By: Kyle Cavaness
The Constellation Room
The three members of Tijuana Panthers knew who center stage belonged to at the Constellation Room Friday night, and it wasn't any of them.
Their setup was simple–bassist Dan Michicoff in the corner, stage right, guitarist Chad Wachtel far away at stage left, drummer Phil Shaheen in the back. Microphones for each, and a wide length of empty stage at the center.
About seventeen seconds into the first song–“This Town,” from the band's first album, 2010's Max Baker–the stage was full, the space taken by the crowd, led by a never-ending parade of kamikaze stage divers and girls bopping around the band and trying not to lose their purses.
In the span of an hour, the Panthers plowed through more high-energy songs than most bands ever write their entire catalog, mostly ignoring the action that jumped, skanked and stripped around them. The set drew equally from TJP's two frenetic full-length releases, Max Baker and last year's Semi Sweet, and Wachtel introduced just one new song, during the encore, promising to get through it quick before “finishing with a familiar one.”
A lot of TJP's surf rock set seemed familiar, to the crowd singing along and to anyone with a passing knowledge of Orange County's “Surf City” kitsch. The stripped-down simplicity of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, led by Wachtel's jangly Fender Telecaster, have deep local roots that point toward the Huntington Beach Pier like a prayer mat. The Panthers, unexpected leaders of a surf rock 'revival,' turned the Constellation Room into their church tent, complete with fainting and collapsed crowd members carried out in a swoon.
The surplus of songs turned lead vocal duties into a merry-go-round. Drummer Shaheen takes the lead on TJP's most aggressive, punk rock tracks, including “Crew Cut” and “Creature,” working the same kind of yelp that used to power the Pixies. Songs led by Michicoff have a smirking, Buddy Holly-goes-rockabilly vibe, and “Push Over” could stand in as a soft and warbly White Stripes tune, if you ignored the mosh pit. Michicoff thrashed and chased his Rickenbacker bass around one side of the stage, in contrast to Wachtel's straight-ahead delivery.
Of the trio, Wachtel is the purest throwback to the surf rock style, starting most of the songs with quick-strummed chord progressions that could be lifted from any of a thousand "Louie Louie” B-sides. His vocal delivery has the breezy delight of "She Loves You”-era Paul McCartney, and Wachtel works his amp's reverb settings as much as any particular note or chord, especially when the rest of the music stops for a quick guitar highlight.
Actually, all of the Panthers' highlights are quick – of the 26 tracks the band has released since 2009, only three recorded songs extend past the three-minute mark. The songs never felt rushed during the show, and why would they? The band, if anything, was trying to keep up with the crowd – after all, center stage belonged to them from the start.
Critical Bias: Wachtel and I played in a summer camp church band for a week or so, approximately a half-million years ago.
The Crowd: Young, sweaty and packed. Between sets, a dance-off circle formed during MGMT's "Electric Feel” that lasted ten minutes and nearly rolled through the band's entrance. One would-be stage diver unbuttoned his shirt on stage to show off his fanny pack, and no, that's not a metaphor. Not sure if anybody caught him when he jumped after that.