The Surf Ballroom
Trop Rock artists captivated music fans over Labor Day Weekend at the Surf Ballroom, the historic rock and roll landmark in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Friends and fans made the journey to America’s heartland with great anticipation. Not only to hear the strong lineup of popular Trop Rock performers, but also to see the iconic Surf Ballroom stage where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” wowed teenagers of the 1950’s for their (unintentional) final performance. All three would perish a few hours later when their plane crashed shortly after take off on February 3rd, 1959, which became immortalized in Don McLean’s song “American Pie.”
The first time entering the Surf Ballroom you can immediately sense the extraordinary atmosphere of the venue. It’s hard to explain, yet throughout the event we all tried to put it into words. It’s the awe, respect, nostalgia, excitement and energy all bundled together. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words “goose bumps” mentioned so many times at a Trop Rock event.
As a concert venue, the Surf Ballroom is remarkable. The professional lighting and sound gives a whole new vibe to a Trop Rock event. The audience could easily understand the artists when spontaneous witty banter broke out on stage. The swirling lights on the dance floor to the ever-changing colors of the stage added another dramatic dimension to the performances.
The hallways in the Surf Ballroom are lined with interesting stories laid out in rock-n-roll memorabilia. The very small, yet famous “green room,” is filled to the brim with famous signatures from artists who’ve performed over the decades on the iconic stage. The signatures are hard to find among the thousands but framed in red marker is Don McLean’s signature where he added the first verse of “American Pie.”
For anyone with a passion for music and history, this is a dream venue.
Island Fever Showcase Highlights
Adding even more excitement to the atmosphere, Island Fever Showcase turned into one huge musical collaboration. An almost continuous stream of musicians and singers joining in with each other kept us all wondering what might happen next.
As attendees settled into their seats Saturday, The Bamboozlers took to the stage to kick off the official event. They started the festival off with a strong performance. When Megan Valencia traded in her keyboard for an accordion, everyone curiously watched how the instrument fit into their band and turns out.. it was a hit!
The Drop Dead Dangerous Band took to the stage and Kitty Steadman’s vocals filled the giant room with backing from Melanie Howe on percussion and background vocals. The nature of many of their songs are slower paced than the late night performances at the event. With their country style story telling, the Surf Ballroom turned into a giant listening room with fans hanging on to every note.
Once the Peter Mayer Group took the stage, including Brendan Mayer, the audience migrated to the dance floor. With each song, it became a little more crowded and by the end everyone was on their feet. The biggest migration from seats to the stage happened when Peter launched into “La Casa Cayo Hueso.” This song speaks loudly to the hearts of Trop Rock music fans and those who dream of living an island life.
When Peter launched into the Bob Marley version of “Waiting in Vain,” the migration wasn’t from the audience this time. It was the singers and musicians joining the stage to form an ensemble. John Patti and Melanie Howe added percussion and Kitty Steadman sang along on the chorus. Peter turned this moment into magic as he looked towards each musician with a nod and encouraged them to take the spotlight with a solo performance, creating the first epic jam of the night.
The party kicked in when Donny Brewer and the Dock Rockers took over the stage. Isn’t that how it always happens? Donny brought the party to the Surf Ballroom reminding me of the crowd of teenagers in the pictures of Buddy Holly’s final performance. Everyone on the dance floor, singing along and dancing to tropical lyrics fitting for this venue. Donny’s show consistently includes a segment where he jumps right into the crowd and leads a sing-along of popular hits from the past and everyone knows the words.
Corned Beef & Curry finished out the night, but not alone. If you’ve ever been to an event where Bob Banerjee is performing (he’s the Curry part of the band), you know he actually performs all day and all night with anyone who will let him. Which happens to be everyone. His skills on the fiddle match his skills as an entertainer and he’s never without his infectious smile. The artists paid him back in spades by joining in and having fun. Quite a bit of banter, odd costume accessories and a case of beer making it’s way to the stage kept everyone in stitches. But it was the music that kept us all there late into the night.
Sunday followed a similar format with the more acoustic style sets starting out the day. Thom Shepherd and Coley McCabe performed duets as well as each spotlighting their own vocals. They also mixed it up between ballads and get-on-your-feet heart-pumping songs. And no one needed encouragement to run up to the dance floor for Thom’s hilarious “I Phlocked A Parrot Head” tune.
