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Columns > Lee Abraham

Published: 2001/05/21
by Lee Abraham

Area 51 Sound Test

Friday Night
A circle of kids beating drums around a campfire tipped me off. This had to be the place. After all, Indian Springs, Nevada, isn’t just tiny, it’s out in the middle of nowhere. And with a local economy built on UFO sightings, Area 51 tourism, military secrecy, and a state prison, you just don’t see a lot of drum circles out in good ol’ Indian Springs.
After confirming that this was indeed the location for the Area 51 Sound Test, I parked my trusty Subaru and went into Dirty Moe’s casino. Don’t get the wrong idea. We’re not talkin’ about a typical Las Vegas, MGM Grand style mega resort here. Not even close. Dirty Moe’s casino is a truck stop with 20 to 30 poker machines, a couple of blackjack tables, and a very funky, Twilight Zone vibe. There’s also a 24-hour restaurant and a bar with a stage inside, Dirty Moe’s, as well as a motel, convenience store and gas station on the property.
Bouncing around the bar, I saw a few old friends from my years in Vegas. After exchanging the first of the weekend’s many hugs and, Hi, how are ya’s?, I ventured back outside in search of Rudy. An old friend and pillar of the neon city music scene, Rudy Jalio is the proprietor of Legends Lounge in Vegas, and the driving force behind the Las Vegas Jam Band Society. He was also the guy with the key to my motel room.
By this time it was around 10pm and cold desert winds swirled around the truck stop. Several LVJBS volunteer ticket takers huddled near the venue’s entry gate, wrapped warmly in jackets, hats, blankets, and a variety of winter gear. Everyone was excited. Months of planning had gone into the Sound Test and now the big day was here. Frigid night air did nothing to chill their enthusiasm.
Saw Rudy walking across the motel parking lot. More hugs. Got caught up on how the festival was progressing, and also got my room key. Got situated and headed back to the casino where Government Grown from San Diego would be kicking off the festival with a late night, indoor show. Walking into the casino, which was now crowded, I saw Rudy’s somewhat stressed-out face. You gotta go on right now, he said. Government Grown is ready! But almost as soon as Rudy finished his sentence, the band jumped into its opening tune.
Not a good start for me… see, I was slated to be the festival’s emcee. Had a good excuse though for showing up late – got sidetracked huggin’ and saying hi to all the friends I kept coming across. Oh well. Rudy and I agreed that it really didn’t matter anyway. Everybody already knew Gov’t Grown was going to play. My job would start tomorrow, helping people keep track of the twenty or so bands playing throughout the two full days of music. At least that’s how I rationalized it. Happily for me, Rudy saw it the same way.
Although emotionally deflated from my emcee default, there were way too many smiling faces and old friends having a good time to wallow in any kind of negativity. Wound up grabbing a chair at a table Rudy was sitting at toward the back of the room. The dance floor was packed, the music was loud and the blackjack table was jumpin’. People were everywhere. Sitting towards the back we could take in the whole scene and actually hear each other talk.
Some of my oldest and dearest friends from Vegas joined us. We dubbed our table the ‘old folks’ section, requiring ID and proof of age with a 40 year minimum to keep out the riff raff… we talked and gossiped about this, that, and you know who, reminiscing old times, and laughing at the surreal, comical juxtaposition of tie-dyed groovemeisters and local yokels. Maybe it’s the military’s rocket fuel in the water, maybe it’s the inbreeding with aliens, or perhaps it’s just the twisted energy from the nearby prison, but there’s something just a little bit different about Dirty Moe’s. Think Deliverance meets a Miller beer High Life commercial…
Anyway, watching the tanked up, off-duty prison guards and road weary teamsters try to dance with the girls was funny, but the real mind blower was checking out the handful of truck stop hookers as they worked the brain-numbing alcohol buzz permeating the room to their advantage. Oh yes, we had our chuckles.
