Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender

The Orleans, April 5-8

Four days of rockabilly, Western swing, roots rock and even a little old-fashioned country tested out my eardrum endurance. And I loved every minute of it. There was swing dancing to the Big Six and bopping to a 2 a.m. set by my new favorite band, Omar & the Stringpoppers. By day, I caught the Hula Girls strumming their unique brand of “hulabilly” at the pool, playing six performances atop a waterfall over the course of the weekend. The best band that nobody noticed? New Orleans’ Bustout Burlesque Jazz Band playing the live soundtrack to the Burlesque Showcase. Turns out a muted trumpet really accentuates spinning tassels.

The crème de la bands played the car show. Here are my favorite moments. The 2:30 p.m. sun beat down on the parking-lot music venue, throwing Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys into silhouette. Rockabilly girls held up a ceiling of decorative (and protective) parasols, while a coterie of retro swing dancers glided around the asphalt. Enlivened by an upright bass, drums and guitars, Sandy’s silky voice made it impossible to suppress a foot-tap and a smile, especially on “Jumpin’ from 6 to 6” and “Spanish Dagger.”

Later in the afternoon, the announcer made a big deal about the Ventures being the best-selling instrumental band of all time. And he had a right to brag, even if there were only two of four original members playing (three if you count the fact that the drummer is the son of the original drummer). You know these songs, even if you don’t know the band. In addition to “Wipeout” and “Secret Agent Man,” they did the theme song for Hawaii Five-O and probably a few of your summers. (Between the Ventures and Duane Eddy’s earlier performance of the Peter Gunn theme song, the car show had cornered the market on ’60s TV music.) The surf-guitar sounds of these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers made me nostalgic for roller-skating down a beachside boardwalk—a memory that I’ve never, in fact, personally experienced. When the Ventures played “Sleepwalk,” the ideal slow dance for a beach prom, the back wall of the Orleans disappeared into sea and sky; the hard ground softened into sand between my toes and all stress melted away.

Eighties rockabilly revivalists the Polecats ended the car show with a wild set that couldn’t be more different from the Ventures, showing the musical range of the weekend. Lead vocalist Tim Worman performed like he was on a kamikaze mission—swinging the microphone round his neck, tossing a full water bottle into the audience, forcing the guitarist to sacrifice his jacket to the crowd and rubbing the guitar strings with his mic stand. Oddly enough, my favorite Polecats moment was anachronistic: a sexy cover of T-Rex’s 1971 hit, “Jeepster,” proving that with rockabilly, as long as the music is good, the time is right. ★★★★★