At Easter 1999, the Gold Coast hotel and casino in glitzy Las Vegas played host to the second Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly weekend. Over 2500 rocking folk from all over the world converged on the neon city for up to a week beforehand, feeding a raft of satellite gigs outside the Gold Coast itself.
The weekender proper lit the blue touch paper on Thursday April 1 with an excellent DJ set from bassist Shorty. First band was THE SINNERS from Los Angeles. They have a loyal local fan base who lapped up material such as 'Just Because' and '16 chicks'. Although their choice of songs was perhaps a little unimaginative, they were a very respectable straight-up Rockabilly band.
Second act was the Texan asylum-dodger MACK STEVENS. What can I say except that he was wilder than a bear with a wasp in his arse. Tracks from his new CD 'Hardcore Texas Cat Music' including 'Benzedrine Bounce' and 'Hate and Gasoline' rubbed shoulders with old classics like 'Raging Sea' (Gene Maltais) and an insane stab at 'Scream' (Ralph Nielsen). His Argentinean band are not the best musicians that the Mackster has played with but they are willing to put up with his boisterous antics, which include swinging the guitarist around by his legs until he splits his head open and setting fire to the drum-kit. A highlight was when he took the advice of Mark 16:18 and started snake-juggling, scaring the crap out of everyone with his two cobras. Madness! Mack spent the rest of the weekend asking people if they had found the lost serpents in the hotel. What a showman!
Now came the first 1950s artist, Rockabilly legend MAC CURTIS. Britain's Nick Gilroy Kombo did a flawless job of backing him. Mac's voice is still spiffing but not as powerful as it once was and more volume on his vocal would have helped. All the classics were exquisitely performed, 'Granddaddy's Rocking', 'Half Hearted Love' etc. 'Say So' was first-rate, Nick's bass and Malcolm's guitar matching the record note for note. The audience, now packing tightly into the hall, roared with pleasure.
Promoter Tom Ingram DJed until 4am, his usual well-honed set of record-hop classics providing the soundtrack for serious alcohol abuse at ridiculously cheap prices. Somewhere shortly after that I stumbled to my room, but those made of sterner stuff took advantage of the 24 hour bars and didn't bother going to bed at all.
Friday started with a quick rummage through the clothes stalls in the downstairs ballroom, which revealed that most of the best bargains had already gone. Several beautiful jackets were sold for four figure sums in the next few days. Friday's openers JACK BAYMOORE AND THE BANDITS hit the stage at 8:30. As always, Jack and the boys were magnificent. Jyrki 'JJ' Juvonen, the guitar picker with mammoth talent, was the cat's whiskers. Opening with their own 'Drunk Tank Boogie', the Bandits ripped through 'Tag Along' (Rocket Morgan), 'Ain't that a dilly' (Marlon Grisham), 'Popcorn Boogie' and lots more. The set culminated in their classic 'A V8 Boogie', which had the heaving audience dancing frenetically. Top marks to these exhilarating musicians.
I got back to the main hall in time to see SONNY GEORGE AND THE TENNESSEE SONS. Numbers from his Planet Rocker days like 'Trouble up the road' threw a spotlight onto the exemplary skill of ex-Polecat guitarist Boz Boorer, who took vocals for his hit 'Rockabilly Guy'. Also dandy were several from Sonny's choice new CD 'Truck Driving Songs' (Spinout). 'Hillbilly Wolfman' and 'Come On' (Wyn Stewart) rounded the selection off winningly.
If Elvis is the king of Rock'n'Roll then JANIS MARTIN is the undisputed queen of bop. Accompanied by the superlative skills of Flyright Boys Ashley Kingman, Carl Sonny Leyland and Shorty she barnstormed through all of her classic numbers. 'Let's Elope Baby' featured guest vocals from flame-haired Kim Lenz, which thrilled the tightly-crammed throng. 'Love Me to Pieces' and 'Bang Bang' proved that Janis has retained her sensationally powerful voice. She also looked younger and fitter than most of the audience. As she sang a medley of early Elvis hits, a magical atmosphere permeated the room. When she finished on 'My Boy Elvis' the applause was deafening. Janis Martin won our hearts with her flawless, good-humoured stage craft.
