Thumpity-thump-thump, thumpity-thump-thump went the loud music coming from a car parked nearby. I was assaulted by variations or combinations of Electro-Lounge, Hip-Hop, Rap, Gangsta Rap, Caribbean, and African music, most everywhere I went at the marina. Most all were alien to my soul, an ice pick in my ear and a full frontal assault on any inner peace that might’ve been occupying my brain. As I continued walking I noticed a smartly-designed sepia-toned poster for an upcoming Marina Bai des Anges Festival de Musique. It announced Retro Rock: A Night of Vintage 60’s Hits.
That was curious since the annual music festival, with its typically bland offerings, was already held back in June. I assumed that this concert would also be held near the stairs of the Commodore and Ducal1. The poster didn’t indicate where only that the gig would be on the tenth of September. The band was called Strange Brew. Three band members were from England, and one each from Ireland, France, and the USA. Authentic mid-sixties instruments used on all songs appeared at the bottom of the poster. ‘Maybe some real music at last’ I said to myself.
The festival was to be held on our favorite beach and our regular spot would be hijacked for three days. Lieve and I were disappointed and delighted all at once and soon witnessed a crew of about a dozen workers assembling a series of tribune-bleacher sections, right on the beach. The parking area was blocked for half a day as the crew unloaded a massive pile of hardware from a convoy of flatbeds. Three bleacher sections, each with a capacity to seat about two-hundred spectators, was completed in less than two days. It stretched from the beach jet ski rental to mid-way past the marina side of the Amiral condominium complex.
A clever construction of scaffold-like pipe sections was mounted on PVC pilings. The latter were punched into the ground with a jack-hammer vertical gun, the size of a drill press on steroids. Thwap! and the anchor was a meter below grade. Amazing. I wanted to borrow it, but was afraid to ask. PVC planks were then snapped into place. While this was going on, a big black boat was hauling in monster-thick sections of material that would serve as the stage platform. The whole business was then assembled, and presto! a stage big enough for two bands, the entourage of a major political figure announcing victory or a juiced-up Southern Baptist choir, was anchored just inside the swimming area and yellow buoys.
To conform to the age of social media intrusion and to have the admission fee waived, all festival goers had to prove Google, Facebook or Twitter membership. This was easily accomplished with a sensor and scanner. A cute bright yellow ‘FM’ tattoo was then applied to one hand. I guess the FM meant Festival de Musique, though it might’ve stood for ‘Finally! Music!’. Those without the required connection had to pay twenty-five euro’s and prove citizenship, show at least three credit cards, a statement of car ownership and proof of at least two years of post-high-school education.
Our twenty-five euro savings would cover for the outrageous prices that Upper Seb2 would be charging for drinks. Those lucky enough to have gulped down at least five-hundred liters of Coca-Cola or devoured the equivalent of sugar over the past ten years were given a free liter and a half of Coke. Proof of ingestion was achieved with a sophisticated apparatus that tested blood-sugar and chemical toxicity levels. It also determined within seconds the organic ravages that resulted from such ingestions. A few, in their rapacious delirium, later tried to acquire another free Coke.
The night of the fest was spectacular. The fact that it was scheduled later than normal at half-past-nine, made it more so. The bleachers were packed and those who brought chairs sat anywhere they could find a spot, while others just stood. People then began to crowd along the rocks that led up to the red and green lighthouses on either side of the beach. Those in inflatable boats started to find spots in designated areas of the water, beginning about a meter from the stage. We decided to watch from our own inflatable canoe, and had a perfect view of the performance, about as close as one could toss a cannonball(?).
It helped that Upper Seb had the vision and sense to affix a portable stairwell to the outer wall of the Pagode. This act of entrepreneurial savvy allowed patrons to buy price-jacked refreshments and use the restrooms. When I went for drinks, we lost our position on the water, but it all worked out, as we found another good spot. In the midst of all the crowded excitement, some overfed idiot wearing a captain’s hat with a light on it actually had the audacity to plant four fishing lines in the beach but was quickly whisked away by five burly and confident-looking event staff. We should’ve gotten their number.
Large heatless LED lights were mounted high above the stage and their white illumination lent an almost ghostly effect to the players and offered an overall scintillating visual. As the night sky quickly turned a bluish-black, it filled with innumerable glimmering stars, many which seemed to come out especially to witness the show. The twinkling reflections in the water lent a magical and mystical charm. Unfortunately, though predictably, corporate sponsorship banners were everywhere. Some were even on the water, mounted on small buoys made for the purpose. Coca-Cola, Heineken, Microsoft, Google, Starbucks and other corporate giants couldn’t pass it up, nor could the promoters. Pavlov had his dogs and we have product inundation hammered into us. We all love being told what to think and what to buy. Don’t we?
