tom briggs

The smartly-designed sepia-toned poster for the upcoming Marina Bai des Anges Music Fest announced Retro Rock: A Night of Vintage 60’s Hits  The band was called Strange Brew. I remember that Strange Brew was a hit from 1967 by Cream. Clever, I thought. I assumed it would be held again near the stairs of the Commodore and Ducal, though the poster didn’t indicate where only that the gig would be on the twenty-first of June. Two band members were from England, and one each from Ireland, France, and the USA.

When Lieve and I found out that the music fest was to be held on our little beach, our curiosity mushroomed. But so did our disappointment.  Our favorite spot on the beach would be hijacked for three days. We soon witnessed a platoon-sized crew assembling a series of tribune-bleacher sections, right on the beach. To top off the inconvenience, the parking area was blocked for half a day as the gang unloaded the hardware from a convoy of flatbeds. Maybe this was all from Ikea? Three sections, each with a capacity to seat maybe two-hundred spectators, were completed in less than two days. It stretched from the jet ski rental to mid-way past the marina side of the Amiral.

A clever construction of scaffold-like pipe sections were mounted on PVC pilings. These were punched into the ground with a sort of motorcycle-sized rivet gun. Thwap! and the anchor was a meter below grade. Amazing. PVC planks were then snapped into place.  While this was going on, a big black boat was bringing 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 or the entourage of a major political figure announcing victory or a juiced-up Southern Baptist choir was anchored just inside the yellow buoys.

To conform to the age of social media intrusion and to have an admission fee waived, all music festgoers had to prove Google, Facebook or Twitter membership. This was easily accomplished with a sensor and scanner. A cute bright yellow ‘MF’ tattoo was then applied to one hand. Those without it had to pay twenty-five euros 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. I suppose the MF meant ‘music fest’, though it might’ve stood for ‘myopic fool’. Our twenty-five euros savings would cover for the outrageous prices that Upper Seb would be charging for drinks. Those lucky enough to have drunk at least five-hundred liters of Coca-Cola or the equivalent of sugar over the past ten years were given a free Coke. This was achieved with a sophisticated apparatus that tested blood-sugar and chemical toxicity levels which within seconds determined the organic ravages of those ingredients. Many who were online gleaned monitory benefit of those ravages, I can tell you.

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. People who brought chairs sat anywhere they could find a spot, while others just stood. They started to crowd along the rocks that led up to the red and green lighthouses on either side of the beach. Then inflatable boats started to find spots in designated areas of the water, beginning about a meter from the stage. Lieve and I decided to watch from our own inflatable canoe. We had a perfect view of the performance and were only a stone’s throw from the stage and it was a pretty big stone, I can tell you. 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 rotund idiot wearing a captains hat with a light on it actually had the audacity to plant four fishing lines in the beach but was quickly whisked away by a small squad of burly confident-looking event staff. We should’ve gotten their number.

Halogen lights were mounted atop the stage and their illumination lent an almost ghostly effect to the players and offered an overall scintillating visual. As the night sky started to turn dark, it filled with thousands of glimmering stars, many of which seemed to shine especially on this particular night, for this particular event. 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.  The silky-smooth Classics Four rock/jazz hit Spooky was flawlessly done, as the drummer dropped his sticks then took the (vintage 1959 Buescher 400, I learned) saxophone between his lips. The highlight of the evening was an intoxicating version of Strange Brew, the Cream original. The guitar solo was mint-condition ’67 Clapton.

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.

They then followed with two high-octane classics: Paul Revere and the Raiders 1966 hit Kicks, then with the intense 1965 Yardbirds rock/soul-lament Heartful of Soul. The guitars/keyboards in both hits sound like a herd of galloping wild horses, and this magical band, which by now had entered into another galaxy, was born to play it.  Did I actually have to leave this place?

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, 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)  were authentic vintage sixties instruments. (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, while the third was a Gibson ES-335).

The lead vocalist and electric guitarist bore a striking resemblance to the afro-wearing Eric Clapton of 1965 Cream incarnation. He was less than dapper, but a few light-years from the avant-garde.  He was dressed in a black and red polka-dotted fluffed (probably charmeuse silk) shirt and grey striped (probably Harrods Vucana wool) bell-bottoms. With 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.

One 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 late-twenties specimen was shockingly resplendent in what appeared to be an Inverness cape, grey in color, though the collar was curiously astrakhan, and of purplish hue. This outrageous ensemble was topped off with a nifty yellow snapped-brim pork-pie hat. 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 thirty-something all-arms and legs drummer and sax player 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-jeweled braids was an intensely red bandana. If this guy didn’t help write the book of cool, he was perhaps its chief editor. When he picked up the sax for Spooky and for a smoking-good rendition of James Brown’s Night Train,  the show went to a stratospheric level.

The very young keyboard and organ player was a ringer for Robert Crumb, the underground cartoonist of Mister Natural fame. 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 viciously cool, 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.

* Owner of the Pagode Patio restaurant, a level up from the beach.
When it’s in the heart, when it’s in the soul, distance and time count for nothing




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