Few bands can lay claim to having more punk rock clout in the early '60s than the Sonics. Born out of Tacoma, Washington in 1964, they were punk before punk was even a thing, establishing a grittier sound that would separate them from the scores of pop singers of the day and echo in the sounds of other musical acts to follow after them. No small wonder, then, that their show at the Observatory Friday night would bring in a crowd who'd be captivated by the sight of garage rock legends in their midst. Along with white-haired veteran rockers, the audience was made up mostly of younger greasers, psychobillies, garage punk enthusiasts and beehive-wearing beauties who had grown up exposed to these lads and were excited for a glimpse of punk royalty.
Playing against a giant backdrop image of their classic Boom album, the Sonics took the stage and began with a cover of Eddie Cochran's 1958 rock n' roll hit “Come On, Everybody” sung by bassist Freddie Dennis, whose primal wailing made Cochran's original seem meek in comparison. While tonight's version of the Sonics only included original member Rob Lind on saxophone/ vocals/ harmonica, keyboardist Jake Cavaliere held down the organ for the rest while guitarist Evan Foster filled in on lead guitar, blowing everyone away with his incredible guitar shredding skills and exciting showmanship.
As the band delved into more recent material from their latest release This Is The Sonics, they gave audiences a taste of their newer sound. Songs like “Be A Woman” “Bad Betty” “Sugaree” “You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover” and “The Hard Way” are strikingly more blues rock than their original garage punk output— which in turn inspired a little less energy from everyone else— yet when supported by Lind's familiar saxophone, it sounded almost like any other Sonics song you'd remember. Every so often, the group would shift into high gear by performing original classics like “Have Love Will Travel” “Boss Hoss” “Bama Lama Bama Loo” “Night Time is the Right Time” and “Psycho” sending everyone in a wild dance frenzy.
Lind, at times would banter with the crowd with humorous dad jokes; in introducing song “The Witch” he quipped, “we first performed this song when we were eighteen years old— three years ago.” Dennis, a larger gentleman, shimmied with everything his mother gave him like a puppy shaking off water. Their energy and enthusiasm was palpable, and infectious; audiences ate everything up and chanted along when appropriate, watching Foster's growling guitar onstage and allowing his every guitar riff vibrate within their tender beings.
But no moment was more punk rock than the end, when the Sonics came back and blasted through their encore. Playing “Strychnine” and their very first hit “The Witch,” the crowd inside the pit area went ballistic, going full blown punk show mode and slamming their fleshy limbs against each other in delirious ecstasy. I almost feel sorry for the older people who were caught in the crossfire of manic bodies flailing around, as older women and men climbed up the stairs to less shaky ground. The Sonics, however, gave 200% back in those minutes than they did throughout the whole show, exceeding everything we had just previously seen and reaffirming our faith that these badasses from Tacoma touted so hard by punk and grunge luminaries still had the rawness that made them legends in the first place.
As the band exited the stage, everyone lingered around after the applause for a brief moment to process the night's events, staring ahead at the backdrop of the band in their youth. Those faces in high contrast black and white that so iconically graced record sleeves stared back in resounding silence, confirming our roles as witnesses to one of the most savage garage punk bands that ever lived. We all walked a little differently to our cars after that.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers the Orange County DIY music scene, film, arts, Latino culture and currently pens the long-running column Trendzilla. Born, raised, and based in Santa Ana, she loves bad movies, punk shows, raising her plants, eating tacos, Selena, and puns.