A restorative cocktail or three and we were ready for ROBERT GORDON. I trotted through the door to hear the unmistakable strains of Eddie Angel playing 'Rampage'. Gordon came onstage and launched into Jack Scott's macho 'The Way I Walk'. I hadn't been expecting much; I have never been a fan of Robert Gordon's records and have been horror stories about him giving some hellishly poor performances. What a pleasant surprise though, he was truly outstanding; he looked slick and well and sang bewitchingly. 'There You Go' (Johnny Cash) and 'The Fool' (Sanford Clark) fitted Gordon's voice like a glove. 'Worrying Kind', 'Fire' and of course 'Endless Sleep' were gorgeous. Robert Gordon works best with distinctive guitarists, Eddie Angel was an inspired choice of sidekick and his trademark riffs added enormously to our listening pleasure, the Presley chestnut 'Suspicion' being a case in point.
DJ Jerry Chatabox played a brief but popular set of jivers before Denver's DALHART IMPERIALS stood in the limelight. The Imperials are a worthy seven-piece western swing outfit featuring a horn section. They played a mix of western swing standards alongside some more obscure material. A tightly rehearsed combo packed with talented musicians, with an authentic empathy for the music, but I felt that a fiddle would have given an extra zing to their sound.
Friday night closed with the traditional weekender sports of drinking, talking bull, drinking, letching, drinking and drinking. My memory may be blurred but I do remember Shorty and Bobby Trimble in the downstairs dancehall. For my money they were the best of the American DJs that we heard over Easter.
On Saturday afternoon, after another superlative selection of records from Bobby Trimble, Britain's NICK GILROY KOMBO began playing at the laughably early hour of 5pm. I had seen them before, and enjoyed their two albums '5000 Volts' and 'Crazy Lovin' Daddy', so I knew that this was going to be an enjoyable show, but they pulled out all of the stops and surpassed themselves today. Cover versions of 'Hep Cat' (Larry Terry) and 'Teenage Bug' (Dwight Pullen) were luscious, but it was on their own material, like the album title tracks, the incendiary 'Kombo Boogie' and a blistering version of 'Swamp Fly' featuring Boz Boorer on guitar, that they impressed us the most. Nick Gilroy has a unique, muscular voice and a relentless bass-slapping technique that make a perfect foil for the talents of guitarist Malcolm Chapman and drummer Roger Van Niekirk. This talented band is surely headed for success, and deserved a better time slot than this. They were one of the high spots of the whole event.
Now came HAL PETERS AND HIS STRING DUSTERS, a western swing and hillbilly band from Finland. From the opener 'Honky Tonking Rhythm', through 'I'm Satisfied With You' to 'Kinfolks in Carolina' (Merle Travis), the virtuoso dexterity of Jussi Huhtakangas (AKA Lester Peabody) on steel, Eino Rastas (guitar), and Heikki Kangasniemi (fiddle) were breathtaking. Mike Salminen (drums) and Timo Uimonen (bass) conjured up intricate rhythms. Soaring over it all was Hal Peters' delectable voice, no trace of an incongruous accent, perfectly suited to the subtlety of their material. The String Dusters produced sweet, well-blended melodies. The one drawback was that the sound engineer seemed to find their vintage acoustic instruments something of a challenge.
Sadly I missed almost all of Rumble King when hunger got the better of me. Everyone I know who saw this Californian Jump Rhythm and Blues band people spoke very highly of them. I only caught the end of their last song and it sounded like a blast.
The schedule was running well over an hour late by this time, and we had a short wait for the legendary SONNY BURGESS, who was playing with his original PACERS. Sonny voice is still every bit as impressive as it ever was. His band are all highly accomplished musicians but years of playing country club / cabaret gigs have taken their toll, they often struggled to recover their classic Sun sound. The old songs were great as they were, they don't need 'updated' arrangements. Perhaps rather than trying to recreate the heyday of the Pacers, Sonny should be playing with some of the younger wildcats, it has worked for him on previous excursions to Europe. All of his classics were played but they sorely needed a trumpet for that unique Burgess sound. A disappointment.
