Friday June 21st
If it’s the end of June it must be time for the Surfer Joe Summer Festival in Livorno. And so the HangNine party finds itself at Gatwick airport for the flight to Pisa and the short train journey from there to Livorno.
On arrival, we’re delighted to find that the Tuscan weather is considerably better than that we left behind in decidedly unsunny Brighton and I’m very pleased to report that it stays this way until we awake on Monday morning to find it blowing a gale, which is whipping up quite a storm in the Mediterranean.
After a quick drink in a nice bar to break the trek from the station to our hotel (where we are met with a truly friendly welcome), we arrive at the Surfer Joe Diner, where we find Lorenzo “Surfer Joe” Valdambrini, brother Luca and the rest of the Boss Combo, Tommi and Tonio, preparing for the opening night of the festival. We grab the opportunity for a quick chat, down another drink or two, , pausing only to catch up with Da-Ron and Adam from the Waterboarders, then head off for pizza, before returning to the Diner later in the evening.
As has been the case for the last six years, the Festival is hosted jointly by organiser Lorenzo and Unsteady Freddie, from New York, thankfully restored to health after his foot problems. This year, duties are shared with Dave Arnson of the Insect Surfers, who spends most of the weekend firmly ensconced beneath a hug wide-brimmed hat.
Entertainment for the night comes from Swiss band Tony Dynamite and the Shooting Beavers, who are hugely entertaining on the Tiki Garden stage, while Thaly from Thaly’s Tiki Art is setting about a huge chunk of tree trunk with a chainsaw as he prepares himself for the live Tiki carving event scheduled for Saturday afternoon. As Tony Dynamite are playing, we catch site of Larry “Moon Dawg” White, an old friend who we’ve not met up with close on fifteen years. This is one of the great things about Surfer Joe, there are always people to catch up with, while the music provides the best possible backdrop for the socialising. Larry is wearing a Dead Man’s Curve t-shirt, too, which is a greatly appreciated touch and certainly makes me smile.
This year there are three stages at the festival: The Main Stage, overlooking the sea; the Tiki Garden Stage and a further stage inside the Diner, which is used long into the night once the other stages have finished (and for a very special show on the Monday night, which we are sorry to miss). This all makes for a very smoothly run event, with one band finishing on one stage and another starting almost immediately on another for most of the weekend.
Friday night ends with Speedball Jr from Belgium on the main stage, who tale the brave (and possibly slightly strange) decision of playing covers of tunes by both The Atlantics and The Apemen, who will appear on this same stage tomorrow. They play a pretty fine set, though, despite maybe not filling the large stage quite as well as a few other bands do on subsequent nights.
Festivities carry on long into the night, but we’re pretty knackered, so head back to the hotel for some sleep.
Saturday June 22nd
Festivities are underway somewhat earlier on Saturday, so after lunch at the Diner (do check out the Jack Farro salad, it’s simple and delicious, although burgers are the real speciality of this joint), some posing for photographs with Dave Arnson and a quick siesta, we’re back in good time to catch Los Lagoonas, Surfoniani, The Psycho Surfers and Spain’s fabulously-named Five Fingers With Parasol, in the Tiki Garden, while Thaly makes incredible headway with the Tiki carving. All four bands are excellent and keep the crowd basking in the heat of a fine summer’s day thoroughly entertained. At around this point, Les Agamemnonz arrive from France, fully attired in their skimpy Ancient Greek-style stage costumes, which is a nice touch, since they aren’t playing for several hours yet.
Our good friends from Brighton, Keith and Claire also turn up during the afternoon and it’s nice to be able to introduce them to the delights of Surfer Joe. I expect that Keith will be giving the festival a mention on his Rock’n’Roll show over on Seahaven FM at some point.
It’s time to eat again and we retire, with Moon Dawg, to our favourite restaurant. However, it appears that this may have been a mistake, since we return to find everyone raving about how great The Mullet Monster Mafia have just been. The Brazilians do play another show late on Sunday night inside the Diner, but tiredness dictates that we miss this one too, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
The Spaceguards are playing some slightly more avant-garde instrumental over on the main stage and we can’t help but notice that they conform to our stereotype of Dutch surf musicians: they seem to be very tall! Now, this is just an observation you understand; I’m not usually one for indulging in cheap national characteristics based humour.
Les Agamemnonz have been in full stage costume for several hours now, but it proves to be worth it. They are excellent; melodic, a little laid-back and highly accomplished. I think it also during their set that we are introduced, via Luka from the Ungawa Tiki Bar, to the delights of Corona beer with a few drops of added Tabasco sauce. The trick is to add the Tabasco, tip the bottle upside down to shake it all up a bit, then spray a shot of spicy beer into your mouth. This works admirably as a way of enlivening what is usually a rather bland beer, but you do have to be careful not to squirt any up your nose. I’m not careful!
Next up over on the main stage are the splendid Apemen. They are particularly splendid whilst attired in their Ape masks, although a little of the mystique is broken when they remove them, revealing themselves to be four pleasing tall Dutch guys. They’re very enjoyable, though, it must be said, although I’m not so sure the owner will have enjoyed the organist throwing the vintage Vox Continental to the floor at one point.
