In July 1961, a 24-year-old Dick Dale had to move his regular Balboa concerts out of the ice cream parlor and into the 3000-capacity Rendezvous Ballroom. These alcohol-free ballroom “stomps” enlightened schools of energetic surfers and teenage beach louts to the growing phenomenon of surf rock, and sold out rapidly.
At the time, Dale’s music was a revelation; his guitar was slick, wet, and gargling with reverb; his style was so conducive to amplification that it required the construction of the first-ever 100-watt amplifier. According to some stories, Dale was the first dude to turn the volume up to ten, earning him the title “Father of Heavy Metal” along with the obvious “King of Surf Rock.”
Now Dick Dale is 75, and rock music is ever more becoming an object of nostalgia rather than a force of cultural change. But that doesn’t stop either one from selling out. Wavestomp—a concert cruise presented by Rocks Off concert promotions and tagged as “low brow on the high seas”—was a nominal tribute to Dale’s ballroom ragers of yore, bringing together Dale, the garage-shaking Detroit Cobras, metal survivors Manitoba and hundreds of seafaring fans for a party cruise around the Hudson Bay on Sunday.
The Princess, a well stocked and impeccably crewed party yacht commissioned for this three-hour voyage of exploratory rock debauchery, started boarding at 6pm in Manhattan’s Pier 81. Lolling in the waves of the Hudson, the boat would play home to more than one type of rocking. While Dick Dale chilled in the wheelhouse with the ship’s captains and his platinum-haired wife, other guests took time before the show to amass food and drink tickets, get their sea legs (alcohol helps) and wander the party vessel’s scenic outer decks. At anchor, the Princess offered clear views of Hoboken to the West, the Empire State Building to the East, and the nearby Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum immediately North. The Intrepid’s topmost deck is currently capped with a silver dome that houses the recently acquired Space Shuttle Enterprise, a majestic artifact of the ’70s and ’80s, now retired to sea. Would the same fate befall the icons of classic rock’n'roll tonight?
No time to think about it as a voice over the ship’s speakers officially welcomed passengers to Rocks Off and offered the night’s first and only safety precaution: “Prepare to get your mind rearranged by the Detroit Cobras!” Below deck the Cobras’ four-piece instrumental section, including eternal guitarist Mary Ramirez, began calibrating their equipment to fuzzy jangle mode. Ramirez and vocalist Rachel Nagy signed the Cobras to Sympathy for the Record Industry during the garage boom of the ’90s, and have been playing reverb-blasted party covers of R&R&B rarities since; Nagey alternately describes the Cobras as “a live band who occasionally make records,” and purveyors of “old-fashioned Friday-night-go-out-and-find-a-pretty-girl-and-dance-with-her-because-it-WILL-get-you-LAID music.” They’d put this latter claim to the test during a painfully brief set that focused on the speediest, twist-friendly cuts in their repertoire, jumping right into the “Cha Cha Twist” while the Princess set out Southbound, leaving the brooding blues stuff for the mainland.
The Cobras tore through five or six snake-slick covers in the brief opening window they were afforded, and dealt with recurring sound problems throughout. Nagey seemed a little peeved, flashing viper fangs behind genial requests to kick up the lead guitar in her monitor, but the crowd didn’t care. If anything, Nagey’s venom just worked toward fiercer, more engaging performances of “Right Around The Corner”‘s tribal gibberish, and “Shout Bama Lama”‘s exuberant Southern gristle. Any dismay at the set’s early finish was couched in resounding applause throughout the cabin. “Dick Dale is coming up,” Nagey said at the end. She added in a husky Elvis ooze, “Oh, I’m sorry—we are Dick Dale.” In spirit, she wasn’t far off.
Next up was Manitoba, a brawny collective of Dictators refugees, CBGB stooges and hair metal contemporaries who’ve built a reputation around frontman “Handsome Dick” Manitoba’s all-stomp, no-pomp attitude. Notably (and proudly,) the Dictators roadie-turned-frontman once got his band kicked off a KISS tour for mocking the rockers’ schlocky banter and other grease-paint pretensions between music and audience. But appearances aside, the songs of KISS and Manitoba both inhabit the same American Gomorrah where sex, booze and sex/booze ragers trickle down from the lips of the gods of rock all day, everyday.
