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Talent Unmasked
Grammy nomination is a welcome milestone in the long, fruitful musical journey of Capital Region native and Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel

Where would we be without our Mexican wrestling masks? Eddie Angel (wearing the black mask and holding the guitar over his head) with Los Straitjackets.

By Erik Hage

When Eddie Angel and his band Los Straitjackets were nominated for a Grammy earlier this year, it provided the guitarist with what he calls his “lifetime pass out of Palookaville.” (Los Straitjackets and Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater were up for Best Blues Album for their collaboration Rock ‘N’ Roll City; they lost to Buddy Guy.) Suddenly the whole “What do you do for a living?” question became a heck of a lot easier to answer. To say that you wear a slightly garish (but dead-cool-looking) Mexican wrestling mask and uncork wild, burning guitar fury in an internationally acclaimed surf/rock & roll instrumental combo might leave the average Clear Channel listener scratching his or her head. But to be able to say “Well, I was nominated for a Grammy” just puts things in clearer perspective. “If you just tell them you’re a musician, many people equate that with—I don’t know—being a deadbeat,” Angel jokes.

The Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles certainly could be seen as acknowledgement for a long career of seriously rockin’ musicianship for Rensselaer native Angel (a career that started right here in the Capital Region). Nevertheless, he and his fellow Straitjackets—ace guitarist (and yang to Eddie’s yin) Danny Amis, drummer Jimmy Lester and bassist Pete Curry—wanted to have some fun with the event as well, so they rented tuxes and donned their trademark masks. Angel notes, “We actually had to clear it with the Staples Center beforehand” for security purposes. Luckily, Los Straitjackets bassist Pete Curry was good friends with the head of security at the venue. That same friend also got the band into a chic VIP party after the ceremony. “It was catered by Wolfgang Puck. That was fun—it’s food that I’ll never be able to afford to eat again,” laughs Angel. They even got some undivided attention during the ceremony when one of the presenters asked them to stand up, joking, “We’ve got some classical musicians in the audience.” Not an average night out for four masked men (who happen to be veteran hotshot musicians).

Angel may refer to the Grammy experience as “our 15 minutes of fame,” but the Straitjackets, who will play the Empire State Plaza on Aug. 11 with Eddy Clearwater, have been recording albums, writing songs and touring the world together for 10 years. In that time, they have appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien six times, contributed music to various movies and TV shows (Sex and the City, Malcolm in the Middle, Ed, Melrose Place, to name only a fraction), toured with artists such as Tom Petty and Link Wray, and counted among their fans directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. (The group even performed as “the band” in a 2000 beach-movie spoof, Psycho Beach Party.) And though Los Straitjackets are primarily known for their alternately searing, beautiful and sometimes just campy surf/rock & roll/garage instrumentals, 2001’s well-received Sing Along with Los Straitjackets featured a bunch of famous guest vocalists, including Nick Lowe, Reverend Horton Heat, X’s Exene Cervenka and former Blaster Dave Alvin. In 2002, Eddie Angel also contributed a solo track (a rare—and surprisingly strong—vocal performance) to the popular Johnny Cash tribute Dressed in Black (Dualtone Records).

But Angel, who lives in his longtime roost of Nashville with his wife Melanie and kids (where he and Melanie also run a label, Spinout), has always maintained strong ties to this area. He was born Edward Heeran in Albany in 1953 and attended Van Rensselaer High School. During the ’70s and ’80s Angel played all over our area, in several bands. “It’s kind of funny,” chuckles Angel, who still has a lot of family in the region. “I was just there this summer, and I was with my brother-in-law—he’s not from the area—and every place we’d go, I’d say, ‘Yeah, I played there.’ It’d even be some place like the Macaroni Grill on Wolf Road [before it became the Grill]!” he laughs.

In the mid-’70s, Angel played in the Star-Spangled Washboard Band, which would later (post-Angel) morph into local legends and early MTV stars Blotto. He also played in a ’50s-style lounge band called Tino & the Revlons. (“Tino got murdered in Jamaica,” Angel notes regretfully.) In 1980, Angel left town for almost two years, moving to D.C. to play with rockabilly star Tex Rubinowitz. (Rubinowitz first turned Angel on to the records of Link Wray, whose powerfully aggressive rock & roll guitar rumble would become a huge influence.) Returning to Albany “around ’81 or ’82,” Angel hooked up with Johnny Rabb in the Rockin’ Dakotas, a popular local rockabilly band. “It was right at the height of Albany’s, you know, scene—with Blotto and Fear of Strangers,” Angel remembers. “We’d play Pauly’s, Bogie’s, the Chateau.” Along the way, Angel was also refining his guitar style, a mix of throaty, burning Link Wray rumble and bright, nervy stabs of Chuck Berry. “My brain is just wired to play [vintage rock & roll],” Angel claims. “I just can’t do anything else.” After leaving town in ’86, Angel was the guitarist for the popular Southern rockabilly group Planet Rockers for several years.

