Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Trashmen Live: The Bird is Still the Word!

The Medina Ballroom in Medina, Minnesota is the kind of place you’d expect to find flea markets and Johnny Cash impersonators. The place where the talent and audience share the same bathroom. It was in Medina men’s room I ran into Tony Andreason, lead guitarist and vocalist of the Trashmen, the 1960’s band famous for their hit single, “Surfin’ Bird.” “This is a little bit different than the Cabooze,” I said. Tony smiled, stating “That was a great time.” I told him I was the guy in front of the stage who was plugged into the electric outlet, a phrase coined by my friend, Klink, to describe my excitement at 1998’s Big Hits of Mid-America Concert at the Cabooze in Minneapolis. The concert featured the major Minnesota rock and roll bands of the 1960’s such as the Del-Counts, Castaways and Underbeats. The Trashmen were the headliners that evening, a night where I finally realized why all those kids in the sixties danced and screamed like maniacs. Pure, stripped down rock and roll, played at a fast tempo with maximum volume does something to the insides. It’s impossible to just stand; you gotta dance!

“Surfin’ Bird” was one of many 45’s in my Mom’s record collection. When I was about five, she started to let me play them by myself. Of course, there were casualties (sorry “Georgy Girl” by the Seekers, I didn’t mean it). Of all the records Mom had, a few were played far more than others, one of which was “Surfin’ Bird” and “King of the Surf” by the Trashmen. There are no A or B-sides in a kids mind, just the raw feeling of something fun. I tended to play both songs equally but I confess to preferring “the Bird.” It sounded like nothing else I’ve heard, a song which demanded to be played loud. I had no general knowledge of the history and hierarchies of rock and roll. To my five year-old self, the Trashmen were just as great as the Beatles, Elvis and Roy Orbison. When we would go driving and “Surfin’ Bird” (or “King of the Surf”) would come on the radio, she would let me crank the radio to the maximum level she could tolerate. Thirty years later, I still have that 45 and still play it a little too loud for comfort.

Klink scored a group of us preferred seating at the Trashmen’s Medina show. As we took our seats, they seemed similar to the Ray Liotta scene in “Goodfellas” when he takes his girlfriend to see Bobby Vinton. Many in the audience dressed semi-formal and the waiters came to the table to take drink orders. This seemed a little too nice for rock and roll. This wasn’t Bobby Vinton singing “Roses are Red,” this was the Trashmen! A band that caused Family Guy’s Peter Griffin to torture his dysfunctional clan with “Surfin’ Bird” for and entire ten-minute segment of the show. The use of the song on Family Guy propelled “Surfin’ Bird” back into the charts 45 years after its initial release, hitting number eight on iTunes and cracking the top fifty in the U.K. It was doubtful many in the Medina audience knew this as the average age was significantly older than Family Guy’s target market.

The opening band, the Surf Dawgs, were and excellent instrumental group, drummer Sally West being particularly outstanding. Their version of the James Bond Theme was the highlight of a very solid performance. I spoke to lead guitarist Tom Kaplan after their set and his enthusiasm of rock and roll was obvious. The Surf Dawgs have a passion for instrumentals, a genre seldom heard these days. I hope a band this dedicated and talented finds the audience they deserve.

The Trashmen came on stage a half hour later wearing matching buttoned red shirts like it was 1963. The band tuned their own instruments before they began, which took less than a minute, a feat I’d challenge any modern group to repeat. Tony Andreason, playing a 1957 Stratocaster began the show saying all the songs in the set the Trashmen had recorded sometime during their 47 years together. The opening song, “My Woodie” an ode to the 1960’s station wagon had my knees moving. I knew I wouldn’t be sitting in the prestige seats for long. The band’s sound was so spot-on and precise it acted like a time machine back to an era where every kid spun records in their room and dreamed of being in a rock and roll band. As Andreason began introducing “King of the Surf” a song the great Dick Dale called his favorite surf song, I could not sit any longer. My legs were movin’ and my heart was pumpin’. I stood by some die-hard rock and roll guys who positioned themselves in the exact center of the speakers. As “King of the Surf” kicked in, I realized quickly this was the best spot for sound. I felt the song through me like that four-year-old from years past. Andreason’s breakneck solo amplified the chorus:

Well I'm a high ridin' surfer and it takes three crunchers
and a heavy to wipe me outI can do a double spinner before you count to threeWhoa oh, king of the surf

Soon after, Tony Andreason introduced the song “Comic Book Collector”, a song that channeled a 1988 memory when the song was released. It seems so long ago when local radio station were actually local and had the authority to promote new songs. It didn’t get played for long but I remembered it. Rock and roll has the incredable ablity to do this; to take you back deep inside your memories to pasts long forgotten. Eventually, I gravitated to the front left of the stage, the only part of the Media where one can get close and still dance. The Trashmen ripped through Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” a song showcasing Andreason’s gifts as a guitarist. They slowed the tempo down for a nice, bluesy version of “House of New Orleans” which was very tight and made me wonder how the band might have evolved had they not been pushed off the charts by the Beatles and the British Invasion.

Andreason’s dry humor introduced “the song you all came to hear.” There was a slight pause which I used to scream out “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” Bassist Bob Reed pointed to me with a thumbs up. It wasn’t just the adrenaline of a great concert causing me to proclaim this, to me it was a no-brainer. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been inducting fairly obscure artists under the “Early Influence” category for years. I love Little Anthony and the Imperials, but the strenght of “Tears on My Pillow” and “Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Coco Pop” pales in comparison to the Trashmen’s greatest song. This is not a comparison of influence, but one of durablity. The ability to reach generations of listeners and affect them with a song for almost fifty years pretty much says “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The Trashmen launched into “Surfin Bird” in same fashion one could expect from “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “Born to Run.” A two-minute, thirty second burst of rock and roll transcendance. It makes your heart glad.

The Trashmen invited the Surf Dawgs on stage to jam on the final number, a powerhouse cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” The tightness and passion from the musicians was more than is seen at the average arena show. These were people not going through the motions, but having fun doing what every kid used to dream of: play great rock and roll. The merchandise table was busy after the concert ended, the Trashmen staying until they met the last fan waiting. It was heartening to see so many vinyl copies of the band’s albums being sold, a sign thing might becoming full circle in the universe of music. The Trashmen’s signature t-shirt: they gave the world “the Bird” stands as piece of juvenile innuendo Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane would definitely appreciate. As I ventured back into the Medina men’s room to take care of business before I left, I noticed a white-haired guy I had seen by the left side of the stage during the entire performance. I assumed he was the sound guy or manager. “No,” he replied. “I’m just an old groupie. My first concert was the Doors.” Unreal. Sometimes the most interesting parts of a concert happen in the bathroom. That’s rock and roll for you.

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