Midwestern surf bands have always had a hard way to go.
When some wag isn't cracking wise about the limited opportunities for wave riding hereabouts, folks who aren't familiar with instrumental rock's long history in this country are certain to ask about which Beach Boys songs will be in the set. As Alex E. Smith, drummer for the Madison-bred instrumental act the Pistols at Dawn puts it: "Yeah, you say surf and people go, 'Oh, the Beach Boys.' We go, 'Nah, like Pulp Fiction.' Then a few of 'em get it."
Two years into their run, the Pistols at Dawn have managed to cobble together a very respectable following from the kinds of audiences that have a soft spot for old-school instrumental acts like Dick Dale, Link Wray and the Ventures. The 23-year-old Smith says guys in their 40s and 50s nearly always respond to both their guitar- and Farfisa-driven originals and familiar covers like the theme music from The Munsters.
Basement shows and regular appearances at surf celebrations in Minneapolis and the Wisconsin Dells have also attracted skate punks, bikers and hardcore instrumental fans to their flame. Something about the mix of a steady 4/4 beat with warbling organ and a guitar smeared with thick applications of reverb clicks with the outlaw demographic. "When people hear us, they usually like it," laughs the Pistol's stocky bass player and onstage emcee Matt Leaverton, who at 47 is the old man of the multi-generational group. "Of course, if you listen to Z104, you probably don't."
This past Sunday, as the Pistols at Dawn held forth in front of 50 or so punks, freaks and graybeards at the sun-baked Willy Street Fair, the band's appeal was immediately apparent. If 23-year-old guitarist Alexei Broner's aggressive slashing on the brooding "Timebomb" didn't grab your ear and give it a shake, 30-year-old organ jockey Tim Consequence's cool phrasing of the breezy head to the classic Booker T. & the MG's groove "Time Is Tight" most certainly did. The music wasn't astoundingly original, but it was loud, it was fun, and the band and the crowd were on the same wavelength.
In my book, that's a party worth attending - even if Z104 addicts who spend their morning commute singing along with Beyoncé and Daughtry would never quite understand why nearly everyone within earshot was grinning like a circus clown.