I’m getting pretty excited about seeing The Atlantics by now, but we have to wait just a little longer while Diabolico Coupé keep us entertained back in the Tiki Garden with yet another fine set.
It’s been a great day so far, but The Atlantics are about to put every other band somewhat in the shade. Quite simply, they are IMMENSE. Guitarist Jim Skiathitis is the only member from the early 60’s line-up of Australia’s finest instrumental band present tonight (drummer Peter Hood is unable to make this European trip), but dual guitarist Martin Cilia has been an Atlantic since they reformed full-time in 1999 and has apparently been something of a force in the band, for which we should all be grateful to him, because they might not be playing in Livorno tonight otherwise. Both guitarists are in tremendous form and, ably supported by a driving rhythm section, they treat the large crowd to one of the best performances I have ever seen at a Surfer Joe Festival. Everyone wants to hear the first big hit, Bombora, of course and we’re not disappointed, but everything else is fabulous too: The Crusher, Giant, Flight of the Surf Guitar and a cracking Come On are just some of the highlights, while they end the encore with my personal favourite, War of the Worlds, which is storming.
Les Agamemnonz are about to play inside the Diner, but The Atlantics have left us drained and we head back to the hotel again. What lightweights we are becoming!
Sunday June 23rd
We start the day with all the best of intentions. We will take a walk, enjoy the sun, maybe have a quick drink at the Diner, then be sensible and grab a siesta. Then eat, then return to the Diner for the evening’s music. And everything starts well: we take a walk, enjoy the sun, call into the diner and have a quick drink. Unfortunately we enjoy the drink a little too much, so decide on another. We spend the rest of the afternoon in the Tiki Garden having maybe one or two too many drinks as we lounge in the sun and listen to The Insect Surfers rehearsing with Lorenzo, who is the stand in drummer for their European dates. In the past, some of my best memories at festivals in summery Mediterranean settings have not been of the music, but of the company, the setting, the lounging around; this is one of those times. At one point I am almost convinced that I have died and gone to heaven, as the sound of the Beach Boy’s You Still Believe In Me drifts across the sun drenched Tiki Garden. Those harmonies, surely, are what angels sound like.
We decide to miss the Ukulelics (although we enjoy their soundcheck) and are joined by Keith and Claire for a fine meal, before we head back to catch the end of the Tonomats’ set. Except that we’ve got our timing slightly awry and we miss them and have to ask Da-Ron and Adam how they were. “Very tall,” replies Da-Ron. The Tonomats are Dutch.
Alwaro Negro's garage-y set we do catch and very fine it is too, warming us up nicely for Surfer Joe and his Boss Combo over on the main stage. Lorenzo guitar playing is well up to his usual (very) high standard, while Luca, Tommi and Tonio put in a fine supporting shift, to produce another highlight of the weekend.
The Boss Combo are followed by Dave and the Pussies from Austria on the Tiki Garden stage, but by this point I am almost starting to want to see a band who aren’t instrumental. I know it’s an instrumental festival and I play and love instrumental music myself, but this must be a sure sign that I am nearly ready to head back to Brighton. Not that Dave and the Pussies are in any way bad, mind you. In fact they’re pretty good and they do a Bambi Molesters tune (Mindbender) really rather well. I figure I’m just in need of a something a bit different.
Over on the main stage we get… something a bit different: The Insect Surfers. Dave Arnson formed this band in 1979 and they sound as fresh and exciting tonight at they must have done back then. Dave is joined by JonPaul Balak (another lovely guy who I have the pleasure of meeting over the weekend) on bass. Lorenzo on drums and special guest Bernard Yin (something of a luminary in the California music scene) on guitar, not to mention El Firetone from the fabulous El Ray, who guests on one number. Of course, we’ve heard the set, which draws heavily on new album Infra Green (rapidly becoming a new favourite at HangNine towers) twice during the course of the afternoon, but what seemed seductive and gently laid-back in the afternoon sun, seems strange and spacious and twisted into all kinds of wonderful shapes. The guitars weave around one another, the bass throbs and Lorenzo manages to hold it all together, despite the fact that he must be shattered and he’s only been rehearsing these tunes for a couple of days. Great stuff, made all the more enjoyable by Dave’s hyperactive-insect stage presence. Fantastic.
It’s 1:30 in the morning and, despite The Mullet Monster Mafia making a second appearance of the festival inside the Diner, we drag our weary minds and bodies back to bed.
Monday June 24th
We’re surprised to find Livorno strangely chilly when we get up in the morning and there’s a gale which would have ruined the previous night’s shows, had it blown in much sooner. After breakfast we head down to the Diner for one last time, while the wind blows the cobwebs away. I grab some video footage of an angry looking sea and the completed Tiki carving. We sit in the garden for a while, but the Diner’s closed and it’s really not very warm. Time to leave we agree and head off to Pisa and our flight home.