Though 28 bands will stuff the Cat's Cradle's small Back Room this weekend, there won't be a lead singer in sight. But don't expect string quartets or laptop lords. The focus is surf music, an atmospheric style of guitar rock made famous in the early '60s but soon washed out of popularity by changing tides of opinion.
Surf music has some basic parameters in sound and sensibility; it suggests, for instance, the crashing of ocean waves via reverbed guitars and thunderous tom-tom rolls. But instrumentalist Chris "Crispy" Bess, who helped launch Instro Summit in 2009, demands a range of interpretations and admixtures
"I've always tried to keep an open book. My one requirement is that I like the music to at least be somewhat danceable," he says. "That's why we don't have a lot of the experimental, prog-rock types or more jazzy or classical music. I like the bands that are doing some form of music that makes your butt wiggle."
Despite that two-pronged mandate of butt-wiggling and no singing, Instro Summit has grown from a four-band, one-night affair into a three-night celebration—and arguably the world's largest all-instrumental music festival. Inclusiveness helps.
"Here on the East Coast, people are open minded," says Bess. "But on the West Coast, where surf music's foundations lie, it's almost like bluegrass. There are certain rules and regulations. I don't want to be that strict. We don't want 90 versions of 'Walk Don't Run.'"
Indeed, this year's lineup emphasizes variety. Mike Krause, a longtime local sideman, will dedicate a set to the seminal English guitar band The Shadows, replete with tuxedos and dance moves. The Beech Benders will meld an R&B palette with surf-music moves. Durham's Blood Red River emphasizes the punk side of the surf-punk subgenre, while Nashville's Crazy Aces mix it all up in a "surfadelic Spy-a-gogo" style.
America has been fickle in its appreciation for instrumental pop. The golden era may be traced to 1958, when the Champs scored an unlikely No. 1 with the sweaty, Latin-tinged "Tequila." For the next few years, the radio swam with assorted wordless gems: the stately pomp of Percy Faith's "Theme From a Summer Place," the shimmering Levantine runs of Dick Dale's "Misirlou," the percolating soul of Booker T & the M.G.'s "Green Onions." Then, in February 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" gave the Beatles their first U.S. No. 1. That was the first great extinction. But Bess opines that the real death knell came with the rise of hip-hop decades later, when listeners traded music with no words for songs loaded with them.
"You don't have the weight of lyrics weighing you down," says Bess of instrumental music. "It may be serious, but it's also kind of liberating. People can make up their own minds about what the song's about, even if it has a stupid name, like 'Homemade Septic Tank.'"
In 2004, Bess, a former member of Southern Culture on the Skids, assembled Killer Filler, an instrumental quintet specializing in surf, spy, exotica and other instrumental subgenres of the early 1960s. Locally, though, one of the chief options for such a band, Chapel Hill's Sleazefest, had vanished. He took action.
"That's the whole reason I started the Instro Summit," he says. "I missed those bands. I wanted to see 9th Wave and Big Lazy and Satan's Pilgrims, stand in front of them again and watch them."
Instro Summit's participants come far and wide, but the event has a local patron saint. "Rumble Jam," a tradition that's carried over from Sleazefest, is one of two tributes to Link Wray, the North Carolina-born guitarist credited with inventing the power chord. This mass rendition of the eternally menacing, once-banned instrumental results in a "Rumble" that, well, really rumbles. There's also a competition for the best version of Wray's otherworldly guitar solo from the more obscure "I'm Branded." The significance of the festival's other idol, Bea Arthur, is less clear, but it factors into Instro Summit's quirk. And that may be essential, now that a festival in seaside Italy boasts similar numbers to Instro Summit. It has certain elements the Triangle will never offer.
"A beautiful seaside town, four giant stages, bands coming from all over the world—it's the Tiffany's of surf music," says Bess. "But I love the Instro Summit's more or less Wal-Mart kind of appeal. We don't have the fanciest bands in the world, but by God, they're all pretty darn good, and you get a lot of value for your dollar."