After years of "maybe next years", I finally got my ass in gear and bought myself a plane ticket to Los Angeles for the Surfguitar101 Convention, organized chiefly by Jeff "Bigtikidude" Hanson as a big ol' meetup for members of surfguitar101.com and, you know, surf nuts in general.
Let's just skip to the end real quick: it was an absolutely incredible time. It was a kinda special thing to me getting to see a scene that I've only been a part of from afar, and the music started good and managed to top itself with each act.
The convention is really only a small part of a huge weekend of small shows all around Los Angeles, but I really only particpated in Saturday's event. My wife had planned a pre-birthday day-o-fun that included a killer breakfast, a trip to Galco's beverage store (I moonlight as a soda nerd), the Peterson Automotive Museum, surfing lessons (third time, I think I'm getting the hang of it), Fantastic Planet at the Egyptian Theater and a trip to Amoeba where I found a copy of Jim Messina and the Jesters' Thimble release (I already have the Audio Fidelity). As my wife was practically falling asleep standing up, she indulged me for one more record store on the walk to the car (this is past 10pm mind you) where I found The New Dimensions - Surf'n Bongos and The Rumblers' Boss!
First of all, the venue. Apparently this is a new one, and as this was my first I have nothing to compare to, but I reckon this is a keeper. The Alpine Lodge is a German beer hall that's spacious, friendly, has plenty of good food, and a great stage. Bad sound at an event like this could kill the whole thing but here it was ON POINT. Familiar songs sounded faithful and a smidge better than I know them.
I came in towards the tail end of the Original Surfaris tribute and admittedly I was still kinda getting my bearings and didn't end up at the stage. That said, the sax sounded great, and hearing Bombora gave me goosebumps.
I was really excited to catch Crazy Aces they've always been great supporters of SSOR and it's great to have somebody repping the Southeast.
I wasn't really warmed up with my camera yet but they had a great set and their lighthearted feel was a nice vibe for a set just a little after noon. Crazy Aces have a new EP out called Garageland that they were selling at the show and I recognized Scorpions off that one. I ate a jaegerschnitzel and fries while watching. Yum.
We had to run out and make our reservation at the hotel for the night but I caught a bit of Kelp as I was heading out. They decided to try to fit in with the decor.
Unfortunately I missed Secret Samurai and Tikiyaki 5-O. I'm SO glad I didn't make it back any later, because next was the Legends of Surf Jam. I hadn't paid this part too much mind beforehand as I didn't really know what it was, how it would play out. I really didn't know that meant bringing out a lot of the 60's giants and having them play their songs. For those of y'all that are familiar with the Ponderosa Stomp, it absolutely felt similar.
So that started out with Willie Glover of the Pyramids. I've always been curious about Willie, often referenced as the one black guy in the 60's surf scene. Indeed, that was probably the case tonight too, but from what I've read from him he didn't have much to say about it. I did exchange a few words with him, complimented him on having more hair since his time with The Pyramids, and he told me that he almost moved to New Orleans when he thought he had a good deal on a house. Having looked him up before, I'm imagining how shocked I would have been if I found out he was right around the corner from me.
Anyway, Willie played a handful of songs obviously including Penetration and, surprisingly, the A-side of that record "Here Comes Marsha". Super cool guy with a great attitude and a big smile.
By the way that's Al Valdez of the Original Surfaris on the keys in the background. He was already playing earlier that day in the Original Surfaris tribute, but played with a couple of the legends jam members too.
Next up was Bob Spickard of the Chantays. Unfortunately the other guitarist for The Chantays Brian Carman died last year, but Bob did great - obviously playing Pipeline but also a few other familiar ones like Apache. He was backed up by Tracy Longstreth of the Rhythm Rockers on drums. And was Paul Johnson (of the BelAirs and PJ & The Galaxies) on this part? I honestly can't remember, though I remember Lanky Bones being played at some point.
So then was something I really had no idea was coming: freakin' RANDY HOLDEN
I had actually suggested in the past that the Ponderosa Stomp have Randy Holden. I figured if it would ever happen, I'd be listening to Blue Cheer songs. Well here I was, instead hearing his SURF material with the Fender IV! Though they may have been a tad slower, the immense sound and power that his songs had came through better than the recordings ever did. Everybody Up, Malibu Run, Little Ollie, a little bit of Margaya and even a brand new song he wrote for the event that fit in perfectly with the older material. This was absolutely a highlight of the show and mindblowing to see.
Next up George Tomsco of the Fireballs. The Fireballs are a fun group, but they don't have the intensity that Randy Holden does. That's good really, it's a nice way to come down. George was charming as hell, yuk'n it up between songs and pickin' away at the Fireballs classics. Paul Johnson joined him as well.
