East Side soul music

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.

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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.

"There was something in us that made us want to look a little bit further," recalls Guaderrama. "We were like, 'OK, today we're going to play the Stones.' And then we'd say, 'Who wrote that? Oh, Willie Dixon.' That kind of thing. After a while, we said, 'Maybe we should try to write a song.'"

The band finally came together more than a decade after high school. During the late '80s, the group would perform mostly '50s and '60s covers for five hours a night at the Bell Casino, providing the entertainment for inveterate card players. The band used money from the gigs to finance their first single, which they would in turn use to get more shows. "We started dreaming of what it would be like on the road," Gonzalez says. "We did a weekend thing in Blythe [California], and were fantasizing, 'We're on the road!' on this little two-hour drive. Little did we know it was more grueling than that."

Though it was difficult to leave the regular paycheck provided by the casino gig, the Blazers knew there was something bigger out there than playing for hustlers. "We felt we had something to offer the musical world, and we didn't know if it was valid enough until we tried," Gonzalez says. "We had to go up to the plate." Finally, in 1988, they landed a regular gig at the original Raji's on Wednesdays--playing at midnight, most nights to no more than four people. Yet soon enough, the band didn't have to depend on covers to get them through the night.

If, in the long run, the Blazers share anything with Los Lobos, it's the sound of tradition: The echoes of weddings and barbecues and neighborhood gatherings resonate through their songs. They're the antithesis of another L.A.-based, Chicano-fronted band--Rage Against the Machine--that chooses to preach to the preachers, often promising solutions they can't provide. The Blazers aren't about the political, but about the personal: They'd never write a song about watching the city burn around them, but they might write one about "taking care of your kids so they wouldn't go out and riot," Guaderrama offers. "More basic."

"We're just doing something that makes us feel good," Gonzalez says. "We keep our opinions to ourselves. If people just treat each other good and right, and respect and love, like they should, that makes more of an individual impact."

"Who did we vote for?" Guaderrama proclaims. "We don't want to talk about that in an interview. I'll talk about that to friends and family. I'm a guitar player who just tries to write songs. The political thing...we're out."

Proof of that philosophy is found in Just for You's title track, which was born in a Vegas hotel room from a ditty Gonzalez sang to his girlfriend: "I needed a shower, and I said, 'I want to look good, feel good, smell good, just for you,' " he recalls. "I thought, 'That would be a good song,' but I didn't have my tape recorder! I wrote down the lyrics, and my girlfriend gave me the idea to call my answering machine and sing into that."

"It's such a sort-of-innocent song," Guaderrama says. "We wanted to bring it down to basics, as simple as we could make it."

But that's not to devalue the musicianship: If Los Lobos have become bored with the simple, experimenting with studio trickery on their last few records until the machines have become as important as the men playing them, then the Blazers have refined the art of the unembellished; Just for You swings from slide blues to garage rock to back-yard folk. Yet even though they were born into the music--Gonzalez's uncle, a jazz player in the Bay Area, taught guitar to Creedence's Tom Fogerty--Guaderrama and Gonzalez still feel they're not up to the task of penning a cumbia, an essential part of the Blazers' repertoire that goes over as well in Belgium as it does in East L.A. The record's two stabs at the form, "Las Clases del Cha Cha Cha/Los Marcianos" and "Tabaco Mascao," were written by others.

"We haven't written a good enough cumbia to compare to Mickey Larra," Gonzalez says. "He's the cumbia king. He wrote 'em all."  

"It's like trying to write a blues song," Guaderrama explains. "In their world, if you're going to write a blues song--and now you're in the world of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters--those guys laid down the law. You have to be prepared to be that deep. To be that good."

In the end, Pete Anderson was brought in to "make a hit record, a more radio-friendly record," as manager Rick Jones explains. It was Anderson's job to pick the songs, to arrange them, to hire out for help (from the Tower of Power horns to John Logan on harmonica to Skip Edwards on organ), even to play a little guitar. The Blazers looked to him to nurture their sound, to give them a push in the right direction; he, after all, had given Yoakam's sound its golden, polished form. Being local heroes--neighborhood heroes--is one thing; but in the end, the Blazers and their manager share rock-star dreams that transcend East L.A...even if it just means being big on the West Side.

"This is the year," asserts the East Coast-based Jones, who takes good-natured ribbing from Gonzalez for his lacking "a tan." "Everything is just building in a good way. It feels right."

The Blazers play the Sons of Hermann Hall on Saturday, October 18.

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