In 2019 I had sort of a last-hurrah-before-fatherhood surf-con-mega-tour, attending Surfer Joe Summer Festival, Hi-Tide Summer Holiday and Surfguitar 101 convention. The idea was I might not find the time to do many more of these for a little while, so now was the time. What I didn't know at the time was that I wouldn't be missing out on much! Three years later I wind up back in Los Angeles for SG101 once more, and I didn't miss a single one in the meantime. Perhaps even more amusingly, I wound up in central Italy on the exact anniversary of Surfer Joe, only there was no festival to attend, but that's another story (the story was: it was nice and I had fun).
The grand return of SG101 was engineered in a strategic, conservative fashion. The most striking and unavoidable change was in venue: the beloved Alpine Village has closed and its future remains in mystery, so this year it was hosted at the Hollywood American Legion Post 43. The event took place on a single Sunday, though with two pre-show events. The lineup was scaled back as well, featuring only 6 acts (most of them relatively local to LA). Sandwiched between a promising new festival in Seattle's Surf x Surfwest and the monstrous Tiki Oasis, and with still plenty of uncertainty considering a new venue and a disease that still somehow isn't gone, it makes sense to not aim too high. However, sometimes the promise of BIG BANDS distracts from the "convention" aspect, and the real promise of SG101 remains in being in a room with a bunch of surf geeks. Out of the many festivals that have come back, I'm glad I ended up at this one, as that social aspect was something I think I needed more than I knew when I booked my tickets.
Even with this cautious approach, there were a few very unfortunate happenings that threatened this event. While not apparent to attendees (I found out in the last hour of the event), chief organizer Jeff "BigTikiDude" Hanson, who truly pours his heart and nerves into this event, suffered the loss of his mother on Friday. It must have been an incredibly heavy burden to bare on top of the mountains of stress involved with everything else going on over the weekend. Additionally, Messer Chups, who had been given a quiet sneak-in spot in the lineup when their tour hit a snag, got unexpectedly stuck in Italy when trying to fly to the USA and had to be un-snuck from the lineup. And then the bassist of The Nebulas caught covid shortly before Friday night's pre-show. More on that later.
I feel like I'm starting this on an awfully gloomy note. So put yourself in my shoes on Friday. I get off the plane and walk into Los Angeles weather that's laughably more pleasant than the sticky sauna environment of New Orleans. Add to that: I love my 2-and-a-half-year-old son, but a promise of 72 hours without needing to deal with all that he entails (I'm currently a professional parent) is downright exhilarating. I am feeling pretty damn good.
And so I walk into the official pre-show at The Barclay in Pasadena. Before I even walk in I'm greeted by Bernard Yin from Par Avion, which leads to helping haul some of Jetpack's gear inside, and I instantly find myself in conversation with several friends from previous conventions, facebook, and the SG101 forums. Before a note is even played, I'm feeling amazingly back-in-the-saddle. And I want to give a brief mention to the Barkley itself: a place adorned with semi-circular leather booths that can feel classy or kitschy depending on which eyeballs you keep in your sockets. It's set up more as a restaurant than a music venue, with an area of floor for entertainment instead of a stage, but I love it.
OK finally, the point of this whole thing: talking about music. The first act was a fill-in for the Nebulas because of their aforementioned covid issue. It was Rancho Del Rey, the country-twangin' alter-ago of Jetpack. I had been cautioned, somewhat even by the band themselves, that they're not all that surf, but I actually like a little country music here and there, so I was game. I was dismayed to find... that I guess not everybody likes twangy instrumentals as much as I do. I found the warnings to be completely overblown, I relished these covers of stuff like "Ghost Riders in the Sky", The Fireballs, Duane Eddy and such. This wasn't country music whatsoever, but raunchy instrumental covers (in fact, they might have played "Raunchy", I can't remember) that may not have sprung from the 1961 SoCal well, but rather the southern states just Eastward. Their delivery was punchy, wild, and fun, and the honkin' sax especially helped.
