They’ve been nominated for a Grammy, in the category of best traditional blues record. They number among their fervent followers one Conan O’Brien, who’s had them on his show more times than just about any other musical act. Their sets are culled from a massive repertoire that encompasses everything from “Telstar,” “Sleepwalk” and “The Magnificent Seven” to “Moon River,” “Feliz Navidad” and “My Heart Will Go On.” They’re something akin to rock gods in Spain, and south of the border they’ve been branded the “Godfathers of Mexican Surf.”
In fact, just this past April they performed a nationally-televised gig in Mexico City to more than 70,000 fans, at the behest of the government. Yet when the Nashville-based band Los Straitjackets blows into Asbury Park on Thursday, October 27, it’s a safe bet that no one will recognize their faces — and oh yeah, they’ll be playing a bowling alley.
To be fair, the Asbury Lanes is hardly your run-of-the-mill kegler’s cathedral. Since undergoing some dramatic enhancements and modifications by Asbury artist, auto customizer and promoter Mel Stultz, the circuitside bowl-o-drome has augmented its pedigreed early-1960’s charm and streamlined functionality with features that have made it purportedly one of the greatest venues for live rock music on the East Coast — certainly among the most comfortable you’ll find anywhere. It’s a place where a body can still knock over a few pins, knock in some billiard balls and knock back a Yuengling by the light of a snowy TV — all while munching some first-rate snack bar delights (tots by the bucketload!), digging the Shore’s most erudite lineup of DJ’s and catching a hand-picked array of garage/punk/surf/psych/rockabilly acts; all of whom straddle the center-lane stage as the Brunswicks roll, the tenpins tumble and the backdrop screen displays classic drive-in exploitation flicks.
As for the Straitjackets going unrecognized, it could be due to the fact that for over ten years now the band has refused to show their faces in public — opting instead for the sort of shiny and ornate hoods popularized in the 1950’s and ‘60’s by Santo, Mil Mascaras and other legendary Mexican wrestlers. It’s a look (often coupled with a sleek sharkskin suit) that founders and dual lead guitarists Danny “Daddy-O Grande” Amis and Eddie Angel assumed in homage to these heroes of the squared circle and the silver screen — and it’s a look that has genunely struck a chord in the Spanish-speaking world, where a whole new generation of masked instrumental rockers has sprung up in the wake of the Straits.
Having banded together in earnest back in 1994, Amis (ex of the great NYC group The Raybeats) and Angel very quickly caught a ride on the cresting wave of renewed interest in surf music; a wave that carried them through dozens of globetrotting tours and numerous albums packed with fun remakes and such sublime originals as “Tempest,” “Jetty Motel” and the Amis signature “The Calhoun Surf.” There’s even a reverb-drenched Christmas album in the catalog; a perennial party platter that forms the backbone of the band’s yearly holiday-hootenanny shows.
These days, the 2005 edition of Los Straitjackets (with the two guitarists joined by bassist Pete “Pedro Del Mar” Curry and brand-new drummer Jason “Teen Beat” Smay) prefer to brand themselves as “America’s Instrumental Rock and Roll Combo;” a big pigeonhole that allows these nimble players the flex space to crossbreed their classical cowabunga with any number of outside influences and happy accidents — as witness their RIAA-lauded collaboration with blues purist Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater.
For the current leg of touring, the masked men will be augmented by a special guest vocalist: Big Sandy, of the California-based Western swing outfit Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. The mello-toned roots music master is just one of several collaborators (including Nick Lowe, Dave Alvin, Exene Cervenka and Reverend Horton Heat) who guested on the 2001 release “Sing Along with Los Straitjackets;” expect to hear a few tunes from those sessions, along with Holiday/Halloween chestnuts and a potential plethora of surprises (check the merch table for the all-covers CD “Los Straitjackets Play Favorites,” available only at live gigs). No longer content to live by surf alone, the band has beefed up their recent touring shows with choreographed stage moves, the enigmatic Twist-O-Meter and regular appearances by the go-go dancing World Famous Pontani Sisters. In the seabreeze-kissed precincts of the Asbury Lanes, however, anything can happen — and if you look closely, you just might see a masked man smile.