Part of paying better attention to what other surf or retro instrumental musicians do is to expand our universe of performers. Perhaps that will lead to something new for this one trick pony. Perhaps that will lead to a super stupendous surf party. Perhaps we will learn something.
A couple of months ago, we visited a midtown automotive garage where the Vibrocounts were playing. We stopped to listen for a set before tending to some other obligations of Second Saturday. Some time before, we caught part of a set on another Second Saturday.
The Vibrocounts are three seasoned musicians who play together out of the love for instrumental rock music. Actually, two of them have played professionally for more than 45 years each. Over that time, their experience included rock, psychedelia, folk rock, the Summer of Love, opening for major acts, near recording contracts, and interactions with some of the icons of San Francisco and Sacramento rock history.
Cliff Adams and Jim Lopez alternate on guitar and bass. Paul Narloch is the founder and leader of the band, which builds on his solid drum beat and fills. As each member is an excellent musician, they do not necessarily play off of a set set list. Instead, Paul signals what song will be played, and it is played.
When Jim is on guitar, song selection tends toward “traditional” surf. Double-picking. Glissandos. More reverb. Playing a Jazzmaster pushes Jim that way. In contrast, Cliff displays a lighter touch. More use of full chords. Rakes down and up on the fretboard of his DiPinto Galaxie 4. Cliff’s playing conveys a cross between the Ventures and George Benson.
In the garage setting on a Second Saturday, people wander in and out. Some stop to listen. Occasionally, somebody might throw in a head bob, foot tap, or a little dance. Other than us and the owner of the garage, few sit down to hear all or much of a set. Meanwhile, with Cliff on guitar, the Vibrocounts played recognizable songs like “Night Train,” “Summertime,” “California Sun,” “Rumble,” and “Peter Gunn.” They extended the songs with Cliff giving each his own interpretation over the unwavering solid rhythm section provided by Jim and Paul.
The setting did not lend itself to the energetic, frenetic style that many of us often try to put into our music. No crowd was there off of which to feed. Nobody was looking to be energized. Yet, all who came in were treated to melodic instrumentals which they recognized or song structures with which they were familiar. Universally, the familiarity of the music brought a smile to the faces of whoever checked in.
The Vibrocounts may not play with the primitive simplicity of the Pups or offer up the same level of energy. But at the end of their set, we walked away knowing that we just had been entertained by consummate musicians. Importantly, we realized that even though styles differ and I never will have the skills of any of the Vibrocounts, we love instrumental music with a melody.
Guess what? Judging by people’s reactions, the audience did too!