Next up: The Mach IV. To be honest, I wasn't too well-versed on them. I'm a fan of plenty of the work of Ferenc Dobronyi and Mel Waldorf, but somehow didn't realize they were both in this band. I guess I can't keep track of everything. After all of these legends finished their bit, they served as a great bridge between the surf classics and the more modern bands that played for the rest of the night. Their set was packed with punchy versions of several classics and original trad-styled instrumentals, and the matching suits and synchronized moves really bottled up some of the finer parts of the genre into a fun package.
Next up, my wienerschnitzel. Oddly enough, the french fries I ate at lunch were MUCH better than the dinner french fries. While I struggled to eat the gigantic portion I had been given, I watched The Bradipos IV start their set. I'd been spinning their most recent record a pretty good amount recently, but this definitely kicked that up a notch. Great showmanship that really got the crowd going.
Then for many (my wife included) the biggest band of the night: The Messer Chups. This is one of the few bands I had actually seen before, but it was probably back in 2007 or so and they were just starting to transition more towards a trad surf group rather than the weirdo electric surf thing they had going. While I like their most recent stuff, Incredible Croco-Tiger especially, it's been hard for me to reconcile this newer more familiar trad sound against their one-of-a-kind earlier sound. What I heard here was DEFINITELY their own. They must have been playing at 150% of the speed of their records (Twin Peaks Twist was MUCH twistier) and Oleg was bendin' and twangin' those tones way out there. It was absolutely working. Even some of my recent favorites of theirs like "War Party" felt much wilder and more tremendous. Unfortunateyl the two photos I have here look very similar because it was the only angle I could get -- that crowd was dense!
Then The Space Cossacks took the stage. It seems bizarre to me that I'm seeing them before I've ever seen The Madeira, but I guess if this were 20 years ago that would be perfectly reasonable! I felt like the bands had been getting progressively louder as the night went on and the Space Cossacks were necessarily loud as hell. I got goosebumps hearing Apes of Wrath with that gigantic guitar roar, which only now that I've heard the two songs so close to each other makes me think of The Originals Surfaris' Bombora. Much praise is deservedly heaped onto Ivan, but he has a tendency to redistribute that praise as much as he can. That meant dedications to many present members as well as covers of key influences (of course including Jim Messina's "The Cosssack" as well as an Atlantics song ("Bombora"?)). They wiped us out at the end with "Planet of the Apes". Absolutely legendary.
The Phantom Four were the band that pushed me over the edge to go to this. Where else would I see them? I would rank Mandira as the 2nd best instro record in the past 10 years (behind The Barbwires' Searider) and though they might have even played more Treble Spankers songs than they did tracks on Mandira, that's absolutely fine. I would probably have changed maybe 5 seconds of that show, and there were probably 30 or so that I wish I could bottle up and hand to theoretical physicists to show me an alternate universe where the sounds I was hearing were commonplace. And when I say "hearing" I mean what my ears were able to take in because I heard that sound that suggests permanent hearing loss 3 times and thought "eh, worth it."
This was actually the Phantom Four and John Blair and while I'm certain I would have gone gaga over The Phantom Four alone, it's the collision of these artists that makes this, in my eyes, historic. Let's observe the two guitarists separately.
Phantom Frank is possibly the most unique entertainer I've ever seen. He's flamboyant; he glides around with a disco step like he's on Soul Train. The Phantom Four are a triple strike of pulsating beat, flowery guitar work, and strategic use of power. Frank can channel all of these through his guitar, but if you listen to The Treble Spankers' Mirananda, he's always moving like that song SOUNDS. He's astounding, truly from another planet, and if this were a different time in a different musical landscape his fame would reach far out of our niche.
John Blair is one of the best things that could ever happen to surf rock. His books have dragged it from obscurity and into the never-ending culture that we have today. But let's forget all that for a sec. Jon and The Nightriders were the sort of band that needed to bring it back. Surf is a sound of teenage single-minded endorphin hunting, not laid-back beach music to play with your friends. Jon channeled that with the Nightriders and still brought that brute force rock & roll American surf rock feeling to the stage. That's right, that dude up there preserved the wild teenage abandon that this shit is all about. The Phantom Four have power, no doubt, but he brought a touch more fury.
The interplay of these two personalities - opposites in so many ways, was fascinating. The more curious European sound meeting the vicious American sound, the way they interacted with each other on stage (Phantom Frank was practically snuggling up to John while they played). It was a great mix of Phantom Four, Treble Spankers, and Jon & the Nightriders songs.
So that was it for me. My flight was early the next morning (I'm still in debt sleep-wise) so I missed the beach shows the next day. Lessons learned about how to plan for the next one. It was an incredible night though, I'm still coming down from it. Huge thanks to Jeff and everybody involved, hope to see y'all next year!