For a quarter-century, the masked men of Los Straitjackets have cemented their self-proclaimed title as the “world’s leading practitioners of the guitar instrumental” through frequent worldwide touring and more than a dozen albums.
While the band arguably led the surf instro-revival that followed director Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION (1994), what has always set Los Straitjackets apart from the pack (beside many killer original tunes) is their eclectic taste and ingenuity. In short, Los Straitjackets are not merely a “surf” band, but rather guitar-driven curators of pop culture in the grand tradition of the Ventures. Indeed, Danny Amis, Eddie Angel, Pete Curry, Chris “Sugarballs” Sprague, and Greg Townson can turn Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (the love theme from the 1997 movie TITANIC) into a sparkling, “Telstar”-inspired opus as adeptly as they hammer forth classic surf tunes such as “Squad Car”.
On occasion, the band has teamed up with various singers (including Exene Cervenka, Nick Lowe, and El Vez) on a track-by-track basis. However, their latest album, Los Straitjackets: Deke Dickerson Sings the Great Instrumental Hits, is the band’s most comprehensive vocal effort to date. Backing surf/garage/hotrod kingpin Dickerson (whose own efforts include the primal garage band Untamed Youth), Los Straitjackets summon hitherto wordless classics like “Walk, Don’t Run”, “Pipeline”, and “Apache”, superimposed by Dickerson’s own self-styled lyrics. The results are remarkably enjoyable for an effort that could have easily sunk to novelty status.
On November 2, 2014, both band and singer stopped by Philadelphia’s World Café Live as part of a tour in support of the new record. Neither disappointed. Moreover, Los Straitjackets and Deke Dickerson mined a few garage gems and one-hit wonders that I never thought I’d hear live – the Sonics’ “Have Love, Will Travel”, the Swingin’ Medallions “Double Shot”, and “Red River Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, to name a few – their vitality reflecting the perennial quality of the best rock ‘n’ roll. Dickerson, in top form, delivered a bouncy, ska-lounge rendition of Phyllis Dillon’ cover of “Perfidia”, as well as an amazingly spot-on tribute to the late Steve Wahrer’s 50-grit vocals on the Trashmen’s landmark “Surfin’ Bird”.
Both Dickerson and Los Straitjackets also stuck around after the show, to sign autographs and mingle with concert-goers, suggesting a deeply-rooted appreciation of their fans only paralleled by that for the music.
More photos here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leekinginc/sets/72157649241257901/
War, some say, is God’s way of teaching Americans geography. And while for many, sadly, that may still hold true, today’s digital technology readily issues passports to foreign landscapes for anyone with a Galilean sense of curiosity and a good wifi connection – particularly in the musical sphere. Indeed, fusions of Western sound as filtered through the experience of foreign cultures – and vice versa – make for some of today’s freshest, most exciting music, and the Internet offers an improbably diverse world of rhythms and melodies for those willing to listen.
Among my favorite acts of recent years is Bomba Estereo, a Colombian band at the forefront of a style some have dubbed “electrocumbia”, a seamless blend of indigenous rhythms, Latin, reggae, rock, and electronic music. I had longed to experience this monstrously heady fusion in person for the last several years, but the space/time continuum remained steadfastly averse to it; Bomba Estereo never played Baltimore, and driving 45 minutes to Washington, D.C., on a Monday night usually proved problematic.
That Davida and I finally leapt at the opportunity to instead drive twice as far on a Monday night, to World Café Live in Philadelphia, probably reflects our feelings for D.C. as much as any affinity for Philly. Leaving work an hour early meant our only significant challenge would be the Rush Hour of Brotherly Love.
Having arrived at our destination about an hour before the doors opened, we enjoyed a delicious Indian buffet dinner at the nearby Sitar India. (Being a buffet, it allowed us to not only eat our fill, but also be as fast or slow in the process as we wished.) Afterward, we enjoyed the mild evening air of mid-September as we wandered back to the venue.
It was our second trip to World Café Live, the first having taken place a year earlier, when we took our 7-year-old son to his first concert, a Halloween-themed triple bill of the Fleshtones, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Los Straitjackets called “Mondo Zombie Boogaloo” (after a collaborative album of the same name). We’d found both sound and stage favorable, the staff to be most accommodating, and the restrooms quite clean. We bought drinks at the bar, then wandered out to the still-empty floor.
