Friday, August 15, 2003

Los Lonely Boys

Los Lonely Boys (August 2003)
CD Release & Blues on the Green, Austin, Texas

Not Gonna Be Lonely For Long

Review
Henry, JoJo and Ringo Garza - Los Lonely Boys to those already fans of their incendiary shows - may have raised the stakes in the Texas rock-n-roll wars with their eponymous semi-debut CD. I can't think of a stouter entry since ZZ Top put their scorching trio on vinyl back about 1970. And trying to match a recent album I've heard that approaches its near perfection would lead me into other genres - say to Ruthie Foster's blues gem “Runaway Soul” or Denice Franke's Texas-roots “Comfort” or anything lately by Eric Taylor.

Now before I dish out too many more encomia let me get you in on some of the skinny.

The Garza brothers hail from San Angelo, thank Jesus Christ first on the CD, are such favorites of Willie's that I don't know of a recent show of his they haven't opened, and they cite as part of the “brotherhood” Carlos Santana, and in “sainthood” Stevie Ray Vaughan - both important last points as you'll see.

They hail as well from the proverbial “musical family” growing up filling in in Ringo Sr.'s conjunto cum rockband, doing the road bit between Nashville and Texas on the time-honored disenchanted migrant picker's route, and growing up cross-culturally fed by Norteño/Tejano, cumbias, corridas, and the long thread from Richie Valens through Jimi Hendrix and latter-day purveyors of guitar fire - like Stevie Ray - and, one would suppose, blues and gospel (their sisters prefer the latter).

It's amalgamations like that that have fed genius-level musicians for decades - half the “pain begets art” formula, and half the “master-apprentice” formula (despite the apparent genealogy of the licks, they credit dad as their biggest influence). I also detect a pinch of obsessive adolescent garage bandology, and a smidgen of prodigy involved throughout.

I first became acquainted with these guys' work at the Get Up, Stand Up event in Austin the winter of 2002-2003 (they've been getting press since the summer of 2001, and hot press since summer of 2002). They took the stage last, after a lengthy parade of Austin favorites including Guy Forsyth, Patrice Pike, and Ruthie Foster and Cyd Cassone filled the cavernous court with song. By the time the Boys were up, 75% of the crowd had left, without knowing, of course, what they were about to miss.

While the soloists were belting their couple of songs each, the brothers stood behind the stage mocking martial arts moves and trading laughs easily with the other stars. When Los Lonely Boys finally got up for their short set it just wasn't enough, and they kept on playing until there were literally janitors mopping (or was it leaning on their mops and listening), and tables and chairs being stacked and wheeled out of Burger Center. Nevertheless a hundred people remained, dancing across the gym amongst the debris, until someone pulled the plug. Guy Forsyth even donated some wailing harmonica to most of the songs.

Since then they've been Willie's pet project (although the friendship dates further back), had June 10 declared Los Lonely Boys Day by the then present-in-state Texas Legislature, have had a full performance schedule including a month-long cross-country tour, and have Austin on its ear, with word spreading faster than Henry burns up picks.

So what would that matter for a review of a CD? Well, the rarity of a CD actually capturing the onstage fire of a hot band; the rarity of a CD that rocks beginning to virtually the end; and the rarity of such talent gelling in one magic moment is why.

This CD is not the first for Los Lonely Boys, though it's being touted as a debut effort. A self-produced disc was sold out before I knew of them. This project, aided by Willie, comes courtesy of Pedernales Records and OR Records New York and was released August 12.

Let's start with what you get musically. You get Ringo on drums. You knew that. You get JoJo on six strings of bass, and Henry mans the Strat. They all sing.

The big thing you get on CD that you don't get live (at least in my experience) is Reese Wynans on organ and piano. Wynans adds depth to every song, and the touches are classy, filling in harmonically much the way the boys' voices meld. I'm not sure that the keyboards are missed on stage - the trio is so thick musically that you get a stonehenge of sound, though I did miss Guy Forsyth's harp on CD. It is one of the curiosities of the album that Wynan's contribution is so keenly beautiful, yet LLB is still perfect without it.

Willie adds a little electric gutstring guitar on “La Contestación”, and there's some sweet added guitar work by John Porter here and there, as well as additional percussion by Diego Simmons. All is tasteful and tasty.

Then there is the matter of the vocals. Perhaps it's genetic, who could ever know, but the voices of these guys are elegant. There is distinctly an edge there, but what an edge, on top of fat voices that ooze from your subwoofers. Something like honey on a chainsaw. Their harmonic style slices you to bits, but you enjoy every sweet second of it. As far as I can detect the harmonies are reduced to melodic thirds and fifths - no wavering, modulating, melismatic, weaving harmonies here. And therein is a great deal of the magic. No frills, none necessary, just those cutting lines. How long they will be able to maintain this as style without venturing elsewhere is anyone's guess, but for this one CD anyway it is perfect beginning to end.

And what an ear for, and singularity in molding, melodies.

Lyrically there is yet more strength. The Garza brothers get songwriting credits for all the songs, with occasional help from manager Kevin Wommack, Phil Roy, and Jim Tuttio. Liner notes never tell the extent of the “co-“ in the writing scheme, but it's obvious from the Garza-only pennings that they have all the chops they need.

Two things stand out in their wordsmithy. First is the dang-near flawless phrasing - perhaps the most difficult concept for young songwriters to come to grips with. Here, you'll not find a syllable rushed or out of place.

