[24 July 2008]
As audio, Los Straitjackets: In Concert is totally ace—an excellent pull of one of the best surf-rock bands in the galaxy on a hot night at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 2005. But as video, it’s merely a distraction with great audio. It’s a lesson in how great music and a top-shelf mix can’t save a music documentary when it’s filmed and edited into a clinical, un-involving concert chronicle.
You are watching the zany foursome play its surf rock instrumentals on a stage, occasionally in close-up. Close your eyes, and the experience gets substantially better because your mind can wander a bit. For the first official DVD by a band that’s one of the essential experiences in pop music—at least once—In Concert is a leaden disappointment. Maybe they really are a “you have to be there” band—but I’m loath to say so because the DVD’s evidence is too inconclusive.
Here’s the Los Straitjackets mojo for the uninitiated: 40-ish dudes in black clothing and bizarre and grotesque Mexican wrestling masks playing all-instrumental surf rock with rich precision, intense musicality and more than a little theatricality. The humor is in the self-awareness; guitarists Danny Amis and Eddie Angel, drummer Jason Smay and bassist Pete Curry work up some dorky choreography, make announcements and banter in occasionally caricatured accents, but at the end of the day, they craft fleet songs on the strength of Swiss-watch exact rhythms and spindly guitar tones that bore into your skull and make your world a little lighter. Top-shelf surf rock, in other words.
The documentary begins with the band members, masked and anonymous to anyone except their ravenous fans, in full bore surfing, with kitschy, ‘60-ish titles announcing what’s to come. It’s disarming Straitjackets-style charm, with a hint of menace. Greeted by an insistent sounding minder as they repair to a bar for apres-surf drinks, they’re reminded they’re “going on in fifteen minutes!” and therefore have to high-tail it, prompting more hijinks on motorcycles as they head to the gig.
If only that weren’t the end of the DVD’s “extras”—this release has no commentary, no musical outtakes, or any other adornments beyond its main event concert. (Unless you count the crisp Dolby Surround 5.1 mix—and audiophiles definitely will, and should.) Were it that other snatches of Straitjackets-on-video were included, or—better yet—some footage of them partying on stage with sometimes tour companions the World Famous Pontani Sisters.
Musically, the concert is a nifty grab bag: the tendril guitar tones of Amis and Angel dancing, tickling, enveloping and destroying a healthy sampling of the best Straitjackets originals and a few of the fun, left-field covers (“My Heart Will Go On” is here, hooray), while Smay and Curry rumble beneath and provide steady foundation. As a surf-guitar clinic, it’s unimpeachable—and every time Amis or Angel hits one of those fiery peaks or twangy zeniths, you’ll want to couch every bit of criticism in how mellifluous it all is.
But the mind can’t let go of unfocused camerawork—unfocused as in aimless and also, occasionally, as out-of-focus—that draws no energy from the crowd and very little from the band to sell itself as an absorbing experience.