Nostalgia permeates rockabilly weekend


It was a love letter to a bygone era, sealed with a kiss from Marilyn Monroe's fire-engine-red lips.

There were several reincarnations of one of Hollywood's most famous blondes at The Orleans last weekend, where the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender spent four days excavating the roots of rock 'n' roll, abetted by lots of Pabst, pomade and ladies who came smothered in more leopard print than you'd see on an African safari, shoulders and forearms brightened by rainbows of ink.

"Who's drunk off their ass right now?" comedian Josh Robert Thompson asked in the packed Orleans Showroom on Friday night, posing what might as well have been a rhetorical question. Thompson was hosting one of a series of old school burlesque shows, soon ceding the stage to the lovely Victoria Vengeance, who peeled off her clothes atop a high-rise platform and tossed them into a cutout of an agape alligator's mouth below.

But for all the nostalgia on hand throughout this most wild-eyed of festivals, sometimes it's much easier to romanticize the past when it's not actually present.

Such was the case with Viva Las Vegas' biggest attraction, rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry, who played in front of a crowd of thousands in The Orleans parking lot Saturday evening.

Playing standards such as "You Never Can Tell" at half-speed, while struggling badly just to get through songs such as "Memphis, Tennessee," it was tough to watch a man once defined by a boundless, kinetic energy so devoid of it.

It's hard to critique Berry, the guy's 83, but he should no longer be let loose around live microphones.

And so the best moments came from Berry's much younger disciples, such as the Gashouse Gorillas, who brought some attitudinal, hard chargin' swing to the Bienville ballroom on Friday night, complete with a fiery sax player who helped catalyze a packed dance floor.

A few doors down, the more traditional minded Royal Deuces came with vintage rock 'n' roll hellfire driven by a singer/guitarist who played from the back of his heels as he howled into the mic.

It was this blend of the dyed-in-the-wool and loving revisionism that colored much of the proceedings, from the nouveau honky-tonk of Jinx Jones to the coed harmonies of Jackpot Club, whose frontman downed shots with the crowd during their set at Brendan's Irish pub on Saturday afternoon.

This boozy, communal vibe hovered over the entire weekend.

"We don't do scenes," announced Sinner, the singer/drummer for revved-up rockabilly troupe The Chop Tops, on Saturday afternoon. "We play for everybody."

And that's a sentiment that everybody could drink to. So they did.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.