Lake Erie Surf

A broken-down Pontiac helped shape the Balboas, Akron's far-flung surf outfit.

In the fall of 1995, forces converged at a rest stop in Elkhart, Indiana, creating a surf band. After catching a Dick Dale show in Chicago, three musicians--Rich Griffith, Mark Healy, and Rick Frei--were left stranded when their car broke down on their way home to Akron. As luck would have it, Dale's Winnebago came chugging into the rest stop not long after them.

"They pop out of the bus," Griffith remembers, "and recognize us from the night before. They came over and asked us what was happening, and sure enough, [Dale] invites us into the Winnebago and gives us T-shirts and signs autographs. From there on, we were always on the guest list at his shows. He calls us 'Dickheads.'"

So influential was Dale that Griffith and his pals, soon joined by drummer Ben Edwards and bass player Catie O'Shea, named their band after Dale's hometown in California. Then, not too long after the Balboas began to play out, Dale got wind of what his Dickheads were up to and asked them to open for him in Cleveland.

"The nice part about that," recalls Edwards, "was that we were such a young band, and all of us adored the guy, his music. Also that we played to 500 people, or however many you can squeeze into Peabody's. That was easily the biggest show of my life."

"It was great," says Griffith, who plays lead guitar and theremin. "I think that really is the pinnacle of being a surf band. It's really hard to describe the feeling."

Dale didn't tab the Balboas to open simply as a favor to a handful of fans. The Balboas have quickly earned a lot of attention for their mastery of the surf sound, and have recently completed a nationwide tour.

"I think that we put out a damn good representation of what surf is," Griffith says. "I think we filled a niche. A lot of [surf] bands are technically very sound but sometimes they don't seem to put forth the energy in their music. I think that's one thing we do different from a lot of other bands: We really do come at surf with a pretty full attack."

That attack is presented on their debut album, Heavy Surf Advisory. What separates the Balboas from other surf bands is their music's dark slant. "Well, that's the point," Edwards explains. "Most of us came from a punk rock background as kids, then grew up in our own sort of vein. There were a lot of influences involved, and a lot of them were pretty-well dark."

"It's not happy, 'go to the beach, grab a babe, hop in your hotrod' surf," Griffith agrees. "It definitely comes at you with a darker attack. The band I played with Mark in was kind of old-school punk, but I'd always been into surf--my style was a very garagey/surfy style. Then at some point--I think when we saw Dick Dale for the first time--I just realized how powerful and percussive the surf style was, and just started pushing it from there."

"It's got a nice little nostalgia," Edwards adds. "It's not hotrod instrumentals, and it's certainly not some sort of psychedelia."

Some might complain that the sound is too nostalgic, nothing more than another ripoff of better musical times. The band is prepared for such accusations.

"That's going to happen," Edwards says. "Any time you do some sort of vintage style, you're going to have people [who] are real critical of you, either calling you ripoffs or saying that you're so far off the mark that you could never be truly surf. What are we going to do? The style is surf, so you're going to sound relatively unoriginal, but the nice part is that we've been able to add a little bit."

"You can only do double-pick one way," Griffith says. "You can only play those progressions one way, but we write our own tunes, and they have our own feel to them. I don't really feel bad when people say we're ripping off the masters--there's no doubt that we're borrowing from them."

Considering such criticism, and given the band's songwriting talents, it may come as a surprise to find three cover songs on the album. "It kind of goes along with the surf genre," Griffith says. "It's fairly traditional to do covers, but one thing that's so nice about surf is that the arrangements are simple, so it leaves you a lot of room to make that song your own. Those songs are really fun to express yourself with."

The question is whether the fun can blossom into a career. The group met at grad school at the University of Akron, but some members found jobs out of state, leaving Edwards and O'Shea at home base in Akron.

"It would be nice to make it a career," Edwards says, "but certainly not something I would expect. I mean, it's surf. The market for that has been tapped, I'm sure, and those that are the biggest in the field are just barely making a living. It's not like a rock star sort of thing."

"We're going to take it as far as constraints will allow," Griffith says. "The tour [last summer] went very well, and record sales are going good, so we think we're going to be able to pump out another product. The whole thing has been a pretty amazing ride, so we're going to push it and see how far it goes."

The Balboas. Saturday, December 19, Phantasy Nite Club, 11802 Detroit Rd., Lakewood, $8 ($5 21 and over), 216-228-6300.

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