The band’s medley of vintage hits had me riding first-class in a time machine to the halcyon days of a half-century ago. Over ten songs in all.3 The silky-smooth Classics Four rock/jazz hit Spooky was flawlessly done, as the black guy with the braids dropped his tambourine and took the (vintage 1959 Buescher 400, I learned) saxophone between his lips. The highlight of the evening was Strange Brew’s intoxicating cover of Strange Brew, the Cream original. The blues-riffing guitar solo was so good I wanted to liquify it and shoot it through my veins.
She’s a witch of trouble in electric blue / In her own mad mind she’s in love with you / With you/ Now what you gonna do?/ Strange brew, kill what’s inside of you.
The band followed with an almost two-hour slew of gems including the high-octane Paul Revere and the Raiders 1966 hit Kicks, with its ‘galloping horses’ keyboards and guitars, and with the intense 1965 sitar-influenced guitar sound of the Yardbirds rock/soul-lament Heart Full of Soul. This psyche and jazz-fuelled and doubtlessly drug-induced magical band had by then entered into a species of musical Zen where no thought was necessary. They were born to play these songs.
And don’t it seem like Kicks just keep gettin’ harder to find/ And all your kicks ain’t bringin’ you peace of mind/ Before you find out it’s too late, girl/You better get straight/No, but not with kicks, you just need help, girl
All instruments (the band did a lot of switching), including all three electric guitars, drums (which I later learned were a set of 1965 Ludwig Super Classics) and keyboards & electric organ, (Fender Rhodes, said someone in another boat) was as the poster had indicated, authentic vintage sixties instruments 4. (I learned the following day from an old guy that knew the band that one of the guitars was definitely a 1965 Fender Duo-Sonic, another was most likely an Airline bass guitar, a third a Gibson ES-335 and a fourth Vox Teardrop).
The lead vocalist and guitarist was a tall guy with long blonde hair and mustache, who hailed from the same physiognomic neck of the woods as Keith Relf, former lead singer of The Yardbirds. He was dressed in a black leather vest with a pink fluffed (probably charmeuse silk) shirt that had a collar so large that it seemed to be invading his vest. With his grey striped (probably Harrods Vucana wool) bell-bottoms and his Trotsky-like tortoiseshell pince-nez set midway on the bridge of his nose, he was “where it’s at, man”- no probably about it.
The lead guitarist was strangely and one might surmise ridiculously attired. Or was it that he was dressed so uncool that he became the Godfather of Cool? This tall, dark-featured long-haired late-twenties specimen was imposing in an outrageous purplish-grey pin-striped Inverness cape. This was topped off with a yellow snapped-brim pork-pie hat, ruffled silk turquoise shirt, tight-fitting white trousers, and knee-high gold-studded black riding boots with dangling chains. This cat was ‘far out’ and ‘deep’. He was ‘gone’ He was Haight-Asbury, The Filmore, The Whiskey A Go-Go, The London Palladium and countless other long-gone smoke-filled rock haunts all rolled into one. Straight out King Pest, the hilariously macabre Edgar Allan Poe short story.
The somber-faced bass guitarist and vocalist was in a black suit, white shirt, and mid-60’s thin black tie. All this went well with his Roy Orison shades and jazzy, silky voice. With his shock of blue-black combed back hair and an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips half the time, he was five parts jazz, one part rock, and all blues. His solo of the Gershwin classic Summertime was so smooth and deliciously-sounding I wanted it chemically analyzed, quantified, identified, and transformed into something I could spread on my toast for the next twenty years.
Back-beating and back-sticking away on the Ludwig Super Classic drums and cymbals was a swarthy bald-pated Popeye-forearmed guy. This thick-bearded mid-forties vintage was dressed in black slacks and black pinstriped shirt, topped off with a red bow tie. While most all the numbers obviously didn’t require his maxed skills, this cat could burn it up with enough energy to light up an entire city. This was evident during a five-minute solo riff at the end of Keep On Running. Rock likely wasn’t his thing, jazz no doubt being his bag. This cat was the bomb. A sweet Strange Brew logo, which appeared to be hand painted, graced the vertical twenty-eight-inch bass drum.