The musical duel began when Thom launched into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” As more often than not at this event, another collaboration shined with Coley McCabe, Brittany Kingery, Donny Brewer, Corned Beef and Curry, and Johnny Doo. Thom gave a little twist of the song with, “Well, my name is Bob and this might be a sin…” Keying up for Bob Banerjee to kick it into high gear on the violin. Johnny Doo expertly performed the Devil’s solo part of the song, so Bob jumped to the front of the stage to bring it all home. In this case, Thom called it a tie. Johnny Doo and Bob Banerjee are simply the best.
Brittany Kingery teamed up with Sunny Jim to showcase her variety of song choices. Giving us a nostalgic taste with her favorite Linda Ronstadt covers. Her voice is so beautifully clear and it shines even more when she smiles, which she does a whole lot when she sings her own songs .
The Boat Drunks followed with their mix of covers and originals. “Hollow Man” never sounded so poignant than it did in the Surf Ballroom. A song that hints to a missed opportunity had many of us thinking about those young musicians fate after their performance on the same stage. The band brought the crowd back up with their newer song “Buffett, Beer and Baseball” and created a sense of comradery singing “Together We Fly.”
Then, suddenly it was the 1950’s.
We left the modern day of Island Fever Showcase and for the next hour we attended The Flip Flop Hop.
Bart Mason introduced the house band for the night, “The Trop Tones” and the band members taking us back in time were: “Sunny Holly,” “Sailing Jennings,” “The Big Tropper” and “Beachy Valens.”
This special event proved to be one of the biggest highlights of the weekend. Donny Brewer sang “La Bamba,” Sunny Jim performed “Oh Baby That’s What I Like” and Brittany Kingery performed “That’ll Be the Day.”
Thom and Coley were perfect lovers singing “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and Rob Mehl brought out his inner Elvis with “Love Me Tender.” Mike Nash looked sharp singing “Johnny B. Goode” and everyone jumped back on stage to sing the “Banana Boat Song.”
An unusual departure from the typical Trop Rock music festival. Perfectly fitting for the venue and the crowd loved every single moment.
The Island Fever Showcase Finale
For the final act at the Surf Ballroom, the Southern Drawl Band gave it their all. Mike Nash and the whole band were exuberant and their energy spilled over on to the crowd. The band took us through emotional ups and downs. Mike’s poignant song “Numbered” made everyone’s heart swell, tying into the atmosphere that hangs in the Surf Ballroom. A reminder that “all our days are numbered” and we should live everyday to the fullest because we don’t know when it’ll end.
The biggest moment came as all the artists filled the stage for the last song of the night. Mike Nash and Kitty Steadman led everyone into Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The first verse of the song rang out almost a cappella, with only a few chords from the guitar. But when the chorus came, the pace increased and the whole room filled with harmony as the crowd joined the artists and we all sang together.
Kitty brought back the a capella and emotion and the whole venue stopped to listen about the story of the girl who sang the blues. Mike increased the tempo on the next verse with all the artists joining in, but Mike surprised us all when he changed the names of the “three men admired most” to “Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Jose Cuervo!” He shrugged, “Hey, it’s still Trop Rock Music!”
The final verse was the strongest as everyone knew this magical moment was coming to an end. Singing all together, we held on to our friends and punctuated every word in the chorus. Then, Mike Nash aptly closed out this surprising event with a simple sentence “Island Fever Showcase….. in the books!”
The event was as epic as everyone hoped it would be. Thanks to Bart Mason, his team and the Isle of Iowa Parrot Head Club.
It was a privilege to spend two days in the Surf Ballroom. It’s a place where people celebrate music and where the biggest names in musical history have left behind their signatures scrawled on the walls of the green room.
Now, the names of Trop Rock artists such as Donny Brewer, Thom Shepherd, Brittany Kingery, Rob Mehl, Mike Miller, John Patti and Sunny Jim will forever represent Trop Rock music on those iconic walls.
And, for those of you who missed out on the chance to attend Trop Rock’s Greatest Moment – worry not! Island Fever Showcase will return for an “encore” performance over Labor Day Weekend in 2020 (September 4th – 7th).
Mark your calendars now – you definitely need to experience this magical event in person! Watch for all the details as they become available through the Isle of Iowa Parrot Head Club & the Surf Ballroom. This special new partnership will also be co-hosting some special musical engagements leading up to the big 2020 event.