The scene was actually a flashback to a time and place over a decade ago, back to a scurvy little dive bar called Bully’s, in Las Vegas. That’s where we all originally met. That’s where the seeds for the LVJBS were originally sown. Frequented by derelicts, druggies, hookers, gambling casualties, and a particularly transient element of lowlife drifters, Bully’s was also the home of an every-other-Saturday night gig with the Package Liquor Band. At the time, the PLB’s twice a month jamboree was the only regular gathering of deadheads in the neon city.
Same deal there with the starkly contrasting energies between the bar’s regular crowd and the heads who were there for the music. It always worked out, though. Invariably, by the end of the night, a lot of the whacked-out regulars were gettin’ freaky on the dance floor with the rest of us…
So here we were, over a decade later. Once again, the unmistakable cling-clang of slot machine coins rang in waves over drunken YaahHOOOO’s! shouted by liquored-up local barflies, as a nucleus of groove-digging kind buds lost themselves in the jam-heavy tunes bouncin’ ‘round the room. Like Yogi says, it was deja vu all over again!
Saturday morning
Ahh, the smell of fresh coffee in the morning! Nothin’ like a 24-hour restaurant to ease the worried mind of an early mornin’ java hound like myself. Was pleased to see my old buddy Joe, a longtime Legends Lounge jamfan and all around nice guy, seated at one of the tables. Joe is also one of the LVJBS mucky mucks who not only helped plan the festival, but volunteered to work at it as well. Today his shift started at 8am and Joe was up early, so I joined him for a little brey-hass and conversation.
After catching up on what’s new, as well as loading up on coffee and pancakes, I ventured out into the morning properly stoked. The outside stage area was situated behind the casino building. Set up as a split stage, with one side ready to go as soon as the music on the other stage finished, things were taking shape. The area in front of the stage was about the size of a football field, enclosed by a combination of block and chain link fencing. Several of the LVJBS volunteers painted wildly colorful sheets, which covered most of the chain link fencing and backstage area, giving the perimeter a comforting splash of visual stimuli. All the usual vending stuff was at the rear of the field area.
Scuttlebutt around the coffee dripper called for rough weather. Especially down in Vegas, where most of the concert-goers would come from. That didn’t bode well for attendance. Even if it was nice and sunny up here, folks would stay home if it was raining down in Vegas. And to a large extent, they did. Too bad, ‘cause they missed some great music.
Saturday afternoon
I announced nine bands during the course of the afternoon and screwed up a couple of times. Got off to a good start and thoroughly enjoyed the first few bands. Was very impressed with Two Camel Garage from Washington, Solomon Grundy from L.A., and Las Vegas power/groove trio X-tra Crispy.
And then things got weird. After being told by the backstage sound guy that everything was set to announce the next band, I made my way up the mic and started to talk. I asked the crowd how they liked X-tra Crispy and got no response. Zero. Seemed strange to me because people were getting off on the X-tra’s high energy set. So I asked the crowd again, this time a little more emphatically, How ‘bout it for X-tra Crispy?!?, and again I got no response.
That’s when it hit me that there was music coming out of the PA. I couldn’t tell if it was the band behind me noodling impatiently to start playing, or the between band house music. Unsure of what the deal was, I just announced the next band, Particle from L.A., got no response from the crowd, and walked off.
Turns out that it was the house music, so after a quick conference with the guy mixing the sound out in the middle of the field area, and agreeing on a basic hand signal to coordinate the transition from house music to introducing the bands, we were good to go and didn’t have that problem again.
I did make a linguistic blunder later in the day, however, with the final band of the afternoon. Mispronounced the name of Los Hijos de Sancho, or the Sons of Sancho, a flamboyant power trio of three brothers from Tijuana. Said ‘Los EH-hos’ instead of ‘Los EE-hos.’ Not sure if that changed the meaning of the words, but I could tell they weren’t thrilled. Next time I’ll just go with the English translation…
Overall, Saturday was an absolute blast. A couple of the highlights for me were an outstanding set from the Waz, (it was my first time seeing the Waz – totally got off on their jazzy, trip-hop jams), and also introducing Wise Monkey Orchestra. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the WMO crew over the past few years, and it was a happy moment for me to welcome my favorite seven headed rhythm monster to the stage. Although the weather constantly threatened disaster throughout the day, with dark clouds looming and snow storms hammering the mountains around us, we really didn’t have much of a problem other than some wind. At one point the wind got a little out of control, wreaking havoc with the tarps tied to the scaffoldings above the front and rear of the stage. A few of the tarps were catching too much air, becoming sails in the wind, causing the scaffoldings to teeter.
