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Pop Music Review

Linking Volume and Drama

Wray's masterful guitar blend uses measured strokes and slash-and-burn riffing.

May 28, 1999|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Guitarist Link Wray is an icon from another time.

Like his contemporary, Dick Dale, he is a survivor from that brief period in the late '50s and early '60s when a rock instrumentalist could find a mainstream pop audience without a vocalist on stage to block the view.

It is a movement Wray has no intention of abandoning. At the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Wednesday, he stomped happily onto the stage dressed in shades and a black motorcycle jacket, a long dark ponytail slung across his shoulder. Picking and slashing at his electric guitar, Wray played music that was LOUD and precise and easily recognizable as having had a direct influence on the edgy punk-pop of the Pixies and the Ramones.

There have been other successful guitar instrumentalists over the years, most recently younger heroes Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. But Wray--whose 1958 single, "Rumble," is one of the most exciting rock instrumentals recorded--helped create the genre and establish the guitar as the preeminent force in rock 'n' roll, elbowing aside the saxophone and piano from their lingering jazz-era dominance.

On Wednesday, Wray's repertoire was not simply a flurry of notes, but also a masterful blend of volume and drama, using both measured strokes and slash-and-burn riffing. Wray was accompanied only by a drummer, bassist and his wife, who banged a tambourine endlessly and frequently adjusted his ponytail.

Wray, 70, did sing on several songs, and he shouted with real gusto--clearly not a man going through the motions for one more paycheck.

His set spanned rockabilly, Hank Williams-style country and western, and surf music, including a supercharged "Wipeout." Wray even performed the occasional tender love ballad, gazing lovingly at his wife and singing in a manly tenor while strumming his guitar lightly along the neck.

Wray played to a modest crowd, barely half the room, but there were enough fans to suggest that, as Wray exited the stage to a storm of feedback, the man is still a relevant force.

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