I like it when someone commits to the bit. When they go all in. When they live up to the stereotype. I once happened to be in downtown Chicago the week of the International Mr. Leather convention. Hundreds of men wearing leather caps and bondage harnesses and short shorts looking like Tom of Finland had spilled out onto State Street. Perfect. Be that. Be all of that. That same love of the bit is what brought me to RecordBar. Not to see hypermasculine leather men, but ladies in go-go boots and beehives, playing instrumental surf music straight from the 1960s.
The Surfrajettes was born in 2015 in the surf capital of the world, Toronto, Ontario. I don't know the band's origin story, but I'll make one up that seems plausible. Ladies play in bands. They know other ladies that play in bands. They bond over their shared love of '60s music, culture, and fashion. One says, "We should start a band." And then it happens. Friends become fans because it's fun. The band's eye for detail translates into videos that go viral. The band taps into boomer nostalgia for some silly tours and cruises. The band draws a big international audience always hungry for Americana. Everyone's having a good time. Well, I guess some aren't, as a couple of members bow out. Now that we're caught up, today the band lines up as Nicole Damoff (guitar), Shermy Freeman (guitar), Annie Lillis (drums), and Sara Eve (bass). Damoff handles the banter while Freeman handles most of the leads. Aqua Net has a big say in things too.
Over the years, the band has released an album and a handful of singles. There's a novelty appeal to most of them. That's no dismissal. Like I said, I love a bit. And I gladly sent in my money to get the band's Christmas 45 last year. Many of those singles and a good portion of the album were a part of the band's sixteen-song set, and a lot of them were covers. There were classic surf songs (Ventures, Astronauts), crate-dug curiosities (Lancasters), modern borrowings (Sadies), and some twangy, novelty adaptations of unexpected origins (glam rockers Sweeney Todd, pop diva Britney Spears, new wave icons Blondie). But regardless of the origin, each was created utilizing a mountain of reverb, clean lyrical leads, snapping drums and steadying bass. A few fans danced. A lot bounced. The band bounced too. Weight on right foot, weight on left foot, and a little shimmy in the process. Why mess with perfection? Those visuals were just as good as the tunes, with the four gals were dressed identically from their white vinyl boots to the falls pinned into their hair. Lillis showed real commitment drumming in go-go boots for the entire 50-minute set. Later they'd all prove their devotion by watching the headlining act from the audience, still in their stage attire. Their feet must have been killing them. My heart, however, was thrilled that it got to see the foursome.
Of course, it wasn't Canadian surfers who would headline the night, the evening's real draw was the five members of Detroit's Electric Six. This quintet is led by Dick Valentine (the entire band uses stage names, presumably to protect the guilty) who is the only member of the band remaining from its inception over twenty-five years ago. Other players have drifted in and out and back in over the act's history, resulting in a current touring line-up of drummer Dr. J, lead guitarist Herb S. Flavourings, rhythm guitarist Clown Loudman, and bassist Rick Schaple. The motley bunch ties its look together with non-matching sport coats, reveling in a sort of showband energy. While it's not cosplay, the band is also working a bit.
Valentine is an entertainer, or more specifically a huckster. He provides vocals, introduces songs, and pushes the band's merchandise. Maybe not in that order. He's funny, but even more than that, he's fun. And that fun is what the audience came for. If Valentine can be believed, the band has played in Kansas City seventeen times. This has created a familiarity between Valentine and his audience, and that familiarity extends to the band's twenty-plus album catalog. Favorites like "Electric Demons (In Love)" and "Danger! High Voltage" had the audience dancing and singing along. "Dance Epidemic," played near the end of the set, had a hundred people pogoing – no small feat for a fan base entering its bad knees years. The band's mix of cocksure rock with big guitar solos and dancefloor-moving disco rhythms is only half the story. The other half is the band's over the top lyrics that tilt toward comedy – something akin to locals Drop a Grand. Hit "Gay Bar" had everyone shouting "Now tell me do ya, a do ya have any money? / I wanna spend all your money / At the gay bar, gay bar, gay bar" along with the band. That, one, like most of the other 22 songs played, is short. Get in. Hit 'em with the hook. Get out. In contrast, Valentine's banter was often long, circuitous, and punched up with local flavor. In a plea for patrons to purchase the band's new album, Turquoise, Valentine mentioned how expensive gas was in Lee's Summit. A couple in the crowd cheered at the mention of their suburb. Got 'em! Later, Valentine got the cold shoulder from the Swifties in the crowd when he told a meandering (fictitious) story about Travis Kelce's Tindr profile. You win some, you lose some.
Prior to this show I'd never heard an Electric Six song, so the band's long 85-minute set turned out to be an exhaustive introduction pulling from nine of the band's albums – most heavily from its 2003 debut Fire. This skew suited the audience well, who were attending as a sort of reunion more than anything else. This was a chance for them to let loose again and remember their first time. As a rookie, I was certainly in the minority, though that doesn't mean I couldn't fall in love with songs ("Night Vision" is still stuck in my head) or sing along with the cover of Alan Parson's "Eye in the Sky" that kicked off the band's three-song encore. I'm not sure how that one fits into the band's act, but then again, I'm the newbie. Give me another sixteen shows and I'm sure I'll have it figured out.