Weekend of surrealism continues Saturday night....
Clarion Hotel Banquet Center. Walked into the ballroom and instantly had this strange feeling come over me. This wasn't my typical comfortable rock and roll club, capacity 250 (often less), where I could pay $3 for a delicious homebrew. No, I've got a $2, 8-oz diet pepsi (easy ice) in my hand, cameras dangling from my shoulders, strolling across the parquet dance floor in my shitkicking blue cowboy boots. I'm scanning for a familiar face among the round banquet tables lit up with trapezoidal candles flickering like winter luminaria, and suddenly I've got the distinct feeling I'm crashing somebody's wedding.
Shurilla and the Greatest Hits aren't up quite yet. No, we start off the winter dance party with Chuck Travis band, doing hits from the era. They were good, they played the songs straight up. And I mean straight up. There were two sides of music to the late 50s, early 60s, and this was the Pat Boone side: cleaned-up, non-threatening, but nevertheless well-played rock and roll. Let's face it, there's good money in that, and I think their souls were true. Anybody who puts this shirt and tie combination together (which could only be appreciated close up, you couldn't see this from the stage) gets points with me. Toward the end of their set, they brought up this guy whose stage name was "Dave DeLorean" to do Neil Diamond. He had the shirt and haircut that confirmed that he probably got to the gig driving that car from Back to the Future. Really, they played up the "On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors" author's resemblance to this guy. And he didn't do a bad Neil Diamond, but when they brought up Claire "Thunder" Sardina up to duet with him, that's when I realized I wasn't at somebody's wedding. I was at a funeral/wake. A fun, "let's send 'em off in style" funeral, nevertheless, this whole night was a memorial to not only Mike "Lightning" Sardina, but to Buddy Holly himself, and that whole entourage that perished after that Winter dance party almost half a century ago. The ghostly feeling was to color the whole evening, confirming my preconceived notions of surrealism.
They also bring up this 15-year old girl with the grownup voice, and since this is the Pat Boone side of things, they have her cover Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, and this girl was indeed Little Miss Firecracker. Except, I really can't suffer through Connie Francis. This girl had the pipes to be doing Lesley Gore, who, if I've got to deal with cutsey girls with spunk, I have to go with the defiance of "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To." But Connie Francis to me was always Spunk Without A Cause. (Remember when Lou Grant first met Mary Richards on the old Mary Tyler Moore show? "Hey, you've got spunk. I HATE spunk!!!") Then again, I'll cut this girl a break. She's 15, she's at a wedding/funeral, the next oldest person there was twice her age, her parents are probably there, no, I guess there was no room for focused spunk. I give her five years and she'll be looking to Joan Jett for "You Don't Own Me" inspiration.
Mark Shurilla enters the building, in a white sportscoat, his daily driver Buddy glasses on. He stays in character the entire time, from the moment he breezes past the merch table (staffed by the glorious Marla Rothenberg), to his milling about the crowd while emcee Alan Eisenberg preps them with "I believe Buddy Holly has entered the building", to when the Greatest Hits take the stage and jump instantly into "That'll Be the Day." They're on, and the crowd, slowly but surely, loosens up and enjoys the show. There's blown up photos of Buddy and the Big Bopper in front of the stage, and as Shurilla is clearly the experienced one at this whole Winter Dance Party, he almost does it in his sleep: his wit flying over people's heads (and under some!) his knowledge of Buddy's life and trivia being told as Shurilla's own story, and Holly's voice coming out of Shurilla's face like I've never heard it before. Shurilla's right-hand man, Dan "I Love Neil Diamond Probably Even More than Dave Delorean Does" Mullen is handling his second in command duties like the Lieutenant Commander William T Riker wannabe his facial hair implies, and he effortlessly sings Del Shannon's "Runaway" (believe it or not, one of my favorite songs of all time) and steals the farfisa solo from keyboardist Brian Kurzinski and plays it on his Fender instead, changing it up with surprisingly no objections from the purist crowd. Terry "The Animal" Garguilo lives up to his nickname laying down a primal jungle freight train, especially on Peggy Sue, beating the toms in a way that makes caucasian fathers check on their teenage daughters' whereabouts. Then, they get a guy named Luiz, to be Richie Valens, and to sing to that Donna girl who took the only known original Dance Party Photos. Sardina's brother-in-law wrote about this cool story in his column earlier this week and of course Luiz serenades her with "Donna."
They bring up Claire Sardina again. What is Thunder going to do without Lightning? I'll tell you, she should not being doing Abba, which she started out with. Sardina has a full, rich trained voice that, I repeat, should not be doing Abba -- it cheapens her down to unintentional self-parody, and besides, there's already Bjorn Again and thus no Abba void to fill. No, she finds her voice when she treats us to "Walking After Midnight" and that's when you realize there's a true born again musical future for Claire Sardina: and it has Patsy Cline's name on it. Stick to the Patsy, Claire. Any drag queen can get paid to sing Abba (such an easy target!), but very few people can respectively deliver Cline's classy country blues and Sardina is one of them. Plus, Claire Sardina has had enough of a blueswoman's life to draw her own inspiration and make it real: you're done with pop fluff, Claire, time to slice open your heart and let the blues spill out. We know it's in you.
But overall I am so not used to this kind of thing. I'm used to going to see a band play covers, but putting their own stamp on things, making the songs their own. Amazing keyboard player Kurzinski shakes me out of this: he does a terrific Jerry Lee Lewis for his two biggest hits, Whole Lotta Shaking, and Great Balls of Fire. He's got the Killer's timbre down, and maybe he's just new at this and needs to loosen up, but I can see a manic keyboard player trapped inside, dying to get out. And he doubles on sax! But since he's not actually bringing up the ghost of Jerry Lee (and,uh, he can't because Jerry Lee, unlike almost everybody else being covered tonight, isn't dead), its kind of comforting. For those two songs, I'm not at a funeral anymore. I'm back at the wedding. However, these musicians are more actors than musicians tonight, method actors doing their best to recreate 1959, and for the most part, they succeed. But the ghosts are still milling about the dance floor.
So while Shurilla is conducting a rock and roll séance to bring The Big Bopper down from heaven to tell us what we already knows he likes, bassist Bob Jorin finally accepts that this is indeed his reality, and begins speaking in tongues. It is at this moment when, like Jorin, I too accept that this is not a David Lynch film I've stumbled into, but reality indeed.
take a picture of myself, and head home, to rest up for Volume 3 of Surreal Weekend.