So the next band was Jetpack -- literally the same band BUT without cowboy hats on and with a different drumhead logo. It was a running gag for the band(s?) and it was genuinely pretty funny. Jetpack were also not what I expected. I have their year 2000 release Planet Reverb (among the best in the genre for album cover art), and expected progressive surf that's at times even kinda moody. I think they had two back-to-back tracks from that, and to be honest they kinda stuck out. The rest was loud & wild surf & (to use a popular record collecting term) tittyshaker covers. And again, no complaints here! Covers of "Beat Girl" and Johnny & the Hurricane's "Crossfire" with sax blowin' loud. The invited a guest vocalist for one song, and within a few notes I recognized the track as a 45 I'd picked up by The Caps called "The Red-Headed Flea". Just in time I realized what the vocals were going to be... just occasional screams. Excellent. They really threw a party.
For the third act of the night, Jetpack did another wardrobe change and... just kidding. It was Par Avion, a sensational duo-plus-one that I'd seen enough times to know that they'd be a safe anchor leg to hand the party baton to. Surprisingly, it didn't start that way though! Bernard Yin sat down with a lap steel guitar and they played some exotica tracks to start with. After two songs, a guitar was strapped to his shoulder once again and bassist Rebecca commenced her wide-radius kinetic romping. It's actually kind of funny how bassists have so many stereotypical stances, movements and even facial expressions, and Rebecca eschews all of them for literally bouncing while pairing Bernard's surf shredding with disco-like basslines (though combined with low lighting, it's not a great recipe for crisp, unblurred photos). Par Avion has always been unique flavor of surf, but listening to a lot of Los Bitchos' new record had me looking at Par Avion differently -- they're very different bands but I feel like they're riding on similar vibes.
Sadly as the clock struck 11:30pm local time, I decided I needed to head home if I wanted to be in bed by 2am in the time zone I started from, so I couldn't stay for too much of their set.
The second pre-show event at The Secret Island Tiki Bar on Saturday is a story that somebody else will have to tell you. I was just not feeling right on Saturday. I started my day eating three donuts, walked several miles to different record stores, went back and rested but, notably, did not eat lunch even as the clock rolled past 2pm. Some of you have probably been a human for a while and know that this is not recommended. Went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology -- that's a weird one! Found myself in another record store and feeling very weird and woozy. As I sat in the hotel room at 5pm, contemplating the event that night, I did not feel in the right sort of sorts to drive an hour to get there and and hour back -- and since the bands would be performing on Sunday I decided to instead go get dinner, felt much better, watched Nope at a movie theater. Anecdotal reviews from The Secret Island show raved about each band individually and the event in general. As for me: I love a good alien encounter movie and Nope balanced humor with a compelling original premise excellently. I'd recommend it.
I do regret the decision to miss that show somewhat, but it took me hours to type all this so far, so at least I saved myself a few more hours of that.
So anyways, SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY.
Much was made about the parking situation in advance, but I honestly thought it was fine. $20 for underground all-day parking within a 10 minute walk of the venue works for me. On the walk up I overheard a guy passing me saying "they're having some kinda surfer convention". The word got out I guess!
I got there about 15 minutes before doors opened at 10am because I had records to buy and I needed to get them before other people. Several people were there before me, including some friends, but it was also clear to me that the others didn't have the same record shark attitude.
Doors opened and we descended into the basement. There was a fork: one door closed (leading to the main stage area) and a hallway leading to the bar and a few vendors -- some of them guitars and gear, some of them selling surf music. I made a beeline for some 45s, then casually headed towards some LPs, happened to notice a box of 45s next to the LPs with Japanese pressings of Ventures, Spotnicks and Astronauts, so nabbed some of those! Soon the main hall opened and I.... was already out of money and had to head to the ATM at the hotel next to the venue. There were more vendors in the main area, most of them associated with bands or labels. Lee from Dionysus records had some cool vintage 45s and I grabbed a few. Notably, there were a few records that hadn't been released yet! The Volcanics, in addition to selling their brand new LP, were selling other Hi-Tide merch including an early release of the new Bradipos IV, the band that grabbed the number 2 spot of the Top 100 Surf Records of the 2010s, just casually poking out of an LP box. Art from MuSick Records not only had the new Michael Purkhiser EP "3-D", but had an LP from Wave Electric that I didn't even know was on its way (it popped up on bandcamp like 30 minutes after I typed this).
