It's time to take that yearly trip over to the west coast for the premiere Surf festival in the US: The Surfguitar101 Convention. After a nice day on the El Segundo Beach, a nice meet & greet, and a warm-up at The Purple Orchid on Friday, I woke up Saturday ready for a day immersed in surf music.
I learned from past experience that I should have cash in-hand and show up at least an hour early. I took a half-second to behold the strange and wonderful sight of the Alpine Lodge, and proceeded inside where I paid my admission to familiar friendly faces.
No time to waste though, those albums aren't gonna buy themselves. Previous years have had a few certain vendors bringing hard-to-find records at irresponsibly cheap prices. That wasn’t the case this year, but I still brought back an impressive haul. Current favorite: The Beat Tornados - Mission From Mir, purchased for $5 from the Surf Raiders’ Bob Dalley, who only had a handful after a few years of selling his collection. I talked to Lee from Dionysus, Art from Musick, and Emilio from Planeta Reverb. It's really great to see all these records laid out, like an inverse of every normal record store with only one or two records.
The Delstroyers were on first, and it was great to see them on the stage after meeting them in the same place just a year prior. Seeing them the night before at The Purple Orchid, I knew what to expect and they delivered: loud, aggressive but not too abrasive sounds from a group that sounded much bigger than three people. For a band that I’d always thought of as hard-hitting, I was struck by how much I was feeling the beat! Even though they had just released a new EP, their set included a chunk of yet unrecorded material that sounded great.
The New Waves play surf covers of 80’s hits, and I’ve snuck their album amidst the vintage vinyl a few times when DJing to get the crowd’s attention. For a cover band, their arrangements are pretty serious, with three guitarists in their quintet! If you’ve listened to their LP (there’s only one despite it saying Vol. 2), you’ll find that they mostly avoided those songs for “new” songs, starting off with “Rebel Yell”. I’ll hold off on going into their entire playlist, but the lead guitarist was a hoot, full of energy and even running off-stage to join Delstroyers’ bassist Lukas and I in conversation for a sentence or two.
When the lineup was first announced I was excited to finally see Trabants -- fast-forward to now, I’ve hung out with guitarist Eric Penna 3 times in 3 cities in 3 months. The setlist was similar to what I’d seen at Surfer Joe, starting with “Freakout” material, transitioning to Spaghetti Western, then back to some buttshakers. However, unlike in Livorno, Eric was joined by his regular bandmates, and I felt like it really did elevate their sound. One of the things I really like about their albums is the punchiness of the songs, and that absolutely came through, likely thanks to the rhythm section. And as is the case for everybody that night, four Showman amps never hurts.
The Dick Dale tribute was when the crowd really started to get a bit more dense. I didn’t really read up on who would be in this lineup, and I think I prefered the surprise. It began with Let’s Go Trippin’ backed up by members of Dick’s 80’s Deltones, members of his 60’s Deltones, and Jimmy Dale. Lead guitar duties were handled by Ron Eglit, who was playing in some capacity for most of the set. They started with Let’s Go Trippin’ and ripped through a few other classics. The sax in particular stuck out to me as being outstanding, sounded right off the old records. Teisco Del Rey took over on guitar for a few songs as the band pared down a bit. Mel Waldorf and Maxx Kominsky said that they were obviously going to play Hava Nagila -- I don’t think I’ve actually seen Mel play and he’s a fantastic showman. Ivan Pongracic from The Madeira played The Victor and Taco Wagon, and I was struck by how well-suited The Victor was to Ivan’s style. Then as I typed this I remembered he’s covered it on The Madeira’s Ruins EP. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong! Tom Stanton of the Crossfires/Turtles really nailed the vintage Dick Dale. Jerry Lewis of The Wedge did Surf Beat, Evan Foster did a killer version of Nitro, but the real standout was Jimmy Dale taking lead guitar for a few tracks including Esperanza -- the whole thing felt special but it’s hard to better than a son paying tribute to his father. It was a blur of great musicians and a lot of sparkling yellow guitars, and it knocked the whole night off-schedule but it was worth it.
Jason Lee and the RIPtides had enough fans to retain that audience swell, though I took that moment as a burger opportunity. I knew that he had a lot of fans, so I was curious, especially since, to be honest, I didn’t get much out of his LP. Well, the hair wasn’t as huge as what I expected, but that’s the worst thing I have to say. Without playing a note it was hard not to be infected by Jason’s positive demeanor, and a leopard-print go-go dancer is always a fun touch too. But really though, it was the sound that took me totally by surprise. Great surf tunes with a sharp, shouting guitar tone that all built up to a roaring sonic wall. That sound could be used to play some nasty punk-edged surf ragers, but it was balanced out well into fun party music. It might have been my pleasant surprise of the day.
