Los Straitjackets w/ the Sarah Borges Band
June 9, Bridge Street Live, 41 Bridge St., Collinsville, 41bridgestreet.com, $22-$32. 8 p.m.
Los Straitjackets w/ Big Fat Combo
June 10, Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, cafenine.com, $15. 8 p.m.
In order to fully grasp what makes Los Straitjackets so lovable and endearing, it's a must to drop by their Facebook page. The outfit fundamentally do the same thing as every other band on the site, using it as a vehicle to hype releases and events, but they do spice their page up with uploaded photos of the squad in assorted scenarios. You can see various Straitjackets members riding in a muscle car; fishing on a boat; reading a newspaper in a first class seat; wearing a suit, tie and jet pack; skiing; being served dinner at one of those fancy restaurants that probably doesn't print dollar signs on the menu; and standing on a sunset-draped beach. One picture also has four-fifth's of the gang's heads superimposed on a mob of kangaroos. Most of these images are Photoshopped, but real or not, all exploit Los Straitjackets' immediate selling point: all the photos have their subjects wearing brightly colored Mexican wrestling masks. They're quick, easy goofs good for reminding people of the band's kitschy humor and spreading the word that the men behind the hoods are aware of how ridiculous their shtick can be. "We like having fun with all that stuff," says guitarist Eddie Angel, 55, even though he doesn't quite know who is adding those pictures.
Each Straitjacket always wears a lucha-libre-inspired mask (Angel's black and gold design swipes and modifies one sported by the late wrestler Oro), but the hoods came along after the band's initial launch. The group's story began in 1986 when Angel — a fresh transplant to Nashville — was playing in Jeannie and the Hurricanes, a rockabilly act with a predileciton for covering Link Wray. After one show, future Straitjackets guitarist Danny Amis (a.k.a. Daddy-O Grande) introduced himself to Angel and expressed surprise at hearing someone play Link Wray in Nashville. Amis was once in the surf rock group the Raybeats, which really impressed Angel, so the two kept in touch. When Jeannie & the Hurricanes dissolved a couple of years later, Angel plotted to start an instrumental band with Amis. The Straitjackets launched in 1988 as a trio with drummer Jimmy Lester, but other interests sunk plans quickly. Six years later, the group reconvened with a modified lineup and things took off.
During that second run, the success of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (and most importantly, Dick Dale's "Misirlou") set off a sudden surge of interest in instrumental and surf music. The reformed band capitalized on the interest by touring seriously and releasing records consistently, amassing a fan base that has long outlasted the fad. The Straitjackets (who are, by the way, one of Conan O'Brien's eternal favorite guests) have gone on to build a discography focused on lithe, '50s-and-'60s-nostalgia-inducing surf, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll that favors a split between new work and covers. They do a version of "My Heart Will Go On" so poignant and sultry that it absolves Celine Dion for the schmaltzy original.
Early into their 1994 revival, the band decided to experiment with a new look for a Man or Astro-man? show they were opening. Amis would frequently visit Mexico City, attending wrestling matches and buying cheap replica masks. The group decided to wear some from his collection for the hell of it. "Then, when we got to the gig and were backstage," Angel remembers, "we almost chickened out. We were like, 'I don't know if we should do this. Our friends are going to think we're idiots or something,' but we said, 'Let's just do it,' so we put 'em on. As soon as we played that first show and got that reaction, we knew that we had to keep 'em." In honor of this development, the Straitjackets became Los Straitjackets.
Angel is very forthright about the importance of those masks, noting that even though his group's music has its power and place, that headgear is what has allowed them to have a career. Three adjectives — "cult," "gimmick" and "novelty" — are often placed in front of "band" in articles that describe Los Straitjackets, but Angel isn't very offended by any of them and embraces the reality of their role. Using the new HBO movie Behind the Candelabra as a segue, he brings up Liberace. "In the '60s, he had a great career alongside the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, so there's room for different things," he says. "My main motivation always has been music, but it's really, really hard to make a living playing music, so I feel really grateful that I'm able to make a living playing music, and if it takes wearing a wrestling mask, then I don't have a problem with that."