By Tim Sommer
Rock n’ roll isn’t just a beautiful noise and the primary distraction of the pre-internet era. It is also a magnificent gumbo, an amazing example of how the eight thousand ethnic and cultural influences that make up our nation came together to create a distinct and varied art form, unified in its energy and the way it speaks truth to power. Rock n’ roll is truly a form of folk music, and it makes the diversity of our culture alive with electricity.
Rock n’ roll (and that can mean anything from the slippery slurs of Elvis to the snaky snarls of Link Wray to the slap-back yodel of Hank Williams to the whooping hosannas of Little Richard, and so much more) is a humming, howling, and harmonizing American animal. In any historical, academic, and creative sense, the madly diverse art and noise that is American rock n’ roll is a totally distinct beast from what happened after 1964, when the Beatles brought all their wedding-cake icing to the party, slathered it on the old-school memes, and added a whole pile of Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley formalism.
Now, formalism is a funny word, but here’s what I am trying to say: A century and more of American culture, lifted from the grab bag of everything our beautiful immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) bought to our shores, built pre-Beatles Rock n’ roll. Those pure, pre-Beatles twangs and tics and stomps contain musical DNA from the Plantation and from Appalachia, from West Africa and County Clare, from Basin Street, Baton Rouge, and the Rio Grande. That’s the amazing American puzzle, you see.
But even if its roots are old, it is alive and damn well.
You can celebrate the joyous, hopping, socking story of American music, in all its twanging, harmonizing, and piano-pounding glory, at the Suffolk Theatre in Riverhead on Friday, December 4. That’s when WLNG presents their annual Rockabilly Christmas Show.
For 52 years, WLNG has been a beacon of doo-wop and guitar stomp beaming from Sag Harbor to the world. This amazing station preaches the rock n’ roll truth, reminding us of our favorite memories and helping us discover new ones that may have fallen through the cracks. From the city and the country, from Bayou to skyscraper, those who had been left out of the American dream used guitars to tell their tale and reinvent the American dream. The sound of that passionate story is alive and well in the songs you hear on WLNG.
Those who attend the WLNG Rockabilly Christmas will be in for a treat. On the bill this Friday are Jason D. Williams, Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks, Bobby Volkman, and Prentiss McNeil.
Jason D. Williams is the Pete Townshend of the piano, taking the jackhammer power of Jerry Lee Lewis and making it as fresh as firecracker n’ jalepeno bagel. Even though Mr. Williams’ style may seem familiar (especially to anyone who’s listened to one of the greatest albums ever made, “Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club Hamburg,” an LP which sounds like a moonshine runner trying to outgun the police while carting around the Ramones in the backseat), I dare anyone to use the word “oldie” around Mr. Williams. He plays as if he’s a sixteen year-old boy who just discovered Rock n’ roll, girly mags, and the piano, all on the same day. What Williams does isn’t so much an homage to the Killer as a reminder that sometimes the founders did it best.
Likewise, it hardly seems fair to label Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks an “oldies” band. Any lovers of the sound of Memphis, Austin, or Shreveport will enjoy the Lone Sharks, who play mega-catchy songs that click-clack, bounce and shuffle with the best of them and will get your pointy-toed boots tapping. And to further point out that there’s no such thing as an oldie – just the timeless driving beat of a snare drum and the rip of a gold-top electric guitar – teenager Bobby Volkman will remind you of Jimmy Page and Scotty Moore as he shreds pure, modern rockabilly accompanied by a classic bare-bones/high energy rhythm section. The power, joy, and passion of Mr. Williams, Mr. Casey, and Mr. Volkman is perfect evidence that American music, the kind of music that tears down the walls and lifts up the soul, is alive and well 15 years into the 21st century.
Finally, completing the bill with grace, class, and history is Prentiss McNeil, who was a member of the legendary Drifters for 27 years. The Drifters’ music is the soundtrack for 880 of our memories – think of all the times in your life that you have hummed, in your head and out loud, “Under the Boardwalk,” “On Broadway,” “Up On The Roof,” “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance For Me.” This is the sound of our lifetime, this is the sound of our tears and our hopes, from marbles to mortgages, from lunch with grandpa to lunch with the grandkids, and when McNeil walks out on stage, he brings the sound of our life with him.
From top to bottom, from the speed-of-sound rockin’ ramalama of Jason D. Williams to the southern shuffle of the Lone Sharks to the jaw-dropping shredbilly of Bobby Volkman to the magical memories of Prentiss McNeill, this is the sound of America, on stage this Friday at the Suffolk Theater.
So don’t think of this as an oldies show. Think of this as a celebration of one of America’s greatest gifts to the world.
WLNG’s Rockabilly Christmas takes place on Friday December 4, 2015 at 8 p.m. at The Suffolk Theatre, 118 E Main Street, Riverhead. For more information, please go to www.suffolktheater.com or call (631) 727-4343.