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Hark! The scary angels swing, baby!

Chicago’s Abbey Pub was host to a terrific hepcat Christmas Pageant. Though this is hardly your parents’ Christmas concert (unless your parents are/were Gomez and Morticia Addams), nobody in this packed house humbugged this show.

The evening was kicked off (literally) by the zany antics of the Legendary Shackshakers. When I reviewed their disc Cockadoodledon’t on this site months ago, my assessment of them was an Outer Limits-warped blues band, a band thrilled too much by the blues to couch them in sanctimonious reverence. Tonight’s performance found the LS*S rocking out more, with blues but a strong ingredient in their psycho-gumbo from Beyond. Their singer J.D. Wilkes was a true madman imagine Iggy Pop in his self-flagellating prime or the Hunchback of Notre Dame all slimmed-down and on super-amphetamines. His vocals were mostly unintelligible, but he was fun to watch as he skirted, no, shattered the boundaries of good taste as he did his darnedest to put on a show, jumping, cartwheeling, spraying water from his kisser but when he played his harmonica, he sounded like Little Walter Jr.: crackling, electric, wailing, bending metallic notes with a shiny crowbar. Guitarist Joe Buck played with a thick, John Lee Hooker endless-boogie inspired slab of sound and the rhythm team of Duke Robertson and Pauly Simmonz provided a solid, booming bottom for their flights of boogie mania. The Shakers played a wacky amalgam of blues, rockabilly and punk rock like the timer was ticking down ‘til Doomsday and needed to get one last good time in, like a salacious cross betwixt the Leroi Brothers (or the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and Black Flag.

Los Straitjackets are America’s Secret Weapon against the doldrums (of all sorts) and self-satisfied Artistic Seriousness. They are four fellows who play 2 guitars, bass and drums while wearing Mexican Wrestling Federation masks, and they’ve dedicated themselves to maintaining the off-the-mainstream radar genres known as "instrumental rock" and "surf music." Before you skip to the next review, surf and jazz aren’t that far apart, really: surf guitar legend Dick Dale has said the Gene Krupa’s drumming was a huge inspiration for his playing; drummer/composer Bobby Previte included a swell surf-tune medley on his fine Dangerous Rip album; many jazz players played on Beach Boys mid-60s recordings; conversely, Los Straitjackets accompany Chicago blues demigod Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater on his latest platter Rock ‘n’ Roll City. These boys’ guitars shone like the chrome on a classic sports car in the California sun, and the rhythm section was drumhead-tight (FANTASTIC drumming, btw) as they went to town, tuning-up, twang-ifying and cooling-out every Christmas chestnut one can think of, breaking up the Holiday Euphoria with some instrum-rock classics by Link Wray ("Run Chicken Run"), Louis Prima/Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" [!] and Neal Hefti ("Batman Theme"). Assisting in the dolling-out of said Euphoria were the Pontani Sisters, a bevy of three Brooklyn vixens who are reviving the dying art of Burlesque (PG-rated, that is). These ladies (who were/are real and healthy-looking no anorexia or surgical enhancement for these gals) good-natured shook what they got in time to the music in a flirty, teasing manner that seems curiously innocuous in an era of the Internet, Maxim magazine and cable TV. To some, the ‘jackets might appear to be a novelty act, but their visual enhancements are just the icing on the cake these are pros, baby, showmen who nonetheless know their craft like a salamander knows wet leaves: polished musicianship with heart and no wretched excess. No doubt squares and the Politically Correct would be unmoved, but in the words of Hank Mobley, at the Abbey there was "no room for squares" this night.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Legendary Shackshakers / Los Straitjackets
  • Concert Date: 12/19/2003
  • Subtitle: Legendary Shackshakers & Los Straitjackets make the Season bright
  • Venue: Abbey Pub
  • City State Country: Chicago, IL
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