Link Wray – Shim Sham Club (New Orleans, LA)
Looking like an ancient Hopi trickster, his eyes gleaming with malevolent glee, Link Wray took the stage like a primal force of nature with his elemental power chords that announced he was ready to “Rumble” — the murderous instrumental that caused thousands of 1950s mothers to lock up their daughters, and countless latter-day guitar heroes to plug in.
Over the course of the next two hours, the 73-year-old rockabilly icon reduced a crowd of New Orleans hipsters to a quivering mass of flayed neurons. By the time his umpteenth reprise of “Rumble” collided with his other monster riff hog, “Rawhide”, for the final denouement, the question “how raw can a hide get?” had long since been rendered moot.
Half a century after Wray first punched holes in his amp and forever fuzzed up rock ‘n’ roll, his sound remains as vital as the muscular sinews of his arms. Flanked by his own band of gypsies — bassist Atom Ellis and drummer Doug Heifetz, both of Dieselhed — Wray spewed roiling distortions like Dick Dale’s evil twin. Punctuating his performance with Cheshire cat grins, he stalked the stage in all-black Ninja garb, dragging Ellis by the neck of his bass into ad hoc duos and pumping Heifetz into overdrive. Beating her own sense of time on tambourine was Wray’s zaftig Danish wife, Olive, who stepped in frequently to free his flailing ponytail from the strap of his black Fender Strat.
Bookended by his trademark sonic tsunamis, the emotional heart of Wray’s performance came midway through the set, when a few strangulated yelps heralded a song cycle. Though powered by just one lung (the other was lost to tuberculosis during the Korean War), his voice, once loosed, was a real crooner’s instrument: buttery, rich and warm. He used it to great effect to amplify the bone-chilling lyrics of “Fallin’ Rain”: “I see a man cryin’, lyin on the cold, cold ground.” Memorably covered by the Neville Brothers — “I cry every time I listen to them sing it,” Wray confided — it resonated strongly in the Nevilles’ hometown.
In a perfect piece of theater, Wray would have left us gasping for more after a jaw-dropping 90 minutes. Instead, like the Energizer bunny, he kept going and going and going, almost past the point of no return. Then again, he may still be years ahead of his time and we’re all just a bunch of wimps.