Let the sounds of Vintage Torque Fest set your summer soundtrack

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Vintage Torque Fest, which took place May 4 and 5 this year in Dubuque, is a wild and smoky meeting of subcultures each spring on the Dubuque County Fairgrounds: neo hotrodders, burlesque babies, tattoo buffs, mid-century modernists, rockabilly cats, surf zombies, vintage clotheshorses and more.

While the fundraiser for kids with congenital heart defects doesn’t bill itself primarily as a music festival, it sure could pass as one, with an excellent lineup of Midwest acts on three stages performing at once.

The main stage backs up on bleachers descending to a dirt race track; the roar, smoke and dust mostly enhance the activities above, including everything from a pin-up contest to the campy honky-tonk of St. Louis’ Dock Ellis Band.

Retro reigns so supreme at Torque Fest that one guy barely got a drone aloft before its rotors started weedwacking into the twigs overhead to come crashing down in pieces at his feet. That was the only point in the festival where I had to suppress applause.

Here are some musical highlights from this year’s fest to check out for summer listening.

Cedar Rapids’ Surf Zombies opened the fest on Friday with their warped brand of surf rock, nearly all penned by wunderkind founder/guitarist Brook Hoover. Ian Williams (guitar), Tyler Russell (drums) and Trevor Treiber (bass) are younger, but just as undead. A Surf Zombies show is some combination of Saturday morning cartoon, leisure suit beach party and hot rod convention. The jungle rhythms, swirling tremolo of dueling guitars and growl of vintage tube amps make for a truly weird Midwestern experience. I saw more people there wearing Surf Zombies t-shirts than Ramones, so the home turf advantage swelled for these guys and their classic-but-skewed rock and roll.

Western Michigan’s Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys, normally a trio, was trimmed down to Betty Page lookalike Delilah on vocals/stand-up bass and Lee Harvey on guitar for Torque Fest. The two ripped it up on covers of rockabilly classics by Johnny Cash, Bill Haley and Carl Perkins, as well as honky-tonk and surf standards, and a few choice originals. Delilah has a fine, clear voice and Lee Harvey is an exceptional guitarist, resurrecting the sound of “original” guitar gods Paul Burlison, Billy Byrd, Cliff Gallup, Grady Martin, Dick Dale and Luther Perkins.

The Hooten Hallers were the discovery of the festival, a trio from Columbia, Mo. that calls to mind an Ozarks Morphine. Kellie Everett’s baritone and bass saxophones furnish backbone, groove and sass, while John Randall on guitar/vocals and Andy Rehm on percussion make up the rest. The band’s PR puts it well: “They continue their decade-long search for their roots, drawing from the surrounding agricultural lifestyles, river communities, college kids and tweakers that roam Columbia … Their music isn’t quite Americana and it’s not quite punk, but a bit of both, fused together in a drunken tangle.”

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20 Watt Tombstone is a duo by design, hailing from Wausau, Wis. They describe their sound as an unholy mating of Motörhead’s Lemmy with White Stripes, The Black Keys and Left Lane Cruiser — and that’s not far off. The band manages an uneasy mix of heavy menace and fun. Big, hairy Rev. Meantooth is credited with “guitar and hollerin’,” while Grand Master Oh-to-the-Zee turns in the “drums and yellin’.”

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