Despite the repeated statements by both Dale and his wife of his ill health and the medical expenses that touring supports, Dale looks a very healthy 79-years-old. He’s also beat cancer twice. Dale has famously stayed away from drugs and alcohol throughout his career and says the teetotal lifestyle is a large part of why he’s still here and working.
“Savour every little thing in your life at this moment that you are breathing”, Dale once said in an interview. “To experience is to know, to know is to understand, to understand is to tolerate, and to tolerate is to have peace.” Dale follows no set list, does almost as much talking and interacting with the crowd as he does playing music, the band just jams at random. Dick Dale does whatever the hell he wants. Peace.
Surf rock, a playing style innovated entirely by Dale in the 1950s with influence from Middle Eastern instruments like the oud and from African drum rhythms, defines the California coast the same way similarly structured banjo staccato-picking and scales define Appalachia. Dale’s sound gained popularity when surfer dances he regularly held at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, known as “stomps”, began attracting thousands of people by the early 1960s. Dale is also credited along with Leo Fender for developing the first guitar amps over 100 watts.
The Cleveland show opened with a blistering rendition of “Ghostriders in the Sky”, setting the scene for the crowd of hippies and hipsters, college professor types to the frat boys they teach and everything in between. Dale told stories in between songs, many of them not even related to his career, just stories about life: his health, his childhood on a farm in Massachusetts working with plow horses and “eating potatoes from right out of the ground”, general wisdom he’s absorbed along his journey. He would get somewhat preachy from time to time in that way old folks often do, but from someone who’s lived the life and has the sharp mind Dick Dale has, this was not only acceptable to the crowd, but appreciated, especially by the younger generations who are still figuring all this stuff out.
Dale was often comedic in his interaction with the crowd. He played a short riff and asked, “You know what that is?” Multiple unintelligible shouts came back to him. Dale mocked the crowd’s half-assed responses and declared, “You don’t know shit. I know you don’t know it cuz I don’t even know it.” With that, Dale dished out the reverberated chords that open “Surf Beat” and it was on, a pure wall of sound that surely the 100-watt amp he helped develop over 50 years was made for. It was the performance of the night.
Jimi Hendrix had cited Dale as influence -both were southpaws and had been known for playing their guitars upside down – but Dale’s absolutely blazing, melodic cover of “Amazing Grace” makes one wonder if this is how it happened for Jimi, standing in a crowd at a Dick Dale show hearing him play this slow, strong, anthemic version of ‘Grace and thinking, “’I bet I can do the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and make it sound like that.’”
Other fan favorites like “Nitro” and “Let’s Go Trippin’” appeared in between Dale’s chats with the audience. He ended the night with his best known track, “Misirlou”, best known to younger generations as the theme song to “Pulp Fiction”, who showed their appreciation by bouncing along and lifting their craft beers in the air.
Dale and his wife, Lana, both thanked the crowd again as the show wrapped and reiterated how their ticket purchases are helping to pay the medical bills the family regularly incurs. They are genuinely grateful, which is nice to see, but still sad in that an artist such as Dale, with royalties from his work spanning over 50 years, still has to rely on road money just to keep himself alive. It speaks volumes of Dale and his ability to press on, but also speaks volumes of the American health care system that seems to fail even some of its most financially successful, and treasured, recipients. Regardless, the crowd and Dale expect to meet again…next summer.