20 Years of The Pyronauts may seem kind of overshadowed by 40 years of Insect Surfers, but it’s impressive nonetheless. They came on-stage looking pretty ridiculous, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Paul managed to tie his tie so wrong, and gave a brief, comical, musical history of the early years of the band, starting as a punk band. They sounded great -- loud and wild with theatrics to match. For a band that clearly tried not to take themselves too seriously and often had different members of the band doing different, unexpected things, they were clearly very in sync and those 20 years had built a lot of muscle memory.
The crowd swelled once again for who else but The Surfrajettes. The most talked-about band in surf music right now was probably the most traditional sounding band on the bill, playing reverbed-out covers of songs you don’t hear surf versions of, plus a few of their originals. The feminist in me says “god, don’t talk about their outfits”, but The Surfrajettes’ look is a big part of what they do, and there’s clearly a lot of attention to detail put into it. A well dressed surf band is a wonderful thing, and the only band I’ve seen on their level was The Huntington Cads at SG101 a previous year. They clearly have a reverence for the era, both visually and sonically, and seeing it all come together in person was great. I loved some of their covers too -- The Beatles’ “She Loves You” sounded sweeter than the original, big fan of “Too Much to Dream Last Night”, and I got a kick out of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” seamless morphing into “Sunshine of Your Love”.
Los Freneticos were a standout in the lineup to me, as I loved their album “El Sonido Que Perdura”, though I was curious how this would go with the more subdued feeling of their new record “Teletransportacion”. Well, subdued would not be the word for this performance. These guys were in constant motion as they played, flying and falling all over the place. Their recorded material are often helped by extra instrumentation and effects, and without having those capabilities they made up for that glistening sound by simply supercharging the songs with their performative energy. I don’t think anybody was complaining, and many friends that I spoke to agreed that they were a highlight.
I had been lucky enough to see Los Tiki Phantoms at Southern Surf Stompfest last year, and based on that performance I persuaded my exhausted wife to stick around for this one at the very least. One shouldn’t be surprised that a band with matching masks leans hard on gimmicks, but whereas a Daikaiju show makes a crowd feel susceptible to attack at any moment, Los Tiki Phantoms coax silliness from their audience in the forms of conga lines and “sacrifices” involving crowd-surfing on a pool float. Antics aside, they’re great. Their sound is fun-focused and they deliver it deftly with plenty of great performers’ intuition. They played a cover of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (off their new cover album) and I caught two Surfrajettes dancing with glee outside of the crowd.
I had seen the Insect Surfers on this stage and recently at Surfer Joe as part of their ongoing 40th Anniversary, so my expectations were high but I wasn’t necessarily expecting something new. However, I think Dave Arnson was really feeling especially amped for this show, and songs that I’d heard just a month ago had a little more oomph. At one point I was feeling frustrated with my inability to adequately photograph Dave’s stage gymnastics, partially due to the impenetrable crowd up front, so I took a break to sit with KJFC’s Cousin Mary in the back. Turns out that’s all I had to do, as instrument-free Dave ran back and busted a few moves right in front of me.
But then they pulled a Madeira and called up the extended Insect Surfers family, bringing a total of 6 musicians on-stage, taking these spacey tunes to supernova level. It sounded truly awesome, colossal and frantic, and like nothing you’ve ever heard from this band.
Jeff Hanson warned the room that it was bedtime for kiddos before Thee Swank Bastards came on. The trio were clad in black-tie suits like FBI agents, though with the guitarist sporting a newsboy camp and a constant sneer, and the bassist a fez and… this face. But why am I describing them to you when they had scantily-clad women dancing dancing, hula-hooping, disrobing and generally stealing your attention? Here’s the thing though, they were REALLY good musicians. Their sound was sharp, fast, tight and fitting for the sleazy vibe. The guitarist has some serious talent, garnering his own attention with stunts like playing a killer solo behind his head while walking amidst the audience, then later kicking out chairs from the side and walking with the chairs as shoes without missing a beat. I’m not sure I’d trust myself to do that without a guitar.
There’s a lot of Boss Martians fans out there, but admittedly I never took the time to navigate their collection for the material best suited to an instro fan, aside from a few 7”s here and there. This entire event had so many great musicians showing off how to wrangle a guitar for an audience’s pleasure, most of them felt like they were happily performing for us. The Boss Martians’ performance felt like it came from a different place. These dudes played angry and it worked. Every movement and note felt deliberate and impactful. They didn’t stick entirely to instrumentals, but the vocal tracks had the same attitude.
Unfortunately, I had to make my exit partway through that set and missed the set of Evan Foster’s instrumental record (which I do have and love).
Another great SurfGuitar101 Convention, and though it was only one day in the Alpine Lodge, the lineup packed air-tight with fantastic musicians, a great showcase of what this music is and the different performative space it inhabits. For a music that for many sounds like subtle variations of the same song, I try to imagine how somebody unacquainted with surf would describe all of these wildly different, strange performances. Or even just one of them. It was great seeing friends I’d made and getting acquainted with new ones, and I hope to continue this ritual next year.
Note: I tried to be picky with my photos and a LOT of great ones got cut. You can see all of them here.