East Side soul music

The Blazers return with a record Just for You--and, hopefully, many others

As downtown Los Angeles fades to a smoggy silhouette in the rear-view mirror, the freeway winds past Olvera Street and toward cities with names such as Hacienda Heights and La Puente, reminders of Los Angeles' true heritage. Although East Los Angeles merits only three exits off the Pomona Freeway, its cultural contribution to Southern California is immeasurable--if often unsung, sadly, by its own music-makers.

Tucked away in the City of Industry, down Old Valley Road--which, despite its lyrical name, boasts a collection of proud but slightly downtrodden homes and businesses--is a small, cluttered room in a nondescript one-story building. Sweet harmonies emanate into the searing, smoggy, late-afternoon air as strains of Just for You, the title track from the Blazers' third Rounder Records effort, float through barred windows.

Inside is an office-turned-rehearsal space, the Blazers' "Little Rascals" headquarters for the past five years. Under the watchful eyes of the Willie Dixon and Stevie Ray Vaughan posters that line the walls, guitarist-singers Manuel Gonzalez and Ruben Guaderrama and drummer Raul Medrano are working with a musician who may soon occupy the bass spot recently vacated by longtime member Lee Stuart. With a minimum of coaching from Gonzalez, the potential recruit hits the harmony vocals, and the band appears pleased--a good sign, since they're due to perform at their own record-release party in a few days at Jack's Sugar Shack in Hollywood, a club they jokingly refer to as "across the freeway."

It's no joke that it's taken nearly 25 years for Guaderrama and Gonzalez to come this far: While the now-fortysomething duo met at East L.A.'s Roosevelt High in the early '70s, the labor-intensive day jobs that put food on the table prevented them from realizing an early hope of playing their unfettered, seriously good-time, roots-influenced rock outside the wedding and back-yard party circuit. In the seven years they've officially been together, their career has escalated slowly, grassroots style, punctuated by moments of hard-earned good fortune.

A few years ago, Bob Dylan spotted the Blazers at North Hollywood's now-defunct Palomino at one in the morning. A week later, at Dylan's request, they opened his birthday show at the Pantages in front of an audience that included George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Bruce Springsteen. After a demo-mailing, and subsequent postcard blitz by fans, to the Massachusetts-based Rounder Records, the Blazers joined the roster. Releasing two critically acclaimed albums, the quartet supported them with up to 250 shows per year in the States and Europe, often with like-minded musicians, including the Paladins and longtime friends Los Lobos.

In fact, most mentions of the Blazers have been accompanied by the words Los Lobos, which was only bound to happen: Besides being longtime buddies, their shared roots growing deep beneath East L.A. soil, the Lobos' Cesar Rosas produced the first two Blazers outings, 1993's Short Fuse and '95's East Side Soul. Rosas' participation was both a blessing (critics took notice when they might have otherwise looked away) and a curse (the Blazers were often dismissed as Lobos acolytes), so they've stepped out of that particular shadow. For Just for You, the band employed producer Pete Anderson, the man inextricably linked to Dwight Yoakam's sound.

The new album delivers 10 songs that run the gamut from cumbias ("Las Clases de Cha Cha Cha/Los Marcianos") to cult-favorite covers (the melancholic "Somebody Please," a hit in the Latin community originally performed by the Florida-based Vanguards in the 1950s) to slide-guitar rave-ups ("Nobody Told Me") to the tightly wound energy of "Watcha Ya Gonna Do" to the instantly memorable and innocent twang of the upbeat title track. Although the Blazers combine traditional music--including nortenos (ranchera music from northern Mexico) and cumbias (accented by their danceable rhythm, originally from Colombia and filtered up through Mexico)--with rock and roll, and sing in both English and Spanish (although predominantly in English), they're loath to be put into a rock en espanol category.

"We love that music," Gonzalez snorts sarcastically. "I haven't heard anything that I like. [Rock en espanol] stuff is too commercial. It's really not what we do. We just want to keep it basic rock and roll. We'll throw a little Spanglish in there, a little Mexican in there, and English too, because that's how we do it. If you're going to do a rock and roll song, it's in English."

"We're kinda like a band that grew up in East L.A.--instead of saying we're an East L.A. band, 'cause that could mean just about anything," adds the slightly built, effusive Guaderrama.

"We're just an American rock and roll band," continues Gonzalez. "It's American music we've learned how to play. We incorporate different elements from all over the place, even Cajun drum rhythms. The song 'When You Call,' it almost sounds Chinese...a little bit."

While proud to be part of a Los Angeles musical tradition that began in the '60s with Chicano artists such as the Midniters, Ritchie Valens, and Cannibal and the Headhunters, the Blazers don't feel strongly linked to any particular scene; they're products of their history. When Guaderrama and Gonzalez began playing as teenagers, influenced equally by mariachi music and Chuck Berry, they covered the Rolling Stones and Cream; but eventually the duo found there was more to making music than mimicking their heroes.

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