Dick Dale was heard before he was seen, announcing his arrival from offstage with a blistering guitar chord. He appeared a moment later wearing a black Western shirt edged with white embroidery, accompanied only by a bassist and a drummer, looking as stripped-to-the-elements as the exposed brickwork and open ceiling of the Brooklyn Bowl.
Dale launched into his set with no warm up or banter – there was silence, and then the air was crowded with more guitar notes than time to hear them. The combined ages of his bandmates surely amounted to less than Dale’s 77 years, but he was clearly leading the charge. Drummer Gerry Porter flailed his arms non-stop; bassist Sam Bolle grew flushed; and yet Dale remained stone-faced and gnomic, unspooling impossibly bustling guitar lines with all the apparent effort of an idler skimming rocks in a pond.
For the first part of the set, Dale let his Stratocaster do the talking, punctuating sprints through “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and “Peter Gunn” by punching the air or spreading his arms wide like a champion athlete. Then the band rolled into “House of the Rising Sun,” and out of his Old-Man-of-the-Mountain face tumbled a gravelly, “There is… a house… in New Orleans….” As with all of his vocal performances throughout the night, Dale limited his delivery to a scant few lines, letting the minimalist efficiency of his voice contrast with his fluid, expressive guitar riffs.
Having at last cracked his stony countenance, however, he let slip a few dry jokes: introducing a blended “Folsom Prison Blues”/“Ring of Fire” with a drawled “Hullo, I’m Johnny Cash,” or explaining that his chromatic harmonica is “very difficult to play, so I only learned one thing,” before scaling a virtuosic run. (Afterwards: “Is that bitchin’?”)
Apart from “Let’s Go Trippin’,” the Dale original from 1961 that invented surf rock, the bulk of the set comprised blues, country and rock-and-roll standards run through his wall of distortion. But Dale seemed less interested in evoking nostalgia than in stripping these already elemental songs down to their bones. Dale coursed from one song to the next – the opening lines of “Polk Salad Annie” morphed into the chorus of “Got My Mojo Working,” which bled into a jam on “Summertime Blues” – withdrawing the essentials from each, then moving on.
Through it all, Dale managed the feat of showing off without ever seeming like a showoff, whether commandeering the bass during “Fever” to tear through a solo on its neck, or crossing to the back of the stage and engaging Porter in a drum-off. As impressive as Dale’s percussive skills proved to be, it was even more astonishing to watch him return to the bass afterwards, drumsticks still in hand, and hammer out something that sounded uncannily like one of his most complex guitar lines. (His expression remained as nonchalant as ever.)
After running through tunes as diverse as “Amazing Grace” and “Hey! Bo Diddley,” Dale closed with his signature song, “Miserlou.” While most musicians can expect their biggest hit to get the wildest reaction from the audience, Dale had kept the crowd so revved up for the previous 90 minutes that the only sign of increased enthusiasm was the spike in the number of iPhones recording his performance. “Because you’ve been so good to me, I’m going to play my ass off,” Dale had proclaimed earlier that night. Based on the electricity coursing through the Brooklyn Bowl audience after the show, he more than kept his promise.
(Cover photo via OregonMusicNews.com.)