Link Wray in Concert: Portland, Oregon, December 5, 2000
My cousin Doug and his teenage son Pete went with my son Matt and I to celebrate Matt's 16th birthday at a Link Wray concert. Matt had never been to a rock show (except for the ones I had played in, and those didn't count-he's always packing the amps around for the band), and I had chosen Link's show because of his honorable status as the 'Godfather of Heavy Metal'. I hadn't really heard much of Link's stuff, but have heard all thefolklore about the genius of this guy throughout my own playing career. The fact that Link is at least 68 years young was also intriguing...
Link was on stage at the La Luna night club, a large, rundown club that at one time was a premium spot in the Portland scene. The crowd waited long past the 9:00 opening time in the cold, windy night for the doors to open. Finally the grouchy staff let us in, and most folks headed straight to the bar for an eye opener.
The opening act was a well practiced Metal/Country band from Texas (sorry, didn't catch their name). Aside from assaulting the audience with gutter-mouthed bantering, they fairly rocked the place. The steel guitarist was very impressive, and wowed the crowd by spilling beer on the folks up front while using the bottle to play the final tune of the set. The audience was polite, but we were all waiting for the old guy with an ax to grind.
Finally, it was time! Link strutted out, plugged in a new Strat into some retro amps, promptly turned the volume to 9 ("His amp goes to 11", boasted Doug), and began his stunning set with (what else!) Rumble. He flew through a medley of all of his greats, playing a couple more than one time. We didn't care. It all passed so quickly, he was finished with the encore an hour and a half later, and we were still begging for more!
I had seen pics of Link, and expected some dark and brooding, or worse, gloomy, grandfather type. Instead, there was a man who looked and acted 1/2 his age (about the same age as his young and pretty wife, who accompanies him with tambourine and background vocals) who was obviously enjoying life, and wanted to share his gift with anyone and everyone. I can't remember a performer smiling so much. He had a grin on his face the whole evening. I've also never seen someone take the strap from around their neck, and hand the guitar out to the audience, but that's exactly what Link did! The crowd went bananas!
He played many incredibly loud numbers, and a few soft crooning pieces. I was moved when he introduced his wife, saying that, "she is what keeps me young". There were several breaks for the other two guys in the band to spotlight their talents.
He picked excellent craftsmen to accompany him: The drummer was built like a bundle of nerves and muscle, he is probably the finest true rock drummers I've ever seen. You couldn't tire this guy out! He even stood up towards the end of the set, frantically pounding on all drum heads as if to summon some mysterious forces from beyond the void. The Bassist used a pick-one of my pet peeves, but he was rock steady and provided the perfect foundation for Link's fantastic soaring riffs. This bassman tended to migrate back to his corner of the stage quite often, and Link would kindly pull the boy out to the front by tugging on his guitar strap. It was very touching, and resembled a reluctant little boy being gently taken to his first day of preschool by his kindly grandfather.
Link stayed with the trusty Strat for most of the evening, then switched to the weird 'Screamin' Eagle' guitar which defies description here. I cringed in suspense as the jovial Link passed this famous guitar out to the audience as he had done with the Strat, then stood back, laughing, as the audience went berserk with his tool. The audience was wild, but treated the guitar with respect. I breathed easier as Link retrieved it from them, did some quick tuning, then went back to work.
As a veteran of countless concerts, and a performer of blues music (bass player) myself, I can't say that anything was overly complicated or technical about Link's show, aside from the fact that all three musicians were tops in their field. It was the fact that this cat was THE originator, THE first, THE inventor of the power chord and THE predecessor of all those chops guitarists that made it unique, was a large part of the thrill of the performance. But it went way beyond that. This guy took a bunch of basic chords and lumped them together in a way that no other performer can. It is a total and complete package. This is the original, I realized that everything since is mostly a strained descendant of this soulful primordial soup.
There were many unique moments on stage that night. Link looking out at the old LP's that fans were waving at him (with the hopes of obtaining his signature, they weren't disappointed), and saying, "I don't look like that no more!", Link leaving the guitar on stage (with the volume still up) while he left, waiting for an encore, and the guitar frantically screaming in feedback, Link serenading his wife during one of the quiet ones, Link waving the guitar around, as if it was a cosmic butterfly net, which (I'm guessing) was an effort to generate feedback, Link reaching down, and turning all of the knobs on his two stomp boxes all the way up, Link's generous sharing of stage with his two excellent sidemen.
I came to this show expecting a mildly entertaining exhibition of an aged artist's reminiscing of his old glory days. I left with a feeling of accomplishment and jubilation. Our teenagers were both ecstatic, and none of us had ever seen anything like this, and may never again. I left in awe, with a profound respect for one of the most professional showmen to grace the stage. It was the complete opposite of Heavy Metal (and other) bands who exude anger, rage and defiance. I didn't even notice the peeling paint or the oppressing pall of cigarettes and Lysol in the club as we were walking out.
So, I am one of Link's newest converts. I'd drive anywhere to see him, and will always be one of the first in line if he ever comes to Portland. If he's within 300 miles of you, I say, make the trip. You'll be glad you did!
Jammin' John Burkett, Bassist