Dick Dale Brings Summer Surf Music Back to the Santa Monica Pier

You know you have lived too long when you go to a surf music concert and find Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar, playing back-up guitar to his son. That was the new reality at Dick Dale’s July appearance at the 22nd Annual Twilight Dance Series concert on the Santa Monica Pier. Dale appeared eager to pass his crown onto his 14 year old son, Jimmy Dale. However, the young prince needs to polish his skills before he will be worthy of the throne. If the reaction of the concert crowd is any indication, it is clear that the music loving masses remain loyal to the King.

From 1961 to 1965, Dick Dale defined the Southern California surf sound with his full throated Fender guitar, his flying finger work and his exuberant instrumentals. He dominated the pop charts with his own compositions such as “The Wedge,” “Surf Beat” and “Let’s Go Trippin.” Dale was the headline act above second-billed performers like Duane Eddy, Jan and Dean, The Righteous Brothers and The Beach Boys. Then Dale dropped out of the spot light for many years with a serious cancer scare. He re-emerged in the 1970s, healthy and reinvigorated, as if to tell new bands, “This is how to play the guitar.”

Even now, with more stomach, less hair and self-deprecating jokes about dinosaurs and ginko biloba, Dale is still showing them how. His primary pupil is his son, who Dale is promoting as “Guitar Prodigy Jimmy Dale.” He desperately wants that description to roll off the tongue as naturally as “Mild Mannered Clark Kent.” The problem is, we expect a certain level of virtuosity in a prodigy and although Jimmy is unquestionably talented, he doesn’t dazzle. With perseverance and experience, his ability may equal that of his Dad’s. By the time he gets to that level, Jimmy will no longer be young enough to be called a prodigy, but he will be able to vote.

Dale defers to Jimmy on stage, allowing him to take the lead, much like an eagle parent encourages its eaglet to fly from the nest. Jimmy the prodigy faltered not once, but twice during the pier concert, bringing the otherwise driving instrumentals to uncomfortable halts – and not without some petulance on his part. Dale smoothly stepped in on both occasions and started things up again. Incorporated into the act is a segment of guitar mentoring in which Dick demonstrates complicated riffs and has Jimmy imitate them. This episode seemed like the Dueling Banjos from “Deliverance” in reverse. Instead of building to an impressive crescendo, this master class started well, but gradually fell apart like a wet cake. Ever the proud father, and wanting to show off his son’s additional prowess, Dale rhetorically asked the audience of a couple thousand, “Do you want to see Jimmy play the drums?” A wag near me shouted back, “We’d like to see Jimmy play something.”

It is unfortunately distracting that Dale spends precious stage time promoting his son, because Dale himself has so much to offer. He plays his trademark gold Fender with the flamboyant Liberace-like hand motions of someone testing to see if an iron is hot. His style has always been unique because Dale plays left handed but does not reverse the order of his strings. In essence, he plays upside down. Dale provided some standards and gave the crowd what they wanted with “Misirlou,” his 1962 chart-topping tune adapted from a Greek pop melody. He grabbed a pair of drum sticks and stood behind his band drummer, double drumming with him to create an amazing tribal sound. Dale then bounded to his bass player who proffered his instrument like a keyboard. Dale played the horizontal bass with the drum sticks, producing an attractive zither effect. He even evoked a trumpet and blew the “St. Louis Blues” in a full Louis Armstrong imitation. Dale attempted to sing a bit, but he is the first to recognize that audiences don’t come to hear him sing any more than they go to the opera to see Placido Domingo dance, so he wisely turned the number into a “House Of The Rising Sun” sing-along.

The best was saved for the end of the Dale concert. He announced, “We’re going to keep playing this until our boys and girls come home,” and delivered a signature surf version of “Amazing Grace” that was sublime. Dale’s closing exhortation to the crowd was, “Take care of your children.” He certainly follows his own advice.

Opening for Dick Dale was the band Agent Orange, ripping through their punk surf stylings. A catchy set included power versions of “Secret Agent Man” and “I Kill Spies.”

The Twilight Dance Series continues through the end of August with free Thursday evening concerts on the picturesque Santa Monica Pier.

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