snap a self portrait there while I've got the chance. I emerge to see the opening band which at first seems like garden variety rockabilly, called the Mezcal Brothers. As I am still recovering from an exhilerating Rev Horton Heat show, I'm admittedly missing the finer points of the precision playing this opening band has, because they're not out of control. They're much more contained, and have plowed all their energy into tight songwriting and playing. Americana all the way, though. Lead singer Gerado Meza looks like a cross between Johnny Cash and Martin Scorsese, and sings like it too. Guitarist Benny Kushner is a dead ringer for Buddy Holly, down to the toothy grin that only Gary Busey could approximate. Drummer Shaun Theye never takes off his sunglasses, never breaks a sweat, never stops hunching over his snare, and never misses a beat. I'm not even fishing out the camera until I see, what's this? What the hell is that on Charlie "Fireball" Johnson's bass? It's not just sparklies on the edges. It's not just his name, Charlie, painted on like it was a sprint car. It's not just a pair of huge rhinestones above the S-holes. Ohmigod, those are strobe lights, jimbo-lustworthy strobe lights on this guy's bass, that flash and flicker when he carefully balances on top to prove that yes, they can get psycho and wild about it when the need arises. Finally, I put it all together. They're from Lincoln, Nebraska. They just don't drink as much as they do in Horton and Jimbo's Texas. When they get out of control, it's because they choose to, not because they drank too much. Johnny Scorsece keeps the stage banter dry and witty between songs, Buddy Holly's playing and dancing right along, and suddenly they've won my heart because even in the dry heartland, they understand rock and billy and put it together, and still get the little girls feeling like they want to get in trouble. But they didn't have to get me drunk to do it. Bravo!
Big Sandy"!! That's pronounced "Beeg SANdee" and after a lovely instrumental offering from the Straightjackets, Big Sandy makes his big entrance, surveying the crowd like the hispanic Jake Blues his stocky build, freshly pressed black suit and ray-bans bring to mind. His attitude and delivery remind one of Belushi, too: he's got the goods, he's going to deliver them, he is here to entertain you. Except he's the vocalist Belushi always wanted to be, so you don't think he's a Jake Blues ripoff. He's got his own thing going, he can sing, he can drink (somebody bought a round of tequilla for the entire band, but not everybody in the band was up for it, but Sandy did not let good tequilla go to waste) and the ladies love him.
Los Straightjackets were everything I knew they would be, so I had to judge them in that context -- they are so good that unfortunately I'm not surprised anymore that they were as good as they are. They still have the surf thing going, but now they're on a general early rock hits kick, with a schtick that takes early pop hits, translates them to Spanish, and then plays them. It sounds like a kitschy joke, but really, the translations work. "Hang On Sloopy" becomes "Hang on Lupe" and it even works better because in English, what or who the hell is Sloopy? But in Spanish, Lupe is a common woman's name, and it makes all the more sense now. They still are mysteriously hidden behind those ridiculous mexican wrestling masks, with matching guitar straps, and, well, matching guitars! Matching custom built sparkly guitars, a glowing bass drum light, and matching suits! Only Big Sandy is speaking English to the crowd: Los Straightjackets keep the stage banter in spanish, quickly spoken only to emphasize the ridiculousness of English words like Milwaukee, and Shank Hall poking though and the names of their albums.
This apparently is a formula that's working well for them. If Sunday night's Shank Hall crowd is any indication, people just don't get up and dance to instrumentals for whatever reason. So they get a charasmatic frontman for a tour (last time I saw them, they were leasing the Fleshtones' Peter Zaremba), and the vocalist's very existance entices people to the dance floor. When they don't have the vocals, they make up for it with choreographed guitar dancing, and musicians in the audience keep their mouth open as they whip off surf and americana guitar runs with apparent ease. They pick and choose their mashups: doing the Munsters Theme not only as a surf number, but with a Ventures' "Walk Don't Run"-esque intensity that isn't lost on dangerous surf devotees like myself.
Maybe it's good that this was a Sunday night, and I -- and many others in the room -- were burnt from the weekend and had a Monday morning at work staring us down. Because both Los Straightjackets and the Mezcal Brothers are great at face value, and actually, you might gloss over their finer points if you were too Saturday-night crazed up. Lots of bands can rave up the rockabilly and surf, but both bands on the bill tonight had subtleties that went appreciated by me because I wasn't toasted. The flourish of the guitarists' hands, the thoughtfulness of the song arrangements and choreography. Both these bands were an exercise in passion directed at precision, not out-of-control craziness. Another couple of bands on a growing list worth being worthless at work on Monday for.