SurfGuitar101 is back and, to embrace cliche, bigger than ever. This year organizer Jeff "BigTikiDude" Hanson partnered with a few other organizers, dropped the moniker of Convention, and moved to the 3-day weekender model, held at the Golden Sails hotel, where I failed to get a room before it filled up.
Speaking of failures, my plan was to fly into LAX by 11:30am on Friday, leaving a nice 8 hour buffer before seeing Tikiyaki Orchestra and Satan's Pilgrims that night. I could even maybe check out some record stores, who knows. Well after, a cancelled flight, delays, and one plane that just sat on the tarmac for two hours, I slowly became disillusioned with our entire society watched the clock as my opportunity to see the first night passed me by. By all accounts these bands were predictably amazing and the house was packed. I consoled myself by saying they were roughly 10% of the roster. A very weighty 10% but shut up, I need this.
Moving on. In past years I'd learned that if you want the good stuff from the vendors, you better get there early. Plus, you'll often be in the company of other people lined up waiting to get in. Well, with a modest 20 minutes until opening I was first in line, so I guess the line situation changed, but I still swept through the music vendors like a hurricane, particularly nabbing some nice Japanese 45s, some cheap 90's CDs offered by Ferenc, and some choice stuff from Lee from Dionysus records. I got enough that I had to do some pretty careful Tetris-ing to get things back.
With all the exciting bands on the bill I actually only remembered about the first "act" a few days before the event: a screening of the eternally developed Sound of the Surf documentary, which I had contributed to the IndieGoGo to but wasn't sure if I'd have the chance to view living in my decidedly unsurfy region of the US. For those that aren't aware, this documentary was nearing completion after over a decade, only for the creator Thomas Dunncan to pass away before reaching the finish line. John Blair essentially picked up the torch and has managed to bring it to several film festivals, though they've recently discovered some outstanding licensing issues yet again keeping it from finding its way to wide release.
The movie was great. As John Blair has said himself, it doesn't aim to be comprehensive, and it doesn't aim to cover the existing scene, rather tell a story. The early surf material was great, and certainly taught me plenty, and the archival footage was worth it alone. It's pretty narrowly focused on Southern California instrumentals, and I think that's necessary for run-time (movies are a terrible medium for in-depth learning). The audience is clearly the layman, not the aficionado, but it's a great primer to bring somebody into the modern scene, even if that modern scene (which I was sitting in the midst of) is a much different beast. Anyway, I hope this finds the light of day soon enough, and I'm going to try to foist it onto my fiends once it does.
I kind of like having a subdued start with movies and symposiums. I don't recall this happening in any of the previous SG101 festivals that I've been to, and it kind of helps you get up to speed by the time the first band starts.
First actual band up was The Reventlos, who have been around since the 90's, but it's been over 15 years since a release so they still felt like a bit of an unknown quantity to me (probably less so to somebody from the area). It's also fun finally seeing Matt Quilter on stage doing his own music, whereas every previous year in my memory I've seen him as a supporting member of a tribute section. They were surprisingly groovy! At one point they said something along the lines of "and now we're going to do some Ethiopian stuff that I'm pretty sure a lot of you hate, but we like." Well count me onboard, I'm always down for a different angle. So then they threw another curveball, with Marty Tippens joining them with a banjo plugged in to the surf stack. Pretty fun!
Then we switched back to schooltime with Jonpaul Balak sitting down with Paul Johnson to talk about The Bel-Airs and early surf. I was particularly struck by PJ's attitude and sense of humor, clearly a pretty laid-back dude. Hopefully somebody will post a recording of the interview on youtube, as I don't think I should (nor could) go into the nitty-gritty, but one thing that felt particularly poignant was when he said that he loves seeing all the different directions we've taken the music, and that he comes to this event feeling like he's seeing his grandchildren. And he really did come to event, not just for the interview, but I believe he came all three days just to see the music.
I do lament that Jonpaul did not acknowledge the mutual Paul and Jo(h)n between their names.
Then it was from one bald man to another: Mark Painter, the man of a thousand side projects and pseudonyms, most notably in this context Sir Bald Diddley, all the way from England. Personally, I was kind of surprised to have him this far down the list -- he's got a daunting amount of surf material under his belt and I'd struggle to think of any that I didn't like, and his presence in the lineup was one of the things that pushed me over the edge to go.