The dominant narrative of Manitoba’s music, but especially the Dictators icon-o-hit “Who Will Save Rock And Roll?” places the band at the vanguard of a deteriorating music culture. They answer self-imposed sulkery like, “I can’t take living 9 to 5/ I can’t find a reason to come alive,” with easily memorized choral chants, chugging rhythm-section muscle and flights of screedily-deedily-dee solo shredding fancy. Handsome Dick sells his rock remarkably well, too. Throughout Sunday’s set Dick trashed the L.A. Guns for leaving Manitoba stranded with no audio equipment at a recent gig in Jersey; Dick trashed an upstairs heckler for mocking his “nice pants” (Dick eschewed his usual Bronx beanie for a fedora, shades, cabana button-up and crisp white Levis); and when he made a crass, boo-inducing joke about how the drunken fanboy who slithered onstage to mumble Manitoba’s praise was probably “from Colorado,” he quickly pushed on to more rock, rock, rock.
Given a set of songs with names like “The Party Starts Now!!,” “Fired Up,” and the aforementioned “Who Will Save Rock and Roll,” you can pretty much gauge exactly what the 45-minute set looked, sounded and—to Handsome Dick’s satisfaction—smelled like. Burlier, beardier and belly-full-of-boozier than earlier predecessors, the Manitoba crowd was a triumphant headbang to the Cobras’ salacious twist. It was a welcome escape for all aboard—rivaled only by the vision of Manhattan drifting slowly and brilliantly away outside.
“Can’t beat that view,” Manitoba guitarist Ross The Boss said aloud to nobody in particular on the aft of the Princess immediately after his set. “This is what you get for selling out a cruise. If you don’t sell it out they just cut the engine and strand you here.”
To be stranded for the next set may have been a welcome calamity. The cabin was claustrophobic for The King of Surf Rock’s performance, fans stretching from the dance floor up the staircase and off to either side of the upper gallery (“It looks like a big crucifix coming at me!” Dale would later joke.) His two-piece backing band—featuring son Jimmy Dale on drums and Sam Bolle on bass—opened with a teaser “Misirlou” riff, summoning Dale from behind the black backstage curtain, himself a vision of black, ambling in ponytail and white-swirled Western shirt like an old gunslinger back for one more job.
He slung his weapon just as well, wielding his signature righty-Stratocaster-played-left-handed, attacking with high-necked tremolo pick explosions, and eventually rattling on Bolle’s bass with spare drumsticks and never losing that wave-gliding tempo. “If you see me muttering to the boys every now and then it’s so they know where we’re going next,” Dale said after an incendiary “Pipeline” medley. “I’ve never used a setlist in my life. They don’t know what I’m doing because I don’t know either.”
Dale’s modesty is charming, but masks the truth: Dick Dale can do whatever he wants, because Dick Dale is rock. He thus spent most of his set as a surf-rock karaoke machine, blasting through reverb-soaked covers of “House of The Rising Sun,” “Smoke on The Water,” Link Wray’s “Rumble” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Late in the set he asked the sound guy to drop the treble in his mic so he could play a guttural impression of Johnny Cash before cutting through a “Ring of Fire”/”Folsom Prison Blues” medley. The Princess had been docked again next to the quiet Intrepid for 15 minutes before Dale was informed his time was up, funneling an extended Bo Diddley improv into the pure cut of “Misirlou” everyone was waiting for.
Camera phones flashed incessantly around the cabin, 20- and 60-something onlookers petrified alike in hooting reverence for 75 minutes. It wasn’t a California ballroom stomp. The most vehement dancer aboard the Princess was no teenager, and he spent most of the night working off his high under the gaze of event security. But Wavestomp was a loud and memorable three-hour vacation from real life that reminded us pro-temp mariners rock’n'roll doesn’t need saving. Rock is as cathartic and powerful as it ever was; it’s just us who’ve changed.