Masked Marvels

Nashville's Los Straitjackets wrestle with the limitations of instrumental rock

"We kept that friendship going for several years, and in '94 Eddie moved back to Nashville after living in Chicago and Austin," Amis says. "Just for fun, we decided to get back together, but Eddie suggested we get a bass player and I would move from bass to guitar and play some of my songs. The first time we played together, it really clicked."

The reason it clicked is that Amis and Angel have distinct but highly sympathetic playing--and composing--styles. Angel goes for the straightahead rock of a Chuck Berry or the rockabilly drive of a Link Wray. Amis is the twang-bar king, opting for the trebly, vaguely Hawaiian-sounding licks that immediately stir visions of surfboards cascading through tsunamis.

Even without vocals, after a couple of spins through their albums, you start to figure out who wrote what song. When the band apes Berry's "Around and Around" for "Rampage," it's obviously Angel's handiwork. Likewise, the reverb-drenched "Jetty Motel" has Amis' fingerprints all over it. Unlike most surf-rock bands, which beat you over the head with the same sound on every song, Los Straitjackets find a surprising amount of wiggle room within their instrumental boundaries.

Actually, their new album, Viva Los Straitjackets, suggests that surf rock may be too restricting for them, and that the more general label, instrumental rock, may be more accurate. For instance, Lester's love of Memphis soul reveals itself on "Brains and Eggs," an ultracool Booker T and the MGs homage. Even on their first album, they showed that they could get subdued and melodic, as on "University Blvd.," a gorgeous twist on the Santo and Johnny hit "Sleep Walk." And, of course, they can cut loose with the machine-gun frenzy of a Dick Dale. Surf music may be their base, but they're still mapping their destination.

In their early-'60s heyday, instrumental-rock bands usually formed out of necessity, as local high school dance bands that couldn't find an adequate singer. But what holds a talented band like Los Straitjackets to this pure but inherently limited genre?

"I grew up listening to it," Amis says. "And there are some things, like Link Wray's 'Rumble,' there are so many emotions you can get out of that song that could never be put into words. I think instruments can really sway emotions and feelings."

The band's surreal stage wardrobe also sways emotions from time to time, and not always in the intended ways. When the band came to Phoenix last year for a show at the Rhythm Room, it drew some zealous fans expecting a sporting event, not a musical show.

"That was the strangest one," Amis says of the Phoenix show. "There was an ad that ran in the paper with our photo, and there was a Mexican family that didn't understand English all that well. They thought that these Mexican wrestlers were gonna be at the club that night. They showed up expecting wrestling, and the doorman explained to them that it was us instead."

Los Straitjackets are scheduled to perform on Friday, September 5, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 10 p.m.

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