He was fantastic, his ragged guitar style sounding great, but also swaggering around (and off) stage and mugging. Fantastic entertainer and certainly not of the statuesque variety. Surprisingly, he didn't keep it instrumental, but the crowd certainly didn't mind, happy to participate when commanded to. Notably, he was keeping pretty nice company too, with Jonpaul Balak on bass and Deke Dickerson on sax.
Next up were The Concussions! I've always felt that their albums needed time to grow on me before I inevitably came around to loving them, so I'm curious how a fresh set of ears appreciated their quirky, low-voltage style. At the very least, you gotta love the outfits. Their set covered stuff from all over their discography, maybe leaning a little more into Newaygo Sound Machine (which is fine by me). It's a shame that this performance came after the passing of their drummer Bill Vits. However, after I broke attention to talk to a friend, I noticed that there was a sudden rush to see what was on stage. I wasn't sure what it was about, it seemed like nothing had changed, but it turns out that beneath their masks was another masked man: Pete Curry of Los Straitjackets was on drums the whole time.
The crowd swelled up for Deke Dickerson, who was set to play a whole bunch of Link Wray. He came out on-stage dressed in leather and wearing sunglasses as tribute, but warned that they were coming off pretty soon afterwards. As much as I always enjoy hearing Link songs, I think the real highlight was hearing Deke's recollections of interactions with the legend. And of course it was pretty cool seeing him pull out the Danelectro guitar that allegedly belonged to Link, complete with stories about it. I swear it did sound a little nastier.
Draculina was next in the main room, the most enigmatic feature of the lineup. What I knew going in: Draculina is from Russia and was introduced to the MuSick lineup in 2020 (sort of brought out around the same time as Wave Electric, whose LP I loved last year). She had one EP in 2020, backed up by several veterans, most notably Larry Mullins who's been a member of The Stooges, Nick Cave, and Swans. She made a second EP with two Shadows covers, and that one featured Chris Barfield, Evan Foster, Dusty Watson, as well as Larry Mullins. I mean that's pretty close to a supergroup. But at this point we've only heard four originals and two covers, it's not a lot to go on, and this would be her debut show in the US.
For SG101 the lineup was Draculina, Chris Barfield, Evan Foster, Pablo Baza (of Tikiyaki Orch. and The Scimitars) on drums, and a nice surprise of Melanie Vammen of The Pandoras (and other great but less surf relevant bands) on keyboard. At first it was pretty slow and creepy, as one might as expect for somebody with a Halloweeny name, but I can't say it was grabbing me. But it kind of crept up on you, as creepy things do, and tracks got weirder and more vigorous, more surfy, and eventually even a bit psychedelic. And by the end I, and several others, walked away thinking "that was pretty great." Draculina, as a musical entity, remains mysterious however. I loved her caped look, but her stage presence was fairly muted (especially standing next to Vammen, who looked like she brought every rock & roll molecule she had). Evan Foster and Chris Barfield making music together is kind of a dream come true for many surf fans. Should it be viewed as that? They brought a new EP to the show, featuring two new tracks with Barfield & Foster on them and sharing songwriting credits with Draculina and Mullins. The answer may be that this project is still cooling into a more solid form, but the bottom line was that Draculina's debut was enough to get a lot of people pretty excited
Next up was The Charades, all the way from Finland. While they have some great originals, a lot of their material is covers, including their most recent release, and indeed they opened up with a few. They sounded nice, but admittedly it was around 7pm, 9pm in my time zone, and I had to eat at some point, so I headed outside for a burger after getting a few snapshots.
I haven't mentioned the Taboo Tiki Room yet because I don't know how to. I was constantly on the move, and while I'm working down this schedule in a linear fashion while I write this article, I also would duck into the other room for a moment or two. While the main room was mostly surf music vendors, the tiki room was, well, mostly tiki stuffs. However, they also had bands and burlesque throughout the day. I seemed to have timed my visits poorly for burlesque as I probably caught all of one minute over the whole weekend, but I did catch a few songs here and there of Little Kahuna and Jason Lee and the RIP Tides, both of which had multiple sets throughout the day. I'm admittedly not that familiar with Little Kahuna's material, but they sounded great in the small portions that I caught. I think this was the third time I'd seen Jason Lee, and almost certainly the least hair I'd seen, but they ripped up the small stage just the same as they would the main one, a true power trio with fantastic playing and electric energy.