Things got pretty exciting for a few minutes as one of the stage hands climbed the scaffolds above the stage, cuttings holes in a few of the tarps with a knife, and taking the most problematic tarp at the side of the stage completely down. All that action didn’t distract the Bounders, a local band of party hardy classic rockers, who continued to blaze though their set as the knife-wielding stage hand monkeyed across the front scaffold, slashing holes in the tarps above.
Both Government Grown and the Ominous Seapods were originally scheduled to cap off the outdoor portion of Saturday’s program, but the temperature began to drop, the winds continued to howl, and the decision was made to bring the music indoors for the rest of the night. Smart move.
Saturday night
Dirty Moe’s was even more packed than the previous night. Had the turnout for the festival been bigger, moving the show indoors would have been problematic due to capacity limitations, but everything turned out perfectly. Excellent energy in the room as Government Grown once again got the place rockin’ with their highly danceable, reggae-tinged grooves.
Next up was Juggling Suns, and the dance floor exploded again, sparked by the laser sharp energy pulsing from the stage… nobody jams kinder psychedelia than these guys!
Of all the bands on the Area 51 Sound Test bill, the Ominous Seapods have had the wildest, most out-of-control shows at Legends over the past few years. From world championship belly-bucking competitions to all night martini and video poker binges, the ‘Pods have earned a very special place in the hearts of LV jamband scenesters. Strange things just seem to happen when they play. And this show was no exception… Midway into the set, Martin Santos Ortega, the Sons of Sancho guitar player, a super flashy, highly skilled, fret-burning madman, worked his way to the foot of the stage, indicating that he wanted to jam. No sooner had Dana from the ‘Pods offered up his guitar, than Ortega was blazing riffs and taking no prisoners. After a lengthy, high wire chop-cutting session with Todd, the ‘Pods lead guitarist, Ortega left the stage to the electric cheers of the crowd. "I just got my ass kicked," Todd admitted to the frenzied crowd… "Wow," said Dana as he returned to the stage, lifting his guitar strap back over his neck, "I don’t know that guy’s name…. but he will be forever known in Ominous Seapod lore as the Tijuana shredder!!" Great stuff!
After all the excitement, I was beginning to fade by the end of the ‘Pods set. The long day had finally caught up with me. Managed to last a few songs into the evening’s final performance from Particle before calling it a night.
Sunday morning
Rudy advised me in advance that I was covered for a motel room on Friday and Sunday, but that there were no guarantees for Saturday due to the likelihood that most of the bands would be maxing out the motel’s capacity by taking multiple rooms that night. And that’s the way it turned out. No biggy. I had my camping stuff with me, but decided to just stretch out in the car. Nothing like a long day and night of public speaking, dancing, eating, drinking, and generally running amuck to transform the interior of a Subaru Outback Sport into a comfy cozy snooze chamber. Can’t say I slept particularly well, but the little sleep I did get was enough.
Unabashedly bleary, I emerged from the vehicle just before 7am. Crossed paths with several blissed out hardcores who were just now on their way back to their rooms and tents after Particle’s late night show. Must’ve been a helluva performance. The few folks I talked to spoke in glowing, almost reverent tones. The others simply smiled. Particle had just finished playing at about 6:30am and everyone that made it to the end of their set, about 30 people, went outside in the morning sunlight for a group photo to capture the moment… hoy hoy!
As the late nighters wandered around, still reveling in the warm and fuzzy afterglow of Particle’s now legendary performance, I made my way to the restaurant in search of coffee. Turns out that Joe was once again in the house, so we did another round of breakfast and chit chat.
Unlike Saturday, with dark clouds on the horizon and wind blowing throughout the day, Sunday’s weather was warm and sunny. Stood out in the field area looking at the stage and surrounding scenery. Damn it was a nice day! Just sorta stood there for a minute or two, gazing at the snow-capped mountains on the horizon as the blue skies and sunshine worked their magic in the sweet morning air.