I'm going to talk about the venue, as this was one of the more interesting changes. There was a lot to love about the Alpine Village -- the vibe, the sound, the seating, the parking, the schnitzel. The American Legion kept a lot of these benefits intact and added a few. There was definitely a certain vibe to it (hard to nail down), there was some tasty food (I had a great teriyaki burger and fries), plenty of places to sit, and the music sounded excellent. Obviously a lot of that is owed to that immaculate collection of amps, but some rooms just sound bad and this was not one of them. I appreciated having a separate bar in the other room, it was nice having an area where conversation was more possible. Perhaps most notably, the American Legion was a little more suited to the size of the audience -- the cavernous Alpine Village made crowds for marquee acts like Messer Chups and Surfrajettes still feel half-full at best. While it still took a while for people to warm up to getting close to the stage, I don't think the room ever felt empty. The stage was smaller, lower, and more plain than the Alpine Village, but I think all of this means it feels more like a surf "community" event rather than a surf extravaganza, and I think that's actually pretty nice.
As a photographer I was curious how the lighting would be different, as I had certainly wrestled with taking pictures at the Alpine Village. Lighting there was moody and interesting on stage, but overall fairly dark and it made it hard to get shots that weren't blurred out or noisy. It also competed with the surrounding white lights of the venue, so shots from the side were often kind of weird. The American Legion had no colored lighting, just a flat wash of white, which is fine overall but unfortunately I still struggled with getting non-blurry, non-noisy pictures. Not all that dim to an audience member, but not bright enough for really great pictures. Oh well, if I can't work with that then I don't think I can call myself a decent photographer.
Jesus. I haven't started talking about music yet. And I didn't take pictures of non-band stuff so just walls and walls of text. Yeesh.
The show started off with a tribute to Richie Polodor aka Richie Allen. I believe there's been a tribute set at every SG101 I've been to, generally a rotating cast of musicians playing favorites of a recently deceased surf legend. It started off with a few Sandy Nelson tracks, which was fitting not only because Richie played guitar on those, but because Sandy Nelson himself recently passed away. I don't want to go too into the details of this set because frankly I didn't take notes and I will almost assuredly forget or misremember certain people or songs, but it was a pretty great tribute that did a good job of showing his breadth as a surf musician. Somebody had painted a portrait of Richie and Matt Quilter (who was sort of the band leader for this) had no idea who it came from, but it was a nice touch.
Next up was The Mach IV reunion show. I wasn't terribly well acquainted with the group, I had only listened to the Eleki record maybe two weeks before this show -- it's great stuff and I picked up the new reissue after their set. Great traditional surf, with all members looking snazzy in bright orange and white uniforms. Both Ferenc Dobronyi and Mel Waldorf have played and written outstanding songs in their many other projects, but their combined energy onstage was a treat. The originals were excellent, but I was also struck by some of their covers towards the end of the set -- I often think about how many songs from a bygone era might have been much more energetic live, without the awkwardness of a studio, and maybe the way they played those songs might be more true to how the band envisioned them than the original recordings.
Speaking of recordings, The Scimitars are a band that I was only familiar with via a few youtube videos and a "sketches and teasers" thing they placed on bandcamp. There are no official studio releases, but I was familiar enough to know that they have a pretty heavy middle-eastern influence. They were really excellent. Bandleader Ran Mosessco, formerly of The Astroglides and The Sand Devils, switched between not only several guitars but a few other instruments such as an electrified saz. However, there are two other key parts to their sound. Jonpaul Balak's bass is bolstered by their other guitarist playing pretty low-end lines as well, often even mirroring the bass. The result is a weighty, muscular, rolling thunder sound. And then there was the aspect that Ran himself referred to as their secret weapon: a hand-drum player. I can't remember what terminology they used, I would call it a doumbek, but having that sound alongside a pounding drumkit, was kinetic and rhythmically challenging.
And I'm dancing around mentioning, well, the dancer. Despite everything that the Scimitars delivered musically, they were all dressed in black and largely motionless. They planned for this: backup in the form of a bellydancer named Jayna. She performed on roughly half of the songs, bellydancing as well as using fans, colored fabrics, and of course at once part wielding two scimitars. I enjoy a go-go dancer as much as the next guy, but she was certainly a step above, and even brought in the crowd to dance for the last song.
