Sand, surf and sideburns: Rockabilly marathon lands on Coney Island

Earlier this summer, the good folks at Brooklyn’s Bell House hosted the Psychobilly Luau, a daylong celebration of everyone’s favorite deformed, hyperactive, well-coiffed monster of a rockabilly subgenre. For folks with pomade stains on their pillows, the Luau was an unofficial start to the season, an excuse to break out the good Levis, swill some Pabst and watch a bunch of alpha Fonzies beat the crap out of their upright basses.

This Labor Day weekend, the Brooklyn boardwalk watering hole Cha Cha’s is marking the season’s end with the Coney Island Rockabilly Festival, a four-day confluence of greasy guitar players, curvy burlesque girls and the people who love them.

While Friday night’s bands played inside the bar, Saturday’s afternoon show took place on Cha Cha’s roof, where fans enjoyed views of the waterfront, the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone and all sorts of cool things soon to be torn down and replaced with high-end condos.

Despite the oppressive heat and higher-than-preferable beer prices, it was a fine day for the ’billy. Here’s a quick recap:

1. Hailing from the New Hampshire seaside, singer and songwriter Elsa Cross led her band through a brief set of traditional, country-fried rockabilly. The songs featured fingerpicked electric leads, lazy acoustic strums, and humming pedal steel — instrumentation that allowed the well-dressed singer to slip into the role of backwoods 1950s mystery woman. The material tended to move at a leisurely clip, and up until the stomping, hollering finale, “Zombie for His Love,” Cha Cha’s patrons mostly reclined on the roof’s Astroturf surface and soaked up the afternoon sun.

2. “I never liked punk rock,” Toby Dollar, lead singer of Connecticut quartet the Long Goodbyes, said early in his band’s set. “Still don’t.” If his tattoos and scraggily voice weren’t dead giveaways he was kidding, the Goodbyes’ repertoire certainly was. The group covered both Social Distortion’s “So Far Away” and the Business’ “Drinking and Driving,” and at one point, Dollar cited shock-punk legend G.G. Allin as one of history’s two “great American songwriters.” The other, in Dollar’s estimation, is David Allan Coe, an outlaw country singer whose “Take this Job and Shove It” no doubt inspired the Goodbyes’ galloping yokel-punk sound.

3. It’s unclear how the Tin Thistles (a) got on Saturday’s bill and (b) got out of town alive after performing their 20-minute set. “We’re from Boston, and we’re not a rockabilly band,” bassist Kevin Bogart, admittedly wasted, said at the outset, before dropping this bomb: “And we are Red Sox fans.” This didn’t exactly endear the Thistles to the rooftop crowd, nor did the quartet’s slovenly “folk punk”—Bogart’s words — thrashing.

4. Hickry Hawkins doesn’t play rockabilly, either, but his forays outside the genre were more successful than the Thistles’. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and simple songs about doublewide trailers, hard-drinking thalidomide victims, whiskey (of course) and fried chicken, the wily country-punk comedian slayed an initially skeptical crowd. The North Carolinian closed with a sing-along cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” but such a populist move was hardly necessary. He had us at “What Kinda Panties Are You Wearing?”

5. The headlining Hollowbody Hellraisers (pictured), from Gainesville, Fla., blasted away on twin Gretsch guitars, muscling through their ’50s riffs and chord progressions. On “No I Didn’t,” singer Andrew Alderson grabbed an acoustic and left the twangy fret heroics to Steve Smith, a guy whose Chris Isaak-grade quiff was arguably better constructed and more memorable than any of the Hellraisers’ punkabilly tunes.

— Text and photo by Kenneth Partridge

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