CURTIS GORDON came out in top form, starting with 'Sitting On Top of the World' and moving straight on to 'Rock, Roll Jump and Jive'. Curtis still has a fine vigorous voice. He had no chance of a rehearsal or sound check with Hal Peters and his String Dusters because Curtis had turned up late. The Finnish band did a bang-up job considering this limitation. Most of the set was very country, which some didn't like, but Gordon was always more of a country singer who dabbled in Rockabilly than a rocking singer as such. 'Mobile Alabama' and 'Draggin' kept folks bopping. The encore of 'So Tired of Crying' induced goosebumps, it was so beautiful.
Unfortunately I didn't catch most of Big Joe Louis' excellent brand of hard rocking jump blues. It was my loss; they are one of the greatest acts playing that genre in the world today.
Next came WILDFIRE WILLIE AND THE RAMBLERS from Sweden. There had been some concern for Jan Svensson's voice because Jan tends to enter fully into the spirit of rocking weekenders and this, combined with the dry desert air, can dessicate vocal chords. 'Dear John' and '3 or 4 nights' established that Svensson had wisely shown restraint and had cosseted his 'tubes', his voice was in great shape. Jyrki and Markku Juvonen on guitar and drums respectively were fantastic as always. 'Honky Tonk Fever' and 'Rock'n'Roll Fever' were ferocious, and 'The Slide' (Ray Pate)was superlative, with astounding guitar runs from JJ. For 'Honey Bun' (Larry Donn) and 'Miss Bobby Sox' (Benny Joy) Austinite TJ joined the Ramblers on piano. All week people had raved about his capability and they hadn't lied, he was fabulous, like Jerry Lee at his best. The encore of 'Who's Knocking' (Junior Thompson) and 'Real Wild Child' (Johnny O'Keefe, dedicated to the Aussies) were spectacularly wild! With Svensson's acrobatic antics and the Ramblers' heartfelt passion for pure Rockabilly music, this was the most action-packed show around.
And so to the downstairs bar for more liver damage, ogling the tattooed beauties and bragging about clothes and records bagged for nickels and dimes on our travels. There was much excited chatter about Brian Light's special report on Rockabilly in Billboard magazine and how it may be the catalyst for a long-awaited revival in real rock music. Drinking , drinnkninge, drungklebumble burble. Beddy-byes.
When you visit a town as fun as Las Vegas, there has to be some time put aside for sight seeing, and Sunday afternoon was that time for us. A bowel-loosening ride on the terrifying rollercoaster at New York, New York delayed our little crew long enough to miss Southpaw Johnny and his Right Hand Men, a Californian rocking hillbilly gang.
Now for MARTI' BROM. This stunning femme singer from Austin was backed by a dream-line up of Texas' best rocking musicians. Just look at these names: Lisa Pankratz (drums), Todd Wulfmeyer (guitar), TJ (piano), Josh Williams (bass) - they don't come any better than that. Marti Brom has a completely stunning voice, with a unique tone that is incomparable to any other female rocker. Popular rockers like her own 'I'm Drinking Too' got so many toes tapping that the chandeliers seemed to be bouncing free of their fittings. The heartrending ballad 'Little White Lies' reduced grown men to tears, and her version of 'Rock the Joint' put Bill Haley's flat vocals to shame. 'Unproclaimed Love', the best song of 1998 was fantastic, TJ's piano giving a macabre joviality to the murderous lyrics. 'Great Shaking Fever' (Dorsey Burnette) shot adrenaline straight into our pleaure centres. Her voice shone like diamond-encrusted platinum, sweeter than the gentlest birdsong, more powerful than a hurricane. 'Mean Mean Man' (Wanda Jackson) featured a knock-out guitar break from Todd. When it came to the weekends' theme-song, the Elvis cheese-fest 'Viva Las Vegas' - WOW! Hugely popular, a massive response from the appreciative audience. Del Villareal, a rocking radio DJ from Detroit who was a meritorious compere, didn't need to cajole the crowd much at all. The encore of 'Move a Little Closer' and 'Baby' rocked the rafters. As they signed and sold records after the show the queue of fans stretched right around the hall. Marti' Brom is a must-see for the Rockabilly Rave in November.