With their own blend of Latin, jazz, funk, and psychedelia, opening act Los Crema Paraiso proved well-suited to the task. I particularly dug the Venezuelan band’s seven-minute trance-epic called “Shine On You (Crazy Diablo)”, as well as the bouncy jangle of “Petrocumbia”. The next day, in fact, we bought their album, El Debut, online. (Curiously, neither band had a merch table that night.). When their set concluded, Davida and I staked out our places at the foot of the stage.
Upon taking the stage, Bomba Estereo unleashed a sonic juggernaut, an irresistible melting pot of jungle noise and urban nightlife. I found the lighting – which more often than not cast the band in silhouette (and sometimes total darkness) while at times, in fact, spotlighting the audience instead – to be especially interesting.
Though diminutive in stature (despite her platform sneakers), vocalist/MC Liliana Saumet commanded the audience with a powerful feminine presence that, amazingly, never detours into either pixie-princess or androgyny. Backed by band-founder Simon Mejia (bass), Julian Salazar (guitar/synthesizer), and Kike Eggurola (drums), Saumet – with her impeccable ability to rile the audience at just the right moments – led the band through dance-inducing numbers like “Fuego” as deftly as more atmospheric tunes, such as “Lo Que Tengo Que Decir”.
For 90-odd minutes, Bomba Estereo awed concertgoers not with blood and fire, but rather a distinctively reshuffled deck of human experience, demonstrating the notion that, often, travel is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder…
And you could dance to it.
60 South 38th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104
Phone: (215) 662-0818
(DGB comment: they note on the buffet which items are vegan and gluten-free.)
Fifty reverb-drenched years following the release of his signature hit, “Misirlou”, Dick Dale never comes off as an “oldies” act, a feat the 77-year-old “King of the Surf Guitar” reaffirmed with a recent Boston-area performance that for me happily coincided with a work conference in that city.
Having closed down a rooftop cocktail reception our second night in town, three friends and I hailed a cab from the convention hotel in the city’s Back Bay section to Cambridge, just across the Charles River. In less than 10 minutes, the four of us stood outside the Middle East nightclub, located at 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue.
The $30 cover ($25 in advance) was substantially more than the $11 or $12 I used to pay to see Dale back in the mid-’90s, when he rode a wave of resurgent popularity following director Quentin Tarantino’s prominent use of “Misirlou” in his film Pulp Fiction. Still, I was pleased to find the Middle East a throwback to the smaller, darker, more intimate venues frequented in my youth, like Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre.
Downstairs, people packed the floor while the opening act, Three Day Threshold, delivered a decent brand of cow-punk somewhat reminiscent of the Supersuckers. I spied an opening at the bar, and we promptly ordered a round. The right moment arrived a few minutes later, when the band went off stage and the crowd briefly broke for the bathrooms and bar. It was then, drinks in hand, that we deftly made our way to the foot of the stage.
Dale is, in a sense, multiculturalism incarnate. Born in Boston to a Polish mother and Lebanese father, he grew up in nearby Quincy before moving with his family to El Segundo, California, where the teenage Dale took up surfing. The traditional Middle Eastern music he had known all his life came to heavily influence a style of music now commonly associated with Southern California. Indeed, his best-known tune, “Misirlou”, is based on a folk song that dates back to the 1920s. With his ferocious speed and amp-blowing volume, many today consider Dick Dale a progenitor of everything from punk to heavy metal.
Despite his advanced years and a recent bout with cancer, Dale, backed by a top-notch bass guitarist and drummer, tore through his 50-year repertoire with hurricane fury that night in Cambridge: “Let’s Go Trippin”, “Fish Taco”, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, “House of the Rising Sun”, “Louie Louie”, “Summertime Blues”, and a blistering rendition of the late Link Wray’s “Rumble”. He also remains the only man alive who can make both “Hava Nagila” and “Amazing Grace” sound completely bad-ass. No matter the tune, Dale, like the Ramones, has a sound so distinctive that whatever he plays instantly becomes his own.
At one point during the show I turned around to face the crowd. The whole place was packed.
While Dale has to pay the bills just like the rest of us, one aspect that has always stuck with me since his earlier shows is his manifest enthusiasm for his fans. At no time was this ever more evident than the end of the show, when Dale would sit at the edge of the stage and talk with everyone, autograph anything, until the very last person had left, no matter how long that took.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Dick Dale is that he is nothing if not a survivor, defying a half-century of passing trends, health troubles, and an industry chronically obsessed with youth. As a fellow cancer survivor, I greatly respect that.
