The Second Wave of Music from the Extreme
A lot of people, the majority young indie-looking types, felt this was a show not to be missed. The downtown club was crowded even on a Monday night, with music scheduled to start at 10 PM. The crowd arrived early and had overflowed into the large courtyard in the back that holds small stands of tall trees and is open to the sky for stargazing. Inside the pleasantly packed room, the atmosphere was charged waiting for Dick Dale to make his appearance. The posters for this event decorated the walls here and there and disappeared rapidly, one by one. The audience was treated to a surprise opening act, San Francisco’s own Aqua Velvets, which was great for me because I’d always wanted to hear them.
The Aqua Velvets are a surf band, too, but they play a more contemporary version of what Dick Dale kicked into being 40 years ago. They opened with the ultra-current favorite sound coming out of the Pacific Northwest for surf music stylings, spy surf. A stringy mix of James Bond movie theme music interlaced with the single notes from a crazy-sounding high-pitched organ, the rhythms pounded out were heavy on the tom-toms and kick bass. A few songs were playfully reminiscent of the soundtracks from spaghetti westerns, one ending with the recognizable “cha cha cha” sound that ended one or two well-remembered rock and roll records from the late 1950s. The lead guitarist periodically would become the sonic equivalent of the little hardhat diver in the home aquarium and aerate the environment with a beautiful and surprising little explosion of bubbling, gently popping guitar notes. Throughout their set, from the echo-laden “Radio Waves” to the frenetic “Surf Mania”, the Aqua Velvets combined a lot of different surf styles and effects often in the same song, a little bit of whammy bar here and some fuzzy wah-wah pedal there. Their “Martini Time” was designed to please the young designer martini drinkers in the house, of which there were many. The soft drift of “Aqua Velva” felt like resting in a gentle current, drifting along as smoothly as the occasional waft of smoke from a clove cigarette in the courtyard, while the set ended with a reprise of the Champ’s “Tequila”. Starting out as a traditional energetic cover, midstream was a studied cacophony to represent the surface action when ocean currents collide and then adjust to each other before each decides its direction, then the music’s current edged away into a more individualized interpretation. Well, that’s just for starters.
When Dick Dale walked onstage, dressed in full black regalia, complete with black leather motorcycle jacket and his long black hair held back by a black headband, the audience erupted in a long hearty welcome. Let me just say this now: if ever you have seen and heard Dick Dale onstage, you will remember the experience for the rest of your life. As soon as Dick Dale and his band hit the first few loud notes, a remarkable thing happened. Every person in the room was frozen like a statue in place, standing and staring transfixed at the stage as the sonic waves washed over and through them. This went on for the entire long blistering set, during which you could sometimes feel the ground vibrating under your feet and other times the tones were tickling and bouncing about in your ribcage. A high-energy live wire, Dale played as always with unforgettable fire.
Some people over the past four decades might not know or might forget that “surf music” started out in life as rowdy, loud, and wild music. Have them listen to Dick Dale, whose music styling created the genre in the first place. He’s been honored with the Lifetime Pop Music Culture Award from UC Berkeley and has been inducted into Surfing Hall of Fame in San Diego, California. Already famous with several generations from his work in the early ‘60s, Dale was taken up as a favorite in the ‘90s by a new generation. Once the young edgy, college-age set heard his “Miserlou” kickstarting Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they wanted to hear more.
Dale is an intense but good spirited presence on any stage. His electric guitar music is loud and strong, his style of playing a unique rhythm, joining percussive with melodic. His picking is rapid-fire, like a machine gun spraying out notes. He pulled some favorites out, the big beauty of “Miserlou”, an inspired spooky version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, an improvised “Hava Nagila”, and the powerful “Caterpiller Crawl”. The feedback effects carried notes you might not know exist anywhere in the known universe, and Dale’s lightning fast runs are always surprising and unpredictable, but the drummer made your mind anticipate where the notes might go with his fast “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1” steady roll on the toms. Not all of Dale’s music is hard driven. There were enough offerings where Dale worked in gentle Middle Eastern and Mexican rhythms to keep me happy, and remind me of contrast.
In case you haven’t seen him, Dale plays a guitar left-handed, upside down and backwards. In other words, the guitar is strung in the normal sequence but Dale uses his right hand (not the traditional left) for his fretwork. Jimi Hendrix played this way, too, and is quoted as having admired Dale immensely. When Dale had a brush with cancer back in 1966, when things weren’t looking so good, that’s the situation Hendrix was thinking of when he pronounced, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” Dale’s playing takes an improvisation and goes inside out and comes back out through the other side.
His new CD, called Spacial Disorientation can refer to that trait and his style, where left is right and right is left. It’s also a term used with flying airplanes. When it occurs, pilots are unable to see, believe, interpret, or prove the information derived from their flight instruments. Instead, they rely on the false information that their senses provide. There can be a surprising disjunction of awareness and place, the logical mind unable to adjust to unusual placement in space, the aviation equivalent of “The Twilight Zone”.
I’m not going to tell you all the things Dick Dale did during the show, because he’ll just pull out a different bag of tricks next time. He was good-natured and amiable as always, and the audience responded in kind. But after his silver coronet solo, and a surprise acoustic set that featured “Oasis of Mara”, Dale blew out the audience. His electric guitar’s music was still screaming out the speakers on the stage, but Dick Dale had slipped away. He appeared as he was walking through darkened club, winding through the audience, while he was still playing the roaring fiery riffs that powered out the stage speakers. He strolled like a modern troubadour, all the way into the back reaches of the courtyard, where people had stood all evening listening and barely able to see the stage. He played straight to them as he stood among them, and you could barely believe your senses were telling you, as strangely contradictory as it was. Dick Dale, that man is wired for sound.
After putting in a long set, performed with tremendous energy, at the evening’s close he was just beginning to sign drumsticks, posters, and whatever else anybody wanted autographed at 2 in the morning. I’ll bet he spent at least another hour doing that while exchanging good wishes with his many fans. I think you all should just hightail down to see him when he’s out and about on tour. If you can’t do this, let him take you on a sonic rollercoaster ride with his recordings. The Best of Dick Dale & His Del-Tones (Rhino) shows Dale in his early years. Tribal Thunder (Hightone), Unknown Territory (Hightone), and/or Spacial Disorientation (DickDale) are examples of where he is now. They’re all pretty darn good spaces.