Los Straitjackets Bring Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Surf Rock Sounds to Portland, OR (SHOW REVIEW)

As the holidays rapidly approach, many bands are squeezing in last minute tours to give their fans one last taste of the good stuff before the new year. On Tuesday, December 17th, venerable instrumental guitar outfit Los Straitjackets did just that with a stop at Portland, Oregon’s Polaris Hall.

This year, Los Straitjackets celebrated the 25th anniversary of their first two Yep Roc Records releases, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets and ¡Viva! LosStraitjackets, with a special reissue of both. With that in mind, it made sense that rockers would dwell heavily on this material for much of their set in Portland. Playing in their signature lucha libre masks and dark suits, the quartet would take the audience on a magical carpet ride through some of their most well-known tunes. “The Casbah” featured exotic interplay between lead guitarist Eddie Angel and Greg Townson while they, along with bassist Pete Curry, bounced their heads in unison to the groove. “Linus and Lucy” was a ska-inflected surf jam rendition of the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas classic, while Townson would get to shine with “Genessee River Rock”, a rollicking tribute to his hometown of Rochester, New York. The band’s take on the blistering Ventures rocker “Driving Guitars” would showcase the chemistry between the guitarists, bassist and drummer, with both Angel and Townson laying down wonky, frenetic guitar licks over a thunderous jungle beat from Chris Sprague. Referring to their frequent collaborator and tour mate Nick Lowe as “El Maestro”, they would lay into a light and spirited instrumental take on “Cruel To Be Kind”. Other tunes, like the delightfully spastic “Space Mosquito” and clucky “Itchy Chicken”, would find Angel’s eclectic and wonderfully weird approach to guitar rock on full display as he conjured a range of oddball noises from his instrument, even facing off with a rubber chicken on the latter and playing with it as a slide.

In true Los Straitjackets fashion, there was fun in seeing how the musicians reinvent covers for their outer space surf rock sensibilities. Their versions of Shocking Blue’s “Venus” had the audience bouncing along and smiling, while they turned Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” into a dreamy and swooning yet playful romp complete with Sprague mouthing the melody through his lucha libre mask. The Batman theme would also make an appearance, a sure crowd-pleaser at the tail end of the set that was only truly topped when they got the crowd to shout the Tequila line with their take on The Champs’ iconic song that traded saxophone for feisty guitar…on a Tuesday night no less!

The majority of songs in the set came from the band’s two first albums, serving as a proper retrospective for fans with a handful of other favorites sprinkled in for good measure. Those albums may be 25 years old, but in Portland the Los Straitjackets sounded fresher than ever. Their unique brand of surf-inflected, guitar-driven rock and roll is an increasingly rare commodity these days, and on Tuesday the crowd at Polaris Hall was eager to savor every moment.

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