his dad, as kids do, Matt had started as a drummer.
“I asked my Uncle Charlie, ‘Hey, teach me drums, those are cool,’” he remembered. “Eventually I gravitated to liking notes. ‘Hey Uncle Larry, teach me the bass.’ Eventually I thought maybe I could do two more strings and play guitar.”
He and his buddies, throughout their adolescent years, would hang out and play music at a garage near Parras Middle School. They started a hardcore band called The Variables, and later a band called Secret. Robinson broke his kneecap his senior year in high school, and recalled that through “the random power of the internet” he discovered gypsy jazz great Django Reinhardt while laid up in bed.
“Django changed my life,” he said. “It was hardcore, the same attitude, but more complex noting.”
Robinson recalls the first time he laid eyes on Van Pelt.
“It was in the halls of Redondo High,” he said. “It was like, ‘Who is this hippie-ass kid with the acoustic guitar and wrist tattoos?’”
Van Pelt has a flower tattooed on one wrist, and “One Love” on the other. Eventually Van Pelt began hanging out at the garage, first just to watch the other guys play music. After seeing Brissey, he became inspired to get behind the microphone himself. Finally, at age 18, he took the leap, and along with two friends played the open mic night at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa. He sang a Them song and a few Beatles songs, and was shocked at the response.
“People liked it,” Van Pelt said. “It was very exciting. We got tipped very well, and that was the start of me thinking maybe this could go somewhere.”
After high school he started a band called Milk Soul Delivery. The band shared bills with Brissey, and the two groups began to merge. Van Pelt became good friends with their guitarist, Alec Kersenboom.
Like Van Pelt, Kersenboom started singing early. He remembers singing along so intensely, in the back seat of his mom’s car at age 4, to Dire Straits’ “On Every Corner” that he was convinced she couldn’t hear him because he sounded so exactly like the radio. He messed around with guitar a few years, but it wasn’t until he attended Patrick Bolan’s summer music camps in PV that he fell fully into music. He started out on drums, then one day when the kid playing bass couldn’t keep the rhythm, he switched over. He was immediately comfortable with strings, and soon wanted more — strings, and melody — and switched to guitar.
“And that was that,” Kersenboom said.
Around the same time, he encountered some records that grooved him in such a fundamental way he began to realize music was really the only thing for him. “The Spinners, in sixth grade,” he said. “Yeah, I was on that shit early.” He was about 12 years old and already knew his fate. He’d gig at Suzy’s in Hermosa before he’d even reached high school.
Records remained portals for soul. Later, in those Milk Soul days when their friendship deepened musically, Kersenboom and Van Pelt had a ritual of sorts. They both had Wednesdays off from their restaurant jobs and would get together every week at Brock’s place on the Hermosa-Redondo border and spin vinyl.
“We’d meet up Wednesday mornings and ‘get blasted and listen to oldies,’ which has been the rallying cry ever since,” Kersenboom said. “We got people in New York still saying that.”
They listened to a lot of really early, Motown-influenced Bob Marley, nearly forgotten vocal groups from the 60s such as The Tams, and early Curtis Mayfield. They particularly lost their minds together over Trini Lopez, a hard-to-define Mexican-American singer and guitarist (and designer of a few Gibson guitars) who’d been a big star in 1963.
“That sweet Trini Lopez record with the red cover and him with that sick ass [Gibson] 335,” Kersenboom recalled.
“That record Alec found was the album of the year when it came out, just super soulful,” Van Pelt said. “It was Latin music and the guy sang in Spanish, but it had so much soul. Every Wednesday we’d put it on and get down on it.”
Kersenboom had spent some time up North right after graduating from Mira Costa, where he and his Brissey bandmates briefly (and barely) attended San Francisco State and dug into the local music scene.
“I was networking,” Kersenboom said, only half joking.
His bandmates included his childhood soul brother Anthony Masino, who’d been more focused on playwriting (like his father, Angelo) before Kersenboom put a guitar in his hands during their middle school years at Hermosa Valley School and told him to make noise and string together some words. That’s when Kersenboom learned how easy and cool it was to just make your own songs.
“I told him, ‘Just strum, whatever, dude…’ Such a vibe. We recorded those songs,” Kersenboom said. “That was the start of building that dream.”
In San Francisco, Kersenboom got to know all the local musicians, including a rhythm section from Oceanside, drummer Hunter Pipp and bassist Derek Doszkocs, both who also attended (sort of) SFSU. Coincidently, Robinson at one point in those years also spent some time in San Francisco, and played in impromptu quartet gig with Pipp and Doszkocs.
“We played a few jazz standards,” Robinson said. “That was the funnest show ever.”
Brissey came back south and promptly broke up when everyone in the band except Kersenboom left for New York. “That wasn’t the call for me,” he said.
By this time, the end of 2017, an early version of the Charities played its first gigs. Robinson was in the lineup, switching between drums and bass in the band’s formative stages, and finally as a guitarist. Van Pelt had tried to get Kersenboom, but he was still getting over the demise of Brissey. He went to a Charities show in Gardena, though, and thus relented.
“This is pretty dope. I’m down,” he told Van Pelt. “Let’s figure this out.”
