The allure of the sand and sea is strong for veteran local musician Don Nelson. In addition to leading Milwaukee's extremely popular surf combo The Exotics from behind his vintage drum kit, Nelson helms The Bikini Beachcombers, but in this case from behind a ukulele and some bongos.
In June, the band -- which plays regularly at The Foundation Tiki Bar in Riverwest, where Nelson works -- issued its second disc, "Beach Party in Waikiki," which follows "Holiday in Waikiki," released in 2008.
Since that first record was made, The Beachcombers added husband and wife team Damien Strigens and Betty Blexrud-Strigens, who are the key players in Testa Rosa, too. Strigens and Nelson are band mates in the Nerve Twins, a group formed in the early '90s that occasionally reunites to perform.
Other members are Ted Jorin (ukulele, vocals), Rick Royale (guitar) and hula dancer Lady Poi.
The new disc is a mix of classic island tunes (like Caribbean classic "Yellow Bird") and catchy new tiki-themed originals penned by Nelson, Strigens and Blexrud-Strigens.
We talked to Nelson -- who also has a '60s mod band called The Nelsonics -- about the new Beachcombers record and the band's recent wanderings.
OnMilwaukee.com: How has the lineup changed since the first disc?
Don Nelson: The only changes on the new CD are Damian Strigens replaced Jonny Z on bass and his wife Betty joined on vocals and percussion. We also feature a lovely Hula dancer named Lady Poi.
OMC: Tellme about the new record and about the material on it.
DN: Whereas the first record was more of a tribute to the old timey Hawaiian records often found at thrift stores, the new one is more uptempo and more of a party record. The songs are more lively and most include bongos.
We just started out when we made that first CD, so it was kind of a demo, and all but one song are covers. The new one sees the band with a more developed style of our own and includes half original compositions.
Betty adds backing vocals to most of the tracks and sings lead vocal on a few, as well. She also plays a variety of percussion instruments on most tracks. Her beautiful, haunting vocals stir emotions that weren't present with just me singing.
The addition of Damian and Betty has really made the band's sound.
OMC: Is it fun to write tiki tunes these days when they're not quite as common as they might once have been?
DN: Yes, it's a blast! They are short, simple and fun to play ... or hear. We just imagine we are in Waikiki on the beach with Mai Tai in hand, and try to capture that spirit in a two-minute song.
OMC: Are you still doing the residency at The Foundation in Riverwest?
DN: We do usually play at the Foundation Tiki Bar monthly. However, with all the other bands we all play in, it can sometimes be challenging to find an open weekend. I am playing in The Exotics; we are touring California next month. Damian and Betty have Testa Rosa, and Damian also plays with Conrad Plymouth and Longacre. Ted and Rick play in the Dick Satan Trio.
OMC: You've played some cool places with The Beachcombers, right?
DN: Last year we were fortunate enough to play at the two largest tiki festivals in the world. The biggest is "Tiki Oasis" in San Diego, held every August. The second biggest is "The Hukilau" in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., held every June.
We also played the famous Mai Kai, also in Ft. Lauderdale, perhaps the best tiki outpost left anywhere! This place has to be seen to be believed.
This year we returned to Ft. Lauderdale and played The Hukilau and the Mai Kai again!!
Last year we had a regular gig at the new Trader Vic's in Chicago. We have also played Chicago tiki venues Hala Kahiki and Chef Shangri-La.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.