Report: Aqua Velvets Live in San Francisco

 

Northern California surf-music icons,
the Aqua Velvets, transport its fans to the realm of “surf noir” at the Park
Chalet on August 18.

 

By Jud Cost / Photos by Kim
Wonderley

 

It feels like a Bill Graham Day On
The Green. Except this is a
vest-pocket version, attended by about 60 people instead of the 60 thousand who
showed up for those 1976 ballpark extravaganzas featuring the Grateful Dead,
the Beach Boys or Santana. This one is taking place on the grassy terrace
behind the Park Chalet restaurant, right across the Great Highway from San
Francisco’s Ocean
Beach.

 

Veteran instrumental surf-plus
combo the Aqua Velvets are playing from 2:00 to 5:00 pm, and the vibe couldn’t
be any more mellow. Hey, the sun even breaks through the fog for about an hour,
a fairly rare summertime occurrence in western San Francisco. Local disc jockey Don Sherwood
used to say of this area, “That’s why they call it the Sunset District. The sun
set there ten years ago, and it hasn’t been seen since.”

 

“We’re going to get started about
15 minutes late,” says AVs bassist Michael Lindner, peering out from under a
thick black hoodie that makes him look like a returning crusader from Bergman’s
The Seventh Seal. “There’s a wedding
going on at the same time, over by the Dutch windmill in Golden Gate Park,
and they’ve asked us to kinda keep it quiet,” he says. “I should have told them
we play weddings, too. Maybe they’ll make us a better offer.” And it’s not as
if the Aqua Velvets have brought along a stage full of Marshall stack amplifiers. No earplugs
required.

 

It’s surprisingly warm today,
probably because we’re on the leeward side of the building, shielding us from
the onshore afternoon wind. Original guitarist Miles Corbin and new axeman
Ferenc Dobronyi (who previously played with surf outfit Pollo del Mar) are
plugged in, and Lindner, on a stripped-down upright bass, and former Rubinoos
drummer Donn Spindt are ready to go.

 

 

For a band whose best album may be
1997’s Guitar Noir, it’s only natural
the boys should begin by strumming the chords to the James Bond theme, then
“surfing it up” with black & white photos of a beach full of shadows and
dangerous riptide currents. The only
unsettling moment from the audience, mostly seated at glossy black ice-cream
tables or laid out on comfy deck chairs, comes when a Great Dane/Dalmatian mix
goes ape and “wooofs” at a terrified tiny white dog he could have devoured in
one gulp. Meanwhile, four-year-old Eva Scott, with the energy of a roadrunner, must
have scooted a half-marathon in merry-go-round circles this afternoon.

 

During a short break between sets,
Spindt reveals he got the gig way back when his mom used to give singing
lessons to Corbin, a former member of east bay outfit Leila and the Snakes.
“Miles asked me if I wanted to be in a spaghetti-western surf band,” recalls
Spindt. Corbin says the AVs don’t rehearse much, since the band members are
scattered around northern inland empire locations like Healdsburg, Paradise and
Chico. Then
again, if you’ve been around this long (and you’re this good) you don’t have to
rehearse that often. By the time the third
set rolls around, the bridal party from the wedding in the park has wandered in
for a little refreshment and some rocking sounds.

 

You don’t need to be familiar with
anything on their set list to enjoy the Aqua Velvets (or “Aqua Velveeta” as
cheese-connoisseur Dean Torrence might have called them). Over three hours,
they play esoteric titles like “Martini Time,” “Cabana Del Gringo,” “Diamond
Head,” “Nervous Neptune,” “Coconut
Strip” and “Surf Nouveau.” If you’ve heard of any of those, you must be a
charter member of the Phil Dirt Fan Club from his glory days as a boss
surf-deejay at KFJC.

 

The surf music sound has endured
for about 50 years now, and most of the kahunas, hotdoggers, quebees, ho-dads,
gremmies and cave fish I know, reckon it’ll last another 50, no sweat. Even
then, someone somewhere will be listening to the Aqua Velvets on that
sand-pebble-sized music-player implanted inside his brain.

 

 

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