New York Surf City
There’s a method to the madness of covering so many outdoor concerts here. At some point in our lifetime, all these shows will be just a memory. Sooner or later at this time in August in New York, it might not be technically impossible to put on an outdoor show, but it’ll be unrealistic to expect anyone to come out into the heat and watch it. For the moment, it’s good that we have Julie Rozar, part of the brain trust behind the snarkily entertaining Alien Surfer Babes and Witches in Bikinis, and Deb Noble of Blue Stingraye Productions, who emceed a summer storm of surf bands Saturday afternoon on the Coney Island boardwalk out in front of the Wonder Wheel. They’d actually scheduled most of these bands for a concert here last year, but then Mayor Bloomberg decided to shut down the city for the “hurricane” which of course never arrived. Was this eclectic lineup worth waiting almost a year for? Depends on your heat tolerance. Even with a gusty breeze off the ocean, Coney Island was sweltering, and the show was scheduled to go into the early evening, with Connecticut’s Commercial Interruption followed by Long Island’s Strange But Surf, psychedelic Ohio instrumentalists Purple k’niF, the retro, purist Clams, Boston horror surf maniacs Beware The Dangers Of A Ghost Scorpion and then the ASB’s headlining [excellent set of photos on Flickr].
The early part of the show was full of examples of why surf rock is so much fun, and why it’s sometimes so exasperating. Spontaneous dancing was breaking out everywhere, even during at least two versions of Surf City Here We Come (there might have been more as the afternoon went on, you never know). Both Commercial Interruption and Strange But Surf write good original songs: they don’t have to fall back on cheeseball covers like that. There’s unfortunately a bunch of those in the surf repertoire along with classics like Misirlou (Strange But Surf’s closing tune) and Pipeline (Commercial Interruption opened with that one: since they’ve got a keyboard, their version was especially cool, in the spirit of the original). Since their songs don’t usually have lyrics, surf bands have to get over on music alone, which explains why so many good players end up becoming part of the surf music cult. Commercial Interruption, whose name alludes to the fact that they do a lot of old tv themes, covered an impressive range of styles, starting with the Mothers of Invention, complete with a noisy psychedelic freakout mid-song and then an amusing segue into a series of corny 70s hits including the Andrea True Connection’s immortal More, More, More. From there they tackled a couple of early Beatles tunes, then the loping C&W of The Magnificent Seven, and eventually a breezy, jazzy I Dream of Jeannie theme. Their frontman/bass player took a couple of solos full of slides and punchy chords that managed to be flashy but not stupid; they also did a couple of edgy, stomping minor-key originals.
Strange But Surf’s originals were also the highlight of their roughly 45-minute set, as they switched instruments, had fun putting their own spin on the Ramones’ “hey ho, let’s go,” sped up Lee Hazlewood’s spaghetti western theme Baja to a gallop, unearthed Where the Action Is (a mid-60s Dick Clark show theme) and turned Marbles, their drummer loose on guitar and vocals on The Martians Are Pissed. After swooshing their way through the Avengers Theme, Link Wray’s grandson joined them for a surprise appearance on guitar for The Rumble: as far as brushes with surf rock royalty go, it doesn’t get much more personal than that. There’s another free show here on August 18 with Witches in Bikinis headlining at 7.
The surf didn’t stop when the tide came up and the sun went down, either. Since this was the first Saturday of the month, tireless promoter Unsteady Freddie was putting on his monthly surf show at Otto’s. By half past eleven, the Tarantinos NYC had taken the stage. They’re an unlikely-looking bunch – jazz drummer, metal guitarist, rock bassist and pop keyboardist – but they have the kind of chemistry that comes from constant gigging and the kind of diverse, cinematic sound their name implies. And they don’t just do songs from Tarantino movies: this particular show featured a lot of unpredictable, anthemic originals, a digression into Link Wray like the one on the boardwalk earlier in the day but with a lot more alcohol involved, and finally a majestically lurid version of Henry Mancini’s You Only Live Twice.
For anybody who might have questioned the decision to put a psychedelic Greek rembetiko band at the top of the bill, the Byzan-tones’ eerie, chromatic, sometimes microtonally-spiked stomp generated a lot more spontaneous dancing and absolutely stunned the crowd: it was half past one in the morning by the time they finished, but nobody left the room. Recently regrouped, with Steve Antonakos’ guitar taking the place of the electric oud they employed back in the mid-zeros, they’re once again one of New York’s best bands. From the apprehensive, Arabic-tinged Byzan-Tone Beat, to the tricky Black Sea tempos of Pontic Pipeline, to the high point of the night, a murky chromatic vamp that morphed into a macabre samba, the intensity didn’t let up. In his resonant baritone, frontman/guitarist George Sempepos intoned a somber yet bouncy rembetiko song about a street urchin bumming for cigarettes and accosting the wrong guy (who turned out to be a cop; the kid asks him anyway). The music got a little bit lighter, with one number that sounded like a syncopated version of the Stones’ Beast of Burden before going back into the shadows with a slinky, furtive vamp that Antonakos lit up with some surrealistically searing slide work and then a warped variation on the Peter Gunne theme. They closed with a tongue-in-cheek song called Crawfish Saganaki, pulsing along on a Bo Diddley beat. All this made dealing with the heat seem like afterthought.