A drummer and a keyboard player came and went. Lopilato sat in for one gig at Saint Rocke, but he was in another band, Mad Hawks, and serving as an understudy to locally-based producer Jimmy Messer. Then last December, he asked Kersenboom to move into his house on Alma. At exactly the same time, Pipp was flying into LAX from a year living in New Zealand. Pipp is a rare drummer; one who appreciates silence. He’d spent large chunks of his year abroad in silent meditation. Now he was ready to drum.
“I was like, hell yeah, I’ll pick you up,” Kersenboom said.
A plan, and a band, was unhatching. A call was placed to Doszkocs, who is likewise a rare bassist, one who started on keyboards and thus is melodic, yet true to his four strings, understated. He was living in Oregon and up for a road trip south.
“Alec managed to get all six of us together in the same room in the same month coming from so many different places,” Lopilato said. “Hunter came in from New Zealand, he got Derek to come down from Oregon, he got me to come out of my bedroom, he got Brock and Matt to come over, and that is how it all started.”
A few years ago, the writer, filmmaker, and war correspondent Sebastian Junger wrote a book called “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.” After years spent in the trenches with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Junger had realized something about the nature of PTSD: it wasn’t so much what the soldiers had experienced together in war that left them adrift, but what they experience apart, afterwards, drifting in the isolation of modern society. The fundamental unit of human beings, he argued, had for hundreds of thousands of years been small bands of people working towards survival together.
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary,” Junger wrote. “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
Being in a band, in other words, is more natural than not being in a band. Throw in music and the band has a means of creating its own culture. All six Charities and one artist girlfriend thus packed into the duplex on Alma, which was small but had great acoustics and a high-ceilinged garage. Lopilato, who is a sought-after math and science tutor, was the only one with the semblance of another job. He was the one, in what he described as a “knee-jerk decision,” who booked almost the entire band their tickets to Mexico; he did so only weeks after turning down a European tour playing keys for a well-known artist. He did it for the music, but more, he did it for the family he’d just found. For the band.
“The culture we tried to build from the start is a culture of giving,” Lopilato said. “And to entertain, something most bands somehow sort of forget to do. One thing Brock does that I really love is at live shows he dances with the audience. There is not so much of a barrier between the audience and the performance. We blur those lines quite extensively.”
“It’s a trading off of energies,” Kersenboom said. “Thats a big underlying thing, something I believe in. We are all kind of utilizing some sort of energy that is flowing between us.”
You will likely never see a band more visibly joyful to be playing together.
“I’m just playing music with all my favorite people to play music with,” Robinson said.
Something else most humans lost as societies modernized and everything was commodified was music. For most of our species’ history, music was something for everybody; people sang songs together, both as a means to entertain each other before there was such a thing as an entertainment industry, and as a means of encoding shared cultural values, history, and lessons. Then the music industry was born, and a hundred years later most people are well-trained: the music is up there on the stage, or on your device, and you are down below, or otherwise apart, listening. Most people can’t sing a single song in its entirety, much less make one up.
Van Pelt wants to give music back to everyone. And he’s got a gift: Charities shows tend to end up with a lot of audience singing.
“People back then didn’t have a rock star to look up to,” he said. “They were making music as just a part of being a person, and they were doing it for the right reasons, for passion, doing it because they loved music. Now your mind misconstrues some rock star idea when really it’s completely about making your music and making sure it connects with people.”
On the same day in early February the band completed its forthcoming album, recorded in the garage, the knock on the door from the realtor finally came. The dream on Alma was up: sixty days notice. Eviction. It didn’t just mean the end of the house, but the end of living locally. The band found a little spread in a town on the Central Coast, Creston, population 94. “We’ll make it an even 100,” Lopilato said.
Their time on Alma has been productive. A lot of the signature moments in rock n’ roll history have come from bands living together, like The Band’s Music from Big Pink, recorded in a house in upstate New York.
“Being in a group like this, if one person has a bad mood, they are usually the one to change, because it’s much more difficult to have a bad mood or be lazy when someone else is inspired,” Lopilato said. “We wake up and practice together. Every day, someone else is the initiator of that practice. Whoever woke up that day with an idea.”
The name of the record is, appropriately, Alma, which means “soul” in Spanish. It is groovy and original, with lush keys, sultry rhythms, tangy guitar lines throughout, and lots of la la la’s, the sound of six souls singing so happily together that it’s impossible not to sing along. It’s only an EP, with five songs — “1,2,3,” “Shoo Wah,” “Itis,” “Mistakes,” and “Sugah Sweet” — but it feels like a sweet little universe unto itself.
The band members are uniformly exhilarated and sad to be leaving their haven. But there is a sense of completion, a feeling that they came and did what they needed to do, and now it’s time to go. Van Pelt’s mother, who sang her way through plenty of difficult changes, has given her blessing.
“She told me recently that I’ve turned out how she would have hoped: a boy with lots of friends who is a singer in a band,” he said. “That’s what she always hoped to see.”
“I raised u to walk in the son and sun,” she posted on the band’s Instagram (@the.charities) this week. “All my heart Brock.”
The Charities play Brouwerij West in San Pedro April 11 at 9 p.m., Trip Santa Monica April 12 at 9 p.m., and Tower 12 in Hermosa Beach April 17 at 11 p.m.