The thirty-something all-arms and legs sax and tambourine player (with some guitar) was the sweetest-looking black guy I ever saw. Purplish black, almost like an olive, he was striking in a bright yellow short-sleeve loose-fitting silk shirt with screened floral designs. Wrapped around his forehead and Rastafarian Yellow-jewelled braids was an intensely red bandana. If this guy didn’t help write the book of smooth, he was perhaps its chief editor. His sax work for Spooky and for James Brown’s Night Train was superb. It was so good, I wanted it pulverized so I could snort it.
The very young keyboard and organ player was a ringer for Robert Crumb, the underground cartoonist of Mister Natural fame of fifty years ago. Even though he was listed on the poster as Johnny Ryan from Bray, Ireland, the thick-rimmed glasses and nerdy college look convinced me it was somehow Crumb. Considering the absurd unreality of this show, why not? Crumb had played keyboards for the Castaways when they recorded their only hit, the organ-heavy Liar Liar in 1966. If it wasn’t him, it was a one-hell-of-a coincidence. One hell-of-an incongruity too. Dressed in his off-the-rack plaid shirt and chinos, he was way out of place next to his partners, who appeared from another realm altogether.
Strange Brew then curiously broke with their own program by closing with Ruby by the Kaiser Chiefs. They followed the high-energy mix of vocals, chords, and keyboards as if they had morphed, as they had done with all the other pieces they played, into the actual band whose hit they were doing. Maybe they should rename their band The Chameleons, I had thought.
Not long after this riveting climax, a loud and frantic scream of “Hey! Hey! was heard from a near distance. Two inflatable raft occupants had been fighting over a spot and a pushing and shoving match ensued. A scream went out, and bid-a-bing, somebody landed in the water with a tremendous splash. A sort of bumper boat competition soon followed, with many half-drunk or fully-high combatants heading overboard. We had already started to deflate our own canoe and were not involved in this benign mayhem.
As Helicopters then swirled overhead, for reasons still lost on me, a fireworks show commenced and soon filled the night sky with its own galaxy of lighted gun-powder-filled rockets. This spectacle, which Lieve loved, was an apt finale to a memorable evening of entertainment. Barring any travails of memory impairment that potentially might relegate this fabulous evening to a compartment of the psyche that has no key, I shall savor it until the day I am released from this swirling existence.
The whole extravaganza left me delighted and mesmerized and captivated but confused and bewildered and forlorn. Maybe these musicians were apparitions. Maybe the whole thing was crafted from an over-taxed imagination. Maybe it was a slither of time that I longed for, not a life-event. Maybe I’ll play it again in my head. Over and over again. But I can never play it with that crappy ear-splitting thumpity-thump-thumping sound of lounge music that too often surrounds me and takes over my soul.
1 Commodore and Ducal are two 13 story condominium buildings. Normally music festival goers would occupy the massive stairwell that separates the two structures to watch the entertainment.
2 Owner of the Pagode Patio restaurant, a level up from the beach. Referred here as Upper Seb because another Seb referred to as Lower Seb runs the jet ski rental at beach level.
3 List of songs performed: Kicks by Paul Revere and Raiders / Heart Full of Soul by The Yardbirds / The Last Time by The Rolling Stones / Spooky by The Classics Four / Night Train by James Brown / Strange Brew by Cream / Keep on Running By Spenser Davis Group / Dirty Water by The Standells / You Really Got Me by The Kinks / Living on a Thin Line by The Kinks / She’s Not There by The Zombies / It Ain’t Me Babe by The Turtles / Ruby by The Kaiser Chiefs
4 Vintage instruments:
Vox Teardrop guitar for Stones Last Time and others
1965 Fender Duo-Sonic electric guitar, throughout
Ludwig Super Classic guitars for selected pieces
Airline bass guitar throughout
Martin D-18 Dreadnought acoustic guitar for selected pieces
Vintage 1959 Buescher 400 Saxophone For Night Train and Spooky
Ludwig Super Classic drums throughout
1965 Fender Rhodes keyboard/organ throughout
Twin Fender 65 Delux Reverb Combo Amplifiers
Heart Full of Soul Distinctive neo-sitar-guitar sound originated by Jeff Beck.
She’s Not There Bass guitarist did lead vocals on this.
It Ain’t Me Babe Bob Dylan original done in Turtle’s chord-heavy version.
Night Train Strange Brew had the chops on this one, though a second sax would’ve
improved last third.
The lead vocalist announced that the band regretted that “some idiot” forgot to ship the mountain dulcimer guitar, preventing the band from doing the Stones Lady Jane.
All costumes, except those worn by the keyboardist, and where otherwise previously indicated, were from Muskrat’s Vintage Clothing of Santa Monica, California.