The music got started just before noon with a Vegas band 2-fer. Soundstream opened the show with their exotic, polytextured, percussion soaked grooves, followed by the CB Project, a very talented young band with an engaging onstage vibe. Both are relatively new players on the local music scene and have a lot to offer. Keep your ears open for both of these very promising neon city groups.
The Single Malt Band, a hard working band of blue grass road warriors from Boulder, Colorado, put on one of the best sets of the weekend with their traditional acoustic sound and high-spirited, highly entertaining good humor. Everyone was checking these guys out for the first time, and it didn’t take long to realize that the Single Malt Band knows how to get a crowd buzzin’! Definitely looking forward to seeing the SMB again somewhere down the line.
Copperpot, a salty young rock squad from Vegas, cranked up the volume for a healthy dose of their bluesy, guitar thunder, followed by Psydecar from San Diego. Perhaps the weekend’s most sophisticated groove generator, Psydecar is a creative tour-de-force to be reckoned with – stunning vocals, irresistible rhythms, sing-along melodies and tons of energy. Psydecar is as good as it gets.
Really enjoyed the opportunity to introduce The Moanin’ Blacksnakes from Vegas. Bandleader and guitar wiz Scotty Rhiner has been a fixture of the Vegas music scene for years, and was involved with the formation of the Las Vegas Blues Society back in the day. It was very cool to see him at this event. The Blacksnakes performance brought a wonderful continuity and a sense of Vegas music scene pride to the Sound Test.
Juggling Suns closed out the Area 51 Sound Test with another inspired performance. In tune with the weekend’s extraterrestrial theme, the Suns explored the outer reaches of their sound with an extended space jam that had the crowd mesmerized. Everything else they did had people dancing like crazy. What a truly grand finale!!
Sunday night
Earlier in the day, I transferred my stuff from the ever trusty Subaru to my motel room de jure. After Juggling Suns exceptional set, I wandered back to the room to veg, and ultimately clean up before heading down to the restaurant. Had my mind set for a nice spaghetti dinner.
Freshly showered and still buzzing, I walked over to the restaurant. Rudy, his wife Linda, as well as several of the other LVJBS bigwigs had a table, so I sat down to join them. Talk centered around how the festival went, what worked, what didn’t, what they could have done better… the usual stuff people talk about after an event they worked long and hard to make happen slips through the sands of time from the future, to the now, and ultimately into fond memories of the past.
Seems like I wasn’t the only one craving pasta. Lots of spaghetti goin’ on at that table. Hung out for a while, still basking in the festival’s afterglow, not to mention the carb intake, but was pretty beat and didn’t last long. After all, the nice, clean and oh-so-inviting queen-size bed was calling my name…
Final Thoughts
The Area 51 Sound Test proved that the LVJBS has a nucleus of people who are not only passionate about music, but are able to make that almost impossible leap of taking a vision and turning it into reality. Especially in a town as karmatically challenged as Vegas. It is truly amazing what can be accomplished when people work together as a team.
I was extremely impressed by the way everybody worked together and all the time and energy that the LVJBS faithful put into making the show flow smoothly so that others could enjoy the festivities. Not only during the weekend, but all the effort that went into the weeks and months of preparation. Y’all rock – BIG TIME!
Thanks to the LVJBS for allowing me to emcee this historic event for the Las Vegas music scene! It meant a lot to me and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute in some way… it was a major dose of kind vibes to share a weekend of quality time with all my old buddies, as well as to get to know all the kind souls I met for the first time. I firmly believe that the Sound Test was just the beginning of a bright new day for neon city music freaks. I’m super proud of all of you who helped out, and I look forward to the next time we can all get together and share the jams…
Lee Abraham is a freelance music journalist currently on assignment in Ocean Beach, California. Check out his Adventures In Music Journalism website at http://www.mrlee.com, or contact him directly at mrlee@jambands.com. For a much more complete photo gallery of the Area 51 Sound Test check out the Las Vegas Jam Band Society’s website at http://www.lvjambandsociety.com

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