Rock 'n' roll traditions
Los Straitjackets & Big Sandy
by James M. Manheim
As rock 'n' roll becomes part of the American musical canon, its various flavors have been showing up more and more often in the programming of the Ark, Ann Arbor's venerable redoubt of folk and acoustic music. Los Straitjackets and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, who are coming to town as an overlapping double bill on Friday, October 29 (see Nightspots), both extend classic traditions in inventive ways. Los Straitjackets came to the Ark once before, with Big Sandy alone as vocalist, and they rocked the club a little harder than it's used to being rocked. But the level of musicianship was very high, and it was clear that rock now counts as traditional music that can be learned inside out and renewed.
Los Straitjackets are a band to experience. Unless they're collaborating with a vocalist, they play instrumentals exclusively. They notoriously appear on stage in Mexican lucha libre wrestling masks, and even toss out short Spanish phrases during the show, but they're not Mexican, they're based in Nashville, and the Mexican garage rock of 1960s Los Angeles is just a small part of their stylistic palette. Mostly the trio plays amped-up Ventures-type instrumentals, rockabilly, and surf music, crunched together with a bit of punk and a lot of speed. They're ferociously fun, and guitarists turn out for their shows because they know they're going to learn something.
Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys come from Southern California, and instead of going forward from the Golden State's rather stylish versions of early rock 'n' roll they go backward, to Western swing, jump blues, country, and regional American styles. They're revivalists of the best kind, performing not note-perfect covers but originals, mostly by Big Sandy (Robert "Rusty" Williams) himself, that elegantly unpack iconic text conventions and sometimes inhabit modern evolutions of the emotional landscapes that helped set the original styles in motion. "I don't have a clue why I feel like I do," sings Big Sandy in "Her
Hair Is a Mess," a droll rockabilly-swing chronicle of inexplicable attraction. "Maybe I'm just accident prone."
The last time Los Straitjackets and Big Sandy came to the Ark together, Los Straitjackets had just released their vocal album Rock en Espanol, and Big Sandy, who himself apparently has no Latin American background, sang classic east-L.A. "rocanroll" vocals in Spanish. This time, Los Straitjackets and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys will perform separate sets, perhaps joining forces for some songs later in the show. However they organize it, an evening of sharp vintage sounds, skilled and fun, is just about guaranteed.
[Originally published in October, 2010.]