I believe these were mostly original songs, though they did do a version of "Omar Sharif Ballad", which has been recorded in both of Ran's aforementioned groups. They also closed out with a version of Dick Dale's "The Victor", which Ran apologized in advance for likely being a little too slow. Psh. Not only was it roughly the same tempo as the original Dick Dale recording, highlighting Dick's own middle eastern influences really gave it new life and it really wrapped up the set nicely.
Next up were The Volcanics. I've always been a big fan of this band and I'd seen them and loved them at SG101 2017. This set was a little different, pared down from a fearsome foursome, to a trim trio, and lead guitarist Frankie De La Torre was the only member that played both. And the sweaters had sleeves -- bold choice that they seemed to be regretting. This set had a bit more of a punk rock edge to it, and I'm not just saying that because of the drummer's fiery attitude (or haircut), but they played a lot of material from their new record Concrete Carver which is a little more tooth & nail and less "sing-songy" than previous ones. I mean that in terms of guitar melody, the set itself was literally more sing-songy with a few frat rock numbers thrown in. Vocals!??! It was fine, fun even, and fit well with their on-stage rib-jabbing between bandmembers.
This show was the final stop of a rare tour for The Nebulas, and unfortunately they hit a snag: their bassist caught covid. So who else comes to the rescue but Jonpaul Balak, who learned their setlist on Friday in time to perform on Saturday and Sunday. I hear if you say his name three times into the mic your bassist will disappear in a poof of smoke and he'll be standing there. I noted that he was wearing a different shirt than his Scimitars set -- still a black button down, but with longsleeves this time. I mentioned this to his wife Marie, and she said his closet is only black shirts.
Anyway, The Nebulas set was an onslaught. Super loud and high energy, power stances all over, no gimmick just noise. They started with Satan's Pilgrim's "Badge of Honor", and to be honest I only recognized a few from the setlist such as "Rhino Chaser" and "Tuco's Lament". They did say that they will be recording new material soon, so maybe there were a lot of new songs, maybe I just don't know everything. It was a was a killer set though -- they were one of the bands that factored into the airplane ticket and they were worth it.
EDIT: I've been set straight on this one! I take pictures of setlists to help my memory, but I was trying to match them up with Nebulas songs -- they played 5 Satan's Pilgrims tracks as a tribute to Dave Pilgrim. And a cover of the Krontjong Devils track "Reverberovska", which I'm surprised I didn't take a mental note of, love that song!
The final act was Surfer Joe (and Jonpaul in another black shirt). Between previous SG101 Conventions and Surfer Joe Summer Festival, I'm fairly familiar with seeing him live, though this set featured a lot of songs from last year's record World Traveler. I've always found that his live sets bring out a much bigger and tougher sound than my speakers allow, so hearing the new songs with that treatment was great. With the show ending at 6pm and still feeling like I had some gas in the tank, I think hearing some upbeat traditional surf was a nice choice to close out versus being vanquished by The Nebulas.
I was amused that my walk back to parking, even after staying behind a little bit, was a line of surf geeks. Many were heading to the afterparty at the Tonga Hut, but hey -- if I'm paying for all-day parking I'm going to use it, so I went to one more record store within walking distance. Record Parlour yielded a Halibuts record and a movie soundtrack with two Astronauts instrumentals, so a worthy trip. I also saw Nichelle Nichols' Hollywood star with roses left next to it as she had died that day.
The Tonga Hut was a really nice scene. The sign said to wait to be seated, but I saw some friends at the nearest table and slipped in next to them. I sipped on some excellent mocktails while talking about music for I don't know how long. In general, I feel like this entire day I was either listening or talking, no sitting around with my hands in my pockets wondering what to do with myself. That's how it oughta be!
To those of you who haven't been, I won't promise that it will be that way. My first year or two had plenty of wallflower moments, and I have the advantage of having this radio show and website as my claim to "fame". But after going multiple years, meeting more and more people and realizing that everybody wants to talk and make friends, it just gets more and more rewarding. Go to these things!
Anyway, I flew out at noon the next day, and all I can really report on what I did that morning was that I ate a pancake and some pretty good bacon for breakfast. Back to reality that evening. With a pile of music that I'm still sifting through a week later.
Thank you to Jeff and everybody else that made this happen. Thanks everybody else. It was great. The end.