But over the decades Angel has consistently kept up his alliance with old friend and local rock & roll singer Johnny Rabb. They formed the Neanderthals in the early ’90s and continue to release records and play live under that moniker, churning out souped-up early-’60s garage-frat rock (complete with gang vocals and sometimes even cavemen outfits). And with musicians like Rabb, the Lustre Kings, and the Tichys (Graham and dad John) around, Angel thinks the Capital Region is still a great place for timeless rock & roll. “The rockabilly scene is as good as anywhere in the country,” claims Angel, who knows more than a thing or two about his subject. “I think rock & roll is kept alive in places like that—like Troy or something. . . . Places like New York and L.A. are always just going to be about what’s trendy and what’s making money at the moment.”

Angel backs up that assertion by often sitting in with local rockers when he’s here on visits. And to have Angel, who has developed into one of the more respected rock & roll guitarists in the country, support our scene speaks volumes. “I think you nailed it that time [in a Metroland concert write-up] when we did the boat cruise,” he says, referring to the July 2003 Captain J.P. performance on the Hudson. “There you had Big Sandy, who’s probably one of the biggest names in rockabilly in the country, and then this local talent that was just as good.” (The Lustre Kings—with Angel, Rabb and the Tichys sitting in—traded off sets with L.A.’s Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys on different decks all night.)

But how Eddie Angel came to make a living wearing a mask is a whole different story altogether—and one that happened in his longtime adopted home of Nashville. The seeds of Los Straitjackets came in ‘88 when Angel, Amis and Lester played a few shows on a lark around Nashville as the Straitjackets (sans “Los,” sans masks). Angel had always been drawn to the old instrumentals of the Ventures and Link Wray, but (besides a 45 he made in the early ’80s) had never had a consistent outlet for this interest. The Straitjackets never quite “took” the first time around due to other obligations, but they rekindled their undeniable spark in ‘94. “It was the type of thing where we just got [back] together for fun,” Angel claims. “Then after a few years, you look back and say, ‘Wow. This is the first band I’ve ever been in that lasted. . . . I think John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans’—that’s how I felt. I didn’t think we’d make a living doing this. I mean, I was trying to make a living as a musician. But I thought I’d get a gig as somebody’s guitar player . . . like with Marty Stuart or somebody.”

Amis, a Mexican-culture enthusiast, introduced the masks. “We were practicing at Danny’s, and he had a big box of them there. When he showed them to us, we said, ‘Yeah, let’s wear ’em.’ We didn’t think much of it, really. I mean, we didn’t think we were going to have a career doing it, you know? We thought we were going to play a couple of gigs in Nashville. And lo and behold, we probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the masks.” But Angel makes it clear that they first wore them for one reason and one reason alone: “Because they look cool.”

The masks also had another purpose for a group that felt a little bit of anxiety about entertaining modern listeners with purely instrumental tunes. “We were thinking, ‘How are we going to keep people’s attention for an hour?’ They’re used to watching a singer—that was also part of the reason for the masks.” But the band’s reputation as a burning live act spread quickly: After a few months together, they were voted the best unsigned band in Nashville. The following year they had an album and had made their first appearance on Conan. The band also began throwing more entertainment value into their set: Amis, for example, would speak to the audience only in Spanish. Later on, they even brought in a choreographer (Kaiser George of twistin’ and shakin’ Scottish rock & roll revivalists the Kaisers). “It’s not exactly Britney Spears choreography,” Angel quickly demurs.

Playing in a mask was certainly a different kind of gig for Angel, but over the years he has taken to it. Still, it’s hard to correlate the likeable, mild-mannered, thoughtfully spoken Angel with the guitar supervillain in the black, cartoonishly demonic headgear. “You can have a different persona,” Angel says. “You can do things that you’d be way too embarrassed to do otherwise. Like the choreography or just crazy silly stuff. It also helps if you’re really tired or bored. Nobody knows,” he laughs, adding, “Little kids love it, because it’s like Batman or something.”

When the Straitjackets play the I Love New York Food Fest at the Empire State Plaza on Wednesday, they’ll do their instrumental set and then bring on Grammy co-nominee Eddy Clearwater for a bunch of numbers. Clearwater, Angel points out, is a “remarkable, unappreciated Chicago blues artist from the ’50s. . . . He was kind of like a Chuck Berry guy almost. He always straddled the rock & roll and blues worlds.” (Clearwater also is known for performing in Native American headdress—certainly an interesting visual match for the Straitjackets.)

With Eddie Angel having such a long history in our region, discussion of the Albany show also stirs up the whole “prodigal son” issue. He recently spent six weeks up here visiting with family and friends, and Angel still clearly loves his hometown—but does he ever think about moving back? “Oh yeah, they’ve just got to lower the taxes!” he laughs. He then pauses and earnestly says, “No . . . I do, man. I think about it a lot.”

Los Straitjackets will perform on Aug 11 at 5 PM at the I Love New York Food Festival, Empire State Plaza, Albany, on the mainstage.


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