So, I know it’s been forever since I’ve written. Pesky little things like writing a dissertation and starting a new job at Texas A&M University got in the way for a bit. But what better way to pick up again than to write about two of the biggest highlights of every year for any rockabilly fan: Viva Las Vegas and the Lonestar Hot Rod and Kustom Round Up in Austin.
Sorry, burlesque fans, I hate to disagree with you, but my favorite part of Viva Las Vegas every year is Deke Dickerson’s Guitar Geek Show, the shortened 90-minute version of the weekend-long festival he puts on every year in Anaheim during NAMM. I’m always impressed by the showcase of legendary musicians from decades past as well as up-and-coming new talent. The musicians who support the surprise guests aren’t anything to scoff at either. One of the most humble guys I’ve ever met, Deke seems to have no idea what a badass he is. An avid collector and multi-instrumentalist, he can jump right into any song or style on guitar, bass, or drums. Filling in on drums for most of the set was Chris “Sugarballs” Sprague who has a huge Viva fanbase, and it’s not just because it’s dorkily fun to cheer him on by yelling “Sugarballs” at the top of your lungs. At one point, two members of the audience held him upside-down by his feet while he wowed us with this guitar virtuosity even while the blood flowed to head.
This year, Guitar Geek featured some of the same musicians who were headlining the main event at the Viva car show, but in a much more intimate setting. Sitting three rows away from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, I was able to watch Nokie Edwards from the Ventures and Duane Eddy play in a way that I could never experience out in the car show festival parking lot.
Among the highlights of the show was a chance to see T.K. Smith, the original guitarist from Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, play side-by-side with Ashley Kingman, Big Sandy’s current guitarist. Apparently they’ve never actually shared a stage before, so this was history in the making. They treated us to a guitar duel in which one would start the solo wizardry and then stop suddenly, compelling the other to pick up where the other guy left off, all while maintaining the fluidity and style of the first half of the solo. Pure talent and genius!
Fans of instrumental surf music were in for a treat throughout this year’s showcase, particularly when Pete Curry and Eddie Angel from Los Straitjackets performed. It was an experience seeing these guys without their Lucha Libre masks on for once, and I loved hearing Eddie play one of the most romantic instrumental tunes I know, “Pacifica.” (click the link to check it out)
I wasn’t expecting a comedy show, but Sandy Nelson was a hoot. Now in his 70s, Sandy was the session drummer you know from hits like “To Know Him Is To Love Him” (1958, The Teddy Bears) and “Alley-Oop” (1960, The Hollywood Argyles), and he also had several drum-centered tunes like “Teen Beat” (1959) and “Let There Be Drums” (1961). A motorcycle accident in the ‘60s necessitated the amputation of his right foot and part of his leg, but that hasn’t slowed him down at all, or done anything to his sense of humor. Joking that the drum set was missing the tom-tom he needed to play the song correctly, he hit his head with the drumstick whenever it was time for that tom beat. I would’ve been happy to hear him tell jokes all night long.
Ever since NPR cited JD McPherson as one of the best new artists of 2011, everyone has been talking about him, so it wasn’t a big surprise that he would come out to play to few a songs. You might have heard his hit “Northside Gal” getting a lot of play recently. This little guy packs a punch and I think what makes him stand out among the latest wave of vintage-inspired artists is his ability to really sing. I mean this guy carries a sweetly beautiful tune without losing that rough timbre that we all love in good country, blues, and rockabilly.
Finally, the unforgettable finale we were hoping for. Nokie Edwards first thrilled us with the Ventures’ hit that everyone knows, “Walk Don’t Run.” But what I didn’t expect was that he would treat us to a sentimental picking of “Tears In Heaven.” Then another surreal moment when I got to see Duane Eddy up-close and personal. This is the man responsible for inventing that low “twangy” sound by playing the lead note on the guitar’s bass strings. You might recognize the opening riff of his 1957 hit “Moovin’ N’ Groovin’” because the Beach Boys ripped it off for their 1963 “Surfin’ USA.” Click here to watch the epic finale.
Seeing those legends play together at the end of the night was the highlight of my weekend and reminded me of why I come to Viva and especially the Guitar Geek show. I’ve always loved how much the rockabilly scene cares about bridging the generations. It’s great to see the up-and-comers share the stage with the musicians whose records we’ve studied, enjoyed, and learned from. I’m always moved when the audience, which ranges from teenagers to octogenarians, demonstrates how much they care about these guitar innovators by giving them a standing ovation. And what better way to keep honing our skills than to see the masters play in person every chance we get?
I’m looking forward already to 2013’s Guitar Geek Festival and its showcase at Viva. Thanks to Deke Dickerson for keeping guitar history alive and giving us these amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Coming soon – an interview with Deke Dickerson at Austin’s Lonestar Round Up.