If Dale displayed any symptom of age it was sitting in a chair behind the merch table after the show. But there he sat, once again, chatting with fans and signing autographs, until the last folks in line (us) had their turn at the table. I bought a black-and-white photo of the King of the Surf Guitar, circa 1963, which he graciously signed to the attention of my 8-year-old son, also a fan.
“Fantastic as ever, Mr. Dale,” I said as he signed the picture. “I’ve been coming to see you for 20 years now.” He grew momentarily frustrated upon realizing he’d misspelled the word “special”.
“Heh,” he chuckled, handing me the photo. “You don’t look that old.”
“Neither do you, sir,” I laughed. “Neither do you.”
THE MIDDLE EAST
472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: (617) 864-3278
In 1994, New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe and his wife, Antoinette, opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge (named after the singer’s 1961 hit single). Located at 1500 N. Claiborne Avenue, in the city’s Treme neighborhood, they hoped the lounge would infuse new life into the singer’s career. It did just that, and the bar and music spot soon became a cultural hub of the community.
Following her husband’s death in 2001, Antoinette K-Doe continued to own and operate the Mother-in-Law Lounge (which was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005) until her own death in 2009. The club closed the following year.
But in January 2014, the Mother-in-Law found new life when it reopened on Martin Luther King Day under the stewardship of New Orleans jazzman and native son Kermit Ruffins. Today, with its vibrant exterior murals and predominantly local clientele (as well as a smattering of tourists), the Mother-in-Law is reaffirming its place in Treme, providing a venue and gathering point for a variety of area musicians.
The renowned Treme Brass Band’s weekly Sunday gig happily coincided with my first night in town. So at the encouragement of Andy Rubin, a Baltimore-based friend and the Treme Brass Band’s General Manager, I set out on the mile-and-a-half walk from our digs at the French Market Inn on Decatur Street.
The residential streets surrounding Esplanade Avenue, in Faubourg Marigny, are quieter, more empty, and within a few blocks of the Mother-in-Law it becomes evident that you’re no longer in the tourist-driven combine of the Quarter. The words “I told u who hold the fuckin power!” are hand-scrawled in black Sharpie across the warped clapboards of a nearby house. And then, farther up the street, the visages of Ernie and Antoinette manifest in the form of a colorfully loud mural. A bronze plaque beside the door commemorates the previous owners.
Inside, the Lounge is comparatively nondescript (save for a flamboyant life-size statue of Ernie K-Doe), comprised mainly of two utilitarian rooms – the bar side and the stage side – separated by a cinderblock wall, patrons in the former dancing to the brassy strains emanating from the latter. Benny Jones, Sr., the Treme Brass Band’s leader since the 2012 passing of Uncle Lionel Batiste, and five or six other band members generate their signature sound with little, if any, amplification from the tiny stage, which is little more than a raised platform. Five or six patrons stand watching the band, their backs to the dividing wall; unlike the bar side, no one facing the music is dancing. Not in the corporeal sense, anyway.
For once, I don’t feel badly for sweating through my pressed, button-down shirt; in this climate, everyone does, especially in late June. I found the staff to be very friendly, and I downed a couple of reasonably priced beers during the roughly 45 minutes of the Treme Brass Band’s set that I caught. Despite its simplicity, the place exudes an identity, a sense of history and atmosphere, much more on par with the classic juke joints and gin mills of old than their more modern, sanitized corporate counterparts.
The band wrapped up their set, and I dropped a few bills in the metal urn in front of the stage that serves as a tip jar. I bought a copy of their 2008 album, New Orleans Music, which the band members graciously signed to the attention of my 8-year-old son. From hard rock to hip-hop to traditional folk, he loves live music – the enthusiasm and energy – in all its forms. And the CD, by proxy, will hopefully tide him over until the day I can bring him with me back to see and hear and appreciate for himself the singular city of New Orleans, and the resilient, unvarnished character that appears nightly in places like Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge.
Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge
1500 North Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70116
P: (504) 975-3955
Next Exit Travel visits the Abita Mystery House in Abita Springs, Louisiana. (6/27/14):