In total contrast to The Charades preceding them was The Irradiates. Jeff was a bit mindful of traditionalists, warning that they were a bit different, but great. And boy were they. They were likely the loudest, most aggressive surf group I've seen at one of these, but I think that's a bit reductive. Their melodic hooks still came across, emphasized by the feeling (ir)radiating from the players as they spasmed and crashed around stage. It's great to see a band that visibly loves their material, and it's hard not to catch that emotion yourself. I was also really happy to finally see my friend Arno (also well known for Arno De Cea and the Clockwork Wizards), who I had met years ago at SG101 and even briefly caught up in New Orleans, but had never seen him play.
Their frontman's between-song dialog was goofy, putting on a persona that's hard to describe in text, and made for nice levity between otherwise sustained intensity. It also felt like their energy kickstarted the last portion of the lineup, passing energy onto the next band...
Which would be The Volcanos! A band that most would associate with the 90s, probably since all of their recorded material was made then, but appear to have been playing the occasional show here and there for at least the past decade. One of the things I struggle with most when writing about surf music is expressing what makes a great traditional surf band great, particularly versus good. Perhaps that's the code that every less-than-great surf band is trying to crack as well. This surf band is a great one, and that hard-to-describe element applies to their recorded material and carries over here. It just has the right energy and oomph. Part of this is that feeling of the band connected as a whole, particularly with both guitarists trading off with each other spectacularly. Unfortunately their set had to be cut short for time, but a lot of favorites made it in, like "Bikini Sunset", "Beatnik bandit" and "Whirlpool". I spied a bunch of people in the audience clearly eating it up, amazed to finally hear these songs live.
The penultimate group of the night was Pollo Del Mar, fresh off their comeback LP Speed of Dark. Please don't hate me when I say that after a full day of surf twangin', it was kind of welcome to hear their more free-form psychedelic style, particularly when shot out with the energy, attitude, and speed that they had. I neglected to get a picture of the set list, but it felt like a lot of Speed of Dark songs made it on here, specifically remembering "Surfin' with Keith", "Pose of Awareness", "Wabi Sabi", "The Golden State" and "Sifaka". That said, it also felt like a reunion show of sorts, so older favorites like "A Flash of Green" were in there too. I'll add that as somebody that has never seen them before, is much more familiar with Frankie & the Pool Boys, and is much more acquainted with Ferenc as a person, I was feeling the band as a unit and not as a Ferenc project, and was particularly impressed by guitarist Jono Jones' presence.
Somewhere towards the end of their set, I sat down next to Chad Shivers, both of us exhausted, saving our strength, knowing that it was approaching 1am in my time, 2am in Chad's. And not only were we determined to see The Bomboras, but we needed actually stand up in front before their set started so we could see them. I realize I'm 37 and well on the younger side of the SG101 age bell curve, but I felt how I felt, what can I say?
Well, safe to say The Bomboras were not a challenge to stay up through. I kept thinking about that legendary public access video of The Mummies. I could never be a Fly on the wall of that session (Mummies pun intended), but from my vantage in front of their organist it sure seemed pretty comparable, and The Mummies didn't have blacklights. ~45 minutes of chaotic energy, with bouncing skeletons, a thick and meaty rock & roll sound, farfisa acrobatics/pyrotechnics, and not much room for breath. I spoke to two people that didn't care for it -- said it was all noise and no substance. And to be fair my ears had been pretty dulled by loudness at this point. But I loved hearing tracks like "Westchester Hosts Hawthorne" and was bouncing along to those melodies just fine.
Obviously, surf is a small, niche genre, bordering on gimmick. And yet there are things I see at a surf show that just make other rock shows seem so dull, phony and self-indulgent. Why aren't other bands wearing uniforms? Why don't y'all synchronize your movements? Why is the keyboardist tucked away like they're shameful? Modern bands' images are so tightly controlled and engineered only for the result to be cold and booooring. Give me a bunch of skeletons bouncing around on a small stage five feet away from me with plenty of beat to bounce to.
Unfortunately lights went up before they could finish, and I wasted no time getting back to the hotel. There was only a short while until I'd be back tomorrow.
One more Bomboras picture because I like how sneaky he looks.