Star-Bulletin Features

Merman guitarist Jim Thomas, center, flanked by bassist Jennifer Burnes and drummer Martyn Jones.

The Mermen

By Gary C. W. Chun

There've been numerous spottings of actual Mermen in the islands of late! Since the beginning of the month, a trio of these unusual creatures has been performing for folks in Lahaina and Kihei on Maui and Makawao on the Big Island. The Mermen go by the names Jim Thomas, Martyn Jones and Jennifer Burnes, and they've been captivating people with their San Franciscan siren song of the sea.

Now they've traveled (swum, perhaps?) to Oahu to begin a two-week visit, starting tonight at the Pipeline Cafe.


> Today: 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. at Pipeline Cafe, 805 Pohukaina St. Benefit for the North Shore Lifeguard Association. Opening bands are Shaka Jambe (7:30) and Go Jimmy Go (10:30).

> Tomorrow: 10:30 p.m. at Haleiwa Joe's, 66-011 Kamehameha Highway. Opening band is Surf Jam.

> Aug. 16 and 17: 9:30 p.m. at Anna Bannana's, 2440 S. Beretania Ave.

The Mermen make up one of those offbeat, little-known instrumental bands with solid musical credentials, their sound transcending the instrumental surf-rock of predecessors Dick Dale, Duane Eddy and the Ventures to venture forth into uncharted territory -- well, territory usually traveled by the likes of Neil Young and Sonic Youth in their more blissful, experimental moments.

You can credit Thomas for expanding the range beyond the twang and treble of electric surf guitar. He's probably one of the best guitarists you haven't heard. Thomas has cited the soundtrack of Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer" as a touchstone for his music; so much so that the band has been known to perform the complete musical score at times. And he's still a longtime surfer at heart; in fact, that was the Mermen's music on the soundtrack of Grant Washburn's documentary "Maverick's" that screened last month as part of the ongoing New Waves Film Festival at the ARTS at Marks Garage.

The band's music has a real sense of mood and drama, a complexity one wouldn't associate with surf music. The Los Angeles Times says the group "refuses to be pigeonholed by soaring in all directions -- from pretty, atmospheric psychedelia to electrifying Hendrix-esque soloing to punchy punk inspired riffing." (The Hendix reference is not surprising, considering the band took its name from one of his compositions, "1983 a Merman I will turn to be.")

The LA Weekly said that "the Mermen inject gravitas into the camp-addled surf genre like spiritual beach bums searching for that elusive last wave ... (they've) gotten increasingly open-ended and jammy but remain as narcotic as the bends."

The band has been an established favorite in the Bay Area since its inception in 1986, but audiences unfamiliar with its aquatic vibe remain left to ensnare. It all starts tonight in Honolulu -- and maybe, somewhere along the way, they'll do "SloMoHVO," their easy-flowin' version of that popular TV theme song that the Ventures made famous.

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