Oingo Boingo Dance Party Pays Tribute to the Original Band’s Undead Spirit

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. As a kid, I loved my music icons. As a teenager, I loved bands like Led Zeppelin, Boston, AC/DC, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rick James and Prince. I know, it’s an odd combination, but that’s the way it was in the late 70’s to early 80’s. In my freshman year in high school, I heard this new wave sound that captured my imagination. The first song I ever heard on a local new wave radio station was “Only a Lad” by a band called Oingo Boingo. These guys were unbelievably good. The band was led by frontman, Danny Elfman, who was supported by one of the most dynamic sounding bands ever heard back in the day.

I’ve been very fortunate to work in the radio biz for the last 25 years. You experience lots of odd things when you get to hang out with musicians. I’ve seen the ups and downs of the music industry, and how it can propel any one of us to stardom. What I’ve always appreciated working in radio is being able to get a front-row seat to shows and talk with bands that were part of my fondest memories as a teen.
The thing about this story is you have to know a little about the band’s past to really appreciate their present, and their future. The band was founded in ‘72 as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo by Richard Elfman (Danny’s brother). It was originally a performance art group. Their name was inspired by an Amos & Andy show called The Mystic Knights of the Sea. So that’s how the name came about, and it stuck, until ’79 when the band re-shaped itself into a new wave / rock and ska-high-velocity octet. The band also re-named itself to something a little shorter; they went with Oingo Boingo.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, they received critical acclaim with their music that has been featured in countless television and movie projects. Two of the most memorable films were Weird Science and Back to School. Oddly, the band was a mainstay for concertgoers on the West Coast, but not as big a deal east of the Mississippi. The thing the band became notoriously known for was their flare for the dramatic, and their annual Halloween spectaculars. Those shows were either at Irvine Meadows, which may soon be the Irvine Homeowners Association, and Universal Amphitheatre, which is now home to Harry Potter. Those shows became myth and legend to their fans. After years and years of success, the band performed their last show on Halloween night 1995 at Universal Amphitheatre.

Once the band’s sabbatical began, frontman, Danny Elfman, turned full time towards writing film scores; such as, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (with Steve Bartek), the Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood and Corpse Bride just to name a few. While other band members, like John Avila and Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, played in Food For Feet. They also formed the rhythm section of Tito & Tarantula. Vatos was even doing film cameos, such as the 1996 Quentin Tarantino / George Clooney film From Dusk Till Dawn. Avila also played in the ska-themed Neville Staple band, The Hitmen. Bartek has kept himself busy as a composer writing music for films such as Tales from the Crypt, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, Mission Impossible and Good Will Hunting.

Despite everyone being involved in various projects, during the 2005 Halloween season Vatos put together an Oingo Boingo tribute show at the Grove of Anaheim. That performance included former Boingo bandmates Steve Bartek, John Avila, and Sam “Sluggo” Phipps. This was very promising for loyal fans, but they still needed one piece, and that was the Dude that would sing the bigger-than-life tunes. What many people don’t know, being the accomplished drummer that he is, Vatos also plays from time to time with other bands. Vatos played with Bear and Brendan McCreary while they both were attending USC. Bear and Brendan were working on scores for the mini-series Battlestar Galactica at that time, and they were both big Boingo fans. Next thing you know, the McCreary’s were in, and Brendan took the reigns to be the new new wave Pied Piper. The show was so successful that there were two more Halloween shows in LA and OC during the 2006 Halloween season. The guys got along so well, Vatos and Bartek even played with the McCreary’s in 2008 with the Battlestar Galactica Orchestra.

In early 2007, Elfman said there would not be an Oingo Boingo reunion. Unfortunately, Danny has irreversible hearing loss and is worried that playing live could adversely impact his hearing. Meanwhile, Vatos was getting more and more interest in this incarnation of the band. Due to a few legal issues over the years, the band’s name has had a few iterations. After realizing it was unlikely he would lead Boingo again, Elfman gave Vatos permission to use the name Oingo Boingo Dance Party. Since then, it’s been an exciting time for Boingo fans.

