Las Vegas, September, 2003: The annual punk, garage and rockabilly music festival, the Las Vegas Rockaround, has descended upon an otherwise dingy, off-the-beaten-Strip casino. Starkly beautiful and bitchy Bettie Page wannabes fill the hallways, casting nasty glances at any broad with less than 50 percent of her arms inked in tattoos. The guys, with their greased pompadours, cuffed Levis and worn leather jackets, only pause from snarling to down another shot of Jack and suck on a Lucky Strike.
Performing to a crowd of such “I’m so tough I piss gasoline” types is no easy feat. Especially if you’re bunch of guys in sequined Mexican wrestling masks, throwing down hopelessly cheesy stage choreography.
And yet, Los Straitjackets brought down the fucking house — just like they always do.
If you’ve never seen Los Straitjackets live, it’s impossible to capture the essence of their energy and madcap looniness on paper. Much like trying to describe an episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” you just have to see it with your own two eyes to believe it.
There are many notable aspects to Los Straitjackets. They’re an instrumental band. They produce phenomenally catchy surf music, yet they hail from Nashville. The speak only in Spanish, sometimes badly mangled,during their live performances. They bob their instruments and mask-clad heads in unison throughout a show. Are you getting the picture here?
The band first came into being in 1988, as the Straitjackets. They played a few gigs, then put the project on the back burner for six years. In 1994, they re-formed, adding the “Los” — inspired by early Mexican rock and roll acts like Los Teentops. The wrestling masks were a natural progression.
“They look cool,” guitarist Danny Amis offers as a simple explanation. “We were looking for a good way to entertain the audience, and it seems like an obvious choice to us.”
And the Spanish-only banter during the show?
“It adds to the mystique.”
Despite the inherent goofiness of these ingredients, Los Straitjackets put on one of the most energetic, musically accomplished, and gosh-darned fun live shows you’ll see all year. They’ve never met an audience they didn’t like — and vice versa.
They’ve put out a whopping nine albums, which clearly demonstrate the band’s sound: fast, tight, perfectly in sync, and lively as hell. The Mexican shtick is just icing on the flan.
They’re also quite skilled at wielding humor on a more subtle level, such as the delightfully absurd cover of Celine Dion’s mega-hit, “My Heart Will Go On” — otherwise known as the love theme from Titantic — which appears on their third album, The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets. One can barely contain the mad giggles when imagining ol’ windblown Leo and Kate schmaltzing it up to the tune of Los Straitjacket’s jangling surf guitar.
“It’s such a popular song, and we thought it would be fun to put our own spin on it,” says Amis. “And we got a tremendous response.”
And what did the impossibly skinny French-Canadian singer think of it?
“Conan O’Brien has us do it on his show, and then Celine Dion announced her retirement the same week. But,” hastens Amis, with humor seeping through his voice, “I want to make very clear that I don’t think there’s a connection between the two.”
When asked about the seriousness of the band’s ethos, Amis adopts a feigned tone of offense and jokes, “we take ourselves very seriously. We’re performance artists.”
To further up the performance artists’ quotient, Los Straitjackets will be appearing once again with their favorite touring partners, the World Famous Pontani Sisters, three adorable pint-sized gals who specialize in choreographed, lushly costumed dance routines. The darlings of the modern burlesque and cabaret revival, the Pontanis perform solo, then hop on stage in itsy-bitsy matching outfits and gyrate the night away while Los Straitjackets play.
A multimedia performance art extravaganza indeed.
See the Los Straitjackets Xmas Pageant with the World Famous Pontani Sisters and the Legendary Shack Shakers Friday, Dec. 12, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit. Call 313-833-9700 for more info.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]