The Best of Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend

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Photo by Jesse Nabers

Viva Las Vegas is an exercise in endurance. Endurance of your ear plugs, your liver, your ability to fit into vintage shoe sizes. The 16th annual rockabilly extravaganza taxes even the most ardent fan. By the Sunday jiving contest, the host praised contestants for being able to dance, much less stand. But dance they did, and it was glorious. Here are some highlights from the March 28-31 weekend at the Orleans.

Joe Clay and Bloodshot Bill: For devotees, the four-day event started a day early (March 27) with an incredible pre-fest concert. Rediscovered after a career as a bus driver, rockabilly originator Joe Clay, now in his mid 70s, had the exuberance of his youth. He went out into the audience and briefly took over the upright bass, drums and piano. The show also featured the delightfully animalistic Bloodshot Bill from Canada. The pajama-clad one-man band played guitar, drummed and sang in a variety of octaves and guttural noises.

The Resurrected Dick Dale: “You’re the reason why I’m here,” the legendary surf guitarist told the audience. “Cancer, diabetes, renal failure—the doctor said I should never get onstage again. You are the reason I’m here.” I got the feeling that “here” meant “on Earth,” not “onstage.” The last time I saw Dale play, at the Hard Rock Café on the Strip two years ago, he looked like he might keel over. He’d played a seated show that involved more old-man rambling than guitar playing. But the Dick Dale at the car show was a new person. He’d gone from addled and frail to on fire. Dale looked good, sounded sharp (both musically and mentally) and played the entire performance standing (one caveat: it was under an hour). He also played harmonica, tapped out notes on a guitar with drumsticks and played a drum solo, even tossing the sticks in the air. “Misirlou” boasted some rad sonic flourishes.

Charles Phoenix Slideshow: The author, humorist and Americana-ist led the audience on a hilarious romp through the magical land of retro kitsch. Wearing a rainbow airbrushed suit and Colonel Sanders tie, he started the party by tossing rainbow bread (it was Easter, after all) into the audience, first slices and then entire loaves. Slide topics included animal topiary, flocked Christmas trees, Edsels and light-up Jell-O.

Deke’s Guitar Geek Show: This was a kaleidoscope of guitar players with an almost academic love of musicality. Oddly enough, it included a turn by Marky Ramone on drums playing “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.” In response, host Deke Dickerson quipped, “We started with ‘San Antionio Rose,’ I just want to remind you.”

Little Richard: The festival headliner is not what he used to be. After being wheeled onstage, he philosophized to the car-show crowd: “The piano’s out of tune, and I am, too. … I’m 80 years old—didn’t think I’d live this long. It’s a blessin’ and a lesson.” No word on what that lesson is, but when he played, even if it wasn’t at full fighting weight, it was still absolutely awesome.

Burlesque Showcase: The über-talented emcee Dr. Sick, from New Orleans’ Bustout Burlesque, stole the show without even taking his clothes off. Donning a Russian accent, he played the violin and sang, Stolichnaya Stolichayna/not the best that you can buy-a/But the best you can drink when you’re alone. Hilarity ensued and then more girls stripped to Bustout Burlesque’s live band.

The AquaSonics: This surf guitar quartet played classic covers in a traditional way, which was fine for the fun-in-the-sun goal of the Sunday pool party and swimsuit contest. But the performance is notable because it embodies the problems of any retro genre: Endless repetition of a small pool of originals, which was made strikingly apparent when the AquaSonics covered “Misirlou” a day after the King of Surf Guitar rocked it.

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