All the excitement made me hungry, so it was off to the restaurant for a huge plate of cow. As the restaurant was busy, I wasn't back in time to check out doo-wop giants the CLEFTONES and their razor sharp stage show with ice-cream chord changes.
Eleven PM and time for CARLOS AND THE BANDIDOS. 'Big Daddy and Skinny Jim', a song about two British DJs, grabbed the felines' attention. 'Fever' (Peggy Lee, Elvis) was rocked-up like you never heard it before. A slightly amended line-up as Boz Boorer replaced Ricky Cooper on rhythm guitar. Roger Van Niekirk excelled on the skins, Neil Scott tore his fingers to shreds on the doghouse bass. Singer Carlos Mejuto has a haunting, pitch-perfect timbre ideally tailored to fit compositions like exultant 'The Pleasure's All Mine'. 'Stone Killer', a sinister murder song reputed to be about serial butcher Fred West, stomped enticingly, while 'Bugger Burns' was transformed into a bouncing Rockabilly bopper. They busked 'Alabama Jail House' (Rod Morris) well and 'Spark Plug' (4 Teens) was presented with a snarling leer. Every solo from bravura guitarist Malcolm Chapman outshone the last and earned a big cheer from aficionados at the front. 'I Had a Dream Last Night' and other numbers were dedicated to Mexican gang the Royals, who seemed to have adopted the Bandidos for their south-of-the-border sombrero and poncho rebel image. 'The Moon Ain't Gonna Rise' (they are certainly fond of murder songs) was priceless but they were unable to hear the bass onstage, forcing Neil to play extra hard. Out front the bass was far too loud, drowning out Malcolm's guitar solo. The dancehall was jammed solid with dancing, cheering hepsters. 'Devilene' is a record hop favourite jiver in their native London and worked nicely live. 'The Gallows' engendered shivers and gooseflesh with it's tale of a ladykiller going for a long drop on a short rope. It was no surprise to discover that Carlos and the Bandidos latest CD, 'For a Few Dollar$ Le$$' (Noose Records), was one of Viva Las Vegas' hottest sellers.
I was expecting Japan's ROLLING ROCKS to be a straight Rockabilly band, but they leant more towards western swing, with steel and piano filling out the sound. They were instrumentally skillful and the singer's accent was no problem but they didn't excite me, perhaps I was tired. During their sojourn in Las Vegas they recorded some material with Rocking Ronny Weiser, whose seminal record label inspired the band's name. One of the songs recorded will feature Mack Stevens on vocals and I certainly look forward to hearing these tracks.
Final band was the HAYWOODS, who won the 'best band from East Lounge' play-offs to get their spot on the bill. Although I would rather have seen Randy Rich & the Poorboys, the Haywoods are an estimable Rockabilly combo. It was refreshing that they played a lot of their own songs instead of the usual tired covers. That said, 'How Come It' (Thumper Jones) was sensational, and they made a rousing finish to the event.
Tom Ingram and Barney Koumis have yet again put on a weekender that will live in memory alongside the greatest rocking gigs of our lives. An unbeatable line-up of music and the amenities of the Gold Coast mean that Viva Las Vegas continues to go from strength to strength. It is not yet perfect; the sound problems of last year were improved but not eradicated, most bands had difficulties particularly with the on-stage monitors. The promoters may also need to consider moving to a larger venue next year. By Friday night late-comers were being turned away in their hundreds, and when headline acts played there was hardly room to tap one's foot. But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise faultless feast of rocking music. Just make sure that you book early for VLV 2000. It could be that the music we all love is going to have a glorious new millennium, and Vegas is high on the list of places to celebrate.
Bill Smoker, London
(This review will also appear in the next issue of Rocket magazine).