Here’s the thing, over the years, there have been several bands who have tried to do what Vatos is doing. Those are genuine tribute or cover bands, but nothing close to the original. Other legitimate disbanded bands have tried to put their band back together with only a portion of the band, and calling it the band. Some have tried it with just the lead singer and calling it the band… those efforts just haven’t worked. There are some exceptions, like Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, Dave Wakeling of the English Beat or Axl Rose playing with whoever. Eighties icons aside, reincarnations are difficult at best; unless you include a majority of the band, and everyone is on board from the original band. That’s what’s going on here. With Elfman’s blessing, and original Boingo bandmates Steve Bartek, John Avila, Sam “Sluggo” Phipps, Carl Graves and Vatos involved… Oingo Boingo Dance Party transcends time. It doesn’t matter if you are 16 or 60, you can easily imagine yourself being at the US Festival on May 28, 1983.

That said, when people go to see a cover band, or a tribute band… if you’re lucky, they might be really good. You can honestly say to yourself and your friends you saw a really good cover, or tribute band. When you see Dance Party, it’s like getting in the Tardis with Doctor WHO. You get to experience the vibe of songs as they were intended. You can re-live songs like Who Do You Want To Be, Only A Lad, Grey Matter, Ain’t This the Life, Violent Love, Wild Sex (In The Working Class), Weird Science, Nasty Habits, Not My Slave, We Close Our Eyes, Dead Man’s Party and Goodbye-Goodbye!

What fans love about seeing Oingo Boingo Dance Party is not only do you hear great songs by the people who created the sound, you get to see a different side of the band. The new guy is Brendan McCreary, and he is NOT Danny Elfman. I think that’s what makes this band work so well together. McCreary makes no attempt to mirror the style of his hero. I say this with upmost respect to Elfman. What McCreary does is pay homage to him and the legacy of the band while being himself. He is a showman; it’s like seeing the type of performance you would see if you are old enough to remember what going to an Earth, Wind and Fire show was like. That is one of the highest compliments I can give any front man. McCreary brings his own style and sound with a youthful energy all concertgoers can appreciate.

The band is simply electric! Vatos is at the top of his game on drums. Bartek (lead) and Avila (bass) are mesmerizing on guitar, and Carl Graves brings it together on keys. The band has other contributors that fill in depending on the show (Doug Lacy, Woody Aplanalp, Mike “the Spike” Glendinning, Freddy Hernandez, and Felice Hernandez); they all add to the band’s performance. What stands out when you see this band, not only do they have a great tight sound, but they have a horn section second to none [Brian Swartz (Trumpet), Sluggo (Sax) and Wendell Kelly (Trombone)]. The sound is so dynamic and sharp, you have to look towards an OC 90’s high-velocity ska band like the original Save Ferris horn section to give any sense of measurement. That band featured some of the most accomplished brass bandmates on the planet in Tbone Willie (Trombone), Eric Zamora (Sax) and Jose Castellanos (Trumpet). If you know great sounding bands, you’ll understand just how good the Boingo horns are to compare them to OC ska royalty. It’s another possible explanation why SoCal music fans love this band so much. One thing that is not lost with Oingo Boingo Dance Party is the theatrical theme of the Mystic Knights.

The bottom line is Oingo Boingo is no more, but Oingo Boingo Dance Party is here and they are the real deal. I’ve been lucky to have had a front-row seat to see Boingo back in the day, and this current lineup. The best way for me to describe the experience is to say when you close your eyes it’s easy to imagine old-school Boingo. Open them, and you see a new type of energy, and a sound that is absolutely amazing with a performance worthy of the name Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo You can catch Oingo Boingo Dance Party at the Midsummer Scream Halloween Festival at the Long Beach Convention Center July 30th . Needless to say, it’ll be Halloween in July. If that isn’t enough for you, they also have three Halloween shows coming to SoCal. October 28th they’ll be at the Rose in Pasadena, the 29th at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, and the 30th at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.

Sometimes, bands deservedly get a bad rap for not living up to who we think our heroes should be. I’ve only said this a few times about other bands, this band is not just full of good musicians, they are good people too and they do right by their fans. That is the prize that all bands strive for, you know, the satisfaction that they make their fans truly happy. When you see Oingo Boingo Dance Party, it is always a carnival atmosphere, people dress up and adults turn into teens. Check these cats out while you can, it will be an experience of sight and sound that you can only see once in a lifetime, maybe twice if you’re over 40.

Oingo Boingo Dance Party play at the Midsummer Scre

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