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Rockabilly makes it viva Las Vegas

By Jon Johnson, June 2001

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"There's a lot more people now," says Katz, 34. "There's a lot of newer people who wouldn't have come out the first time."

"The audiences are definitely getting younger," says Del Villareal, a 34-year-old American from Ann Arbor, Mich., who is pulling double duty this year as a d.j. and emcee. "A lot of my friends have families now, and they just don't have the money or the time to get out to these big weekenders. But I see a lot of the younger kids, and they seem to be a lot more into the car culture, which is kinda cool."

"I see more of a psychobilly influence, too; a lot of people who happened to be into punk in their early teens have matured a little bit. They say rockabilly is the punk rock retirement program. Kids are getting tired of the noise and the bad musicianship. And they're taking it and mixing it with a lot of newer elements."

Villareal, a Mexican-American, is particularly pleased to see a large Latino turnout this year. "It's so cool to see all these Mexicans and these great looking Latinos coming out. If they happen to be second- or third-generation (Americans), a lot of their parents were probably immersed in the L.A. sounds that were going on (in the '50's): a lotta doo-wop, and a lotta greasy rhythm-and-blues-influenced rock 'n' roll. And I think a lot of those folks imparted that love onto their kids."

Asked about the differences between the Europeans and North Americans, Wolff replies, "Europeans are more into authentic '50's (clothes). Their whole approach to everything is very much a historian's approach. Whereas in the California scene there's a lot of neo-rockabilly culture and repro clothing. And I think it's really great that this year you see everything mixing. I don't notice any difference anymore."

Indeed, if VLV has had one lasting effect, for better or for worse it's been a kind of diminishment of regional differences between Americans and Europeans. "Viva Las Vegas has really brought both sides of the Atlantic together," says Ingram. "Before you might (have gotten) 10 people from Europe coming to an event in America, and you might get a half-dozen from America going to Europe. Viva Las Vegas opened it up for the Americans to be influenced by the Europeans and for the Europeans to be influenced by the Americans. When it comes to clothes now, it's impossible to tell who's from where," though Ingram adds that there are still some regional differences in dancing styles.

Dancing, as one would expect, is a big part of the Viva Las Vegas experience. Though the swing-influenced dances (like jiving) that one associates with '50's rock 'n' roll are common, so too are European imports like bopping and strolling. The latter is perhaps the strangest to those who have never seen it before; a box-shaped formation exclusively made up of females and consisting of a series of walks and turns; somewhat reminiscent of line dancing.

"It's just not a 'guy thing' to do," says Wolff. "There's loads of guys into jiving because it's a 'cool' dance. 'Cool' and attitude are very much an expression of (men's) love for the music."

And girls aren't as worried about that?

"No, girls don't care. We'll dance to anything. The stroll is done to a slower, bouncier tempo than the jive. It's like a meat market. There's no other way to say it. (While) the girls are out there, the guys can have a look at who they want to invite out to dance. Same thing with the bop; originally more of a guy's dance, but everybody does it now. Girls have a more feminine version of it."

As strange as it might sound, if there's a single bit of good advice that VLV vets pass along to first-timers - pacing oneself. With four stages running anywhere from 2 p.m. until 5 a.m., it's unrealistic to expect that one will see everything. It's also well worth checking out the more intimate east and west lounges and the dance hall, as they offer a good opportunity to see not only older performers who aren't playing on the main stage this year, but also younger artists, many of whom will graduate to the main stage in coming years.

For the past two years Bob Timmers, who at 60 looks a good 10 years younger, has been running one of the three side stages at VLV as an offshoot of his encyclopedic Rockabilly Hall of Fame website. Although the Rockabilly Hall's stage is associated with Ingram's operation in only the loosest sense, Timmers has done an impressive job of attracting performers such as guitarist Paul Burlison (last surviving member of the seminal Johnny Burnette Rock 'n' Roll Trio), Glen Glenn, Ronnie Dawson, Alvis Wayne, former members of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, and a host of other artists; both young and old.

Interestingly, Timmers' lounge has become a favorite destination for older artists such as Lew Williams and Rainwater (both of whom have headlined on Ingram's main stage during the past two years), somewhat younger performers like Rocky Burnette and his cousin Billy (a former member of Fleetwood Mac and, like Rocky, a solo artist in his own right), rockabilly scholars like British writer Tony Wilkinson, and younger fans and musicians who've pegged Timmers' lounge as their best chance to talk in a relaxed setting with people like Burlison and Glenn; legendary figures in rockabilly circles.

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