Written by James Killen
Apr 12, 2013 at 10:00 PM
ImageI was poking through the concert calendar a couple of weeks ago and saw that Dick Dale, the King of Surf Guitar, was going to play at this little venue off of FM1960 and Kuykendahl on a Friday night. I hadn’t heard about him in so long that I thought that he must have passed away. I jumped on the internet and bought a ticket, afraid that this was one of those last opportunities to catch a cultural icon and  imagining that he would be led out to a stool in the middle of the stage and lay out a short set of his signature licks. When it was announced earlier in the week that Annette Funacello, sweetheart of the surfer flicks had passed away earlier in the week, I was certain that I had gotten my ticket just in time.

For those of you not familiar with Dick Dale, you’ve quite likely been exposed to his music on movie soundtracks (Pulp Fiction and numerous Frankie Avalon/Annette Funacello surf movies) and commercials (Domino’s Pizza and Mountain Dew). He began playing electric guitar in the fifties with the newly designed Fender Stratocaster. The one he had was a right handed version that Dick played upside down (as he is left handed), but without restringing it (as lefty Jimi Hendrix did), leaving the heavy strings on the bottom.

Dale turned the volume all of the way up on all of his equipment, regularly blowing out the amps and speakers of the day. He began working with Leo Fender to increase the power capacity of the amps and to design speakers that could take the stress. Until their collaboration, speakers were fastened directly to the wooden housing instead of having the rubber “shock absorber” between the speaker and the housing.  He was also instrumental in the development of the reverb amp. Fender designed a special “Dick Dale Signature” version of the Stratocaster for this rock and roll pioneer.

Something else about Dale that is almost unique in the popular music business is that he shunned all alcohol and drugs and wouldn’t hire musicians or roadies that used them. Dick Dale got his kicks on the surf board.

This was my first trip out to the Concert Pub North venue, which is a well-financed restaurant/pub complex that features a “Harley only” parking area, so there’s a little something for everybody. The ticket options were general admission, reserved seating in about 3 rows up front and reserved tables. The tables and rows of seats had good visual access to the stage. There were two opening acts, both of which were Latin jazz influenced instrumental bands.

Sancho and the Love Tones came out to do four songs that were a cross between Jeff Beck and Cal Tjader and featured some pretty nice guitar noodling.

ImageSecond up was the Dani Vargas Band, featuring Vargas on guitar, Antony Sapp on six string bass and Moises Zapata on drums. They created a high energy fusion style that reminded me of Eric Johnson and John McLaughlin. Vargas displayed some amazingly fast, occasionally, almost frantic fretwork with the highly animated Sapp and driving Zapata in close support. An evening with the Vargas Trio would be worth the price of admission on its own.

There was a bit of a wait after the Dani Vargas Band left the stage, before Dick Dale came on. I thought that maybe it was going to take a bit to get the 75 year old gentleman prepared for his short set. That’s when I noticed some of the die-hard fans putting in their earplugs. I knew Dale’s historical reputation for turning up the volume, but hadn’t thought to bring my own plugs, so I went to the men’s room and grabbed a wad of toilet paper, just to be safe. That may have been my best move of the evening for no sooner had I gotten back to my seat, than the lights went down and the unmistakable loud wail of an approaching surf guitar surged from the speakers. The drummer and bassist made the stage and added to the volume. In went my makeshift earplugs, not a moment too soon.

Dick Dale strode boldly on to the stage squeezing the staccato notes from his Fender and staring out into the audience with his cold clear blue eyes. After, a few minutes of free form jam, Dale nodded at his band and stated “They have no idea what I’m going to do and neither do I!”.

The format of the show was like a series of medleys, moving from one song to the next without stopping. Some of the songs were Dick Dale originals, like “Let’s Go Trippin’ “ while many were covers of popular numbers done in the surf guitar style. Among the covers were “House of the Rising Sun” , Johnny Cash’s “Hear that Train A’ comin’”(although he sang a line from “Ring of Fire” in the middle of it), “You Give Me Fever” and “Do the Honky Tonk”(featuring Dick Dale on the harmonica).

ImageDale reached over during a bass solo and fretted the notes as the bassist strummed the strings. I suspect that the only reason that there was a series of medleys instead of one long one is that Dale was giving the audience a break, because neither he nor the band seemed to need one even as they continually moved all over the stage.

In one of the medleys, that included “Smoke on the Water”, “Summertime Blues” and a surf guitar version of Russian dance music, the band slid into a cover of “Hey, Bo Diddley” with its pounding tom-tom drum beat. Dick Dale put down his guitar and grabbed a pair of drum sticks and joined the drummer in a drum duel sharing the same kit. Dale then came down to the front of the stage and used the sticks to hammer a rhythm out on the bass guitar while the bass player fretted the notes. Dale stopped the medleys to dedicate his version of “Amazing Grace” to service men and women, firefighters and mothers and fathers, everywhere, before ending his show with his signature tune, “Misirlou”.

Dick Dale and company put on a first class rock and roll show that night. Before he left the stage he warned that he was not going to die in a rocking chair or a hospital bed, but was going to go up in a rock and roll explosion on stage with body parts everywhere. While I’m glad to have missed the explosion, I wouldn’t have missed this show for the world. As I was pulling out of the Concert Pub parking lot, I could have sworn that I saw that Energizer bunny lurking in the alleyway, trying to score some of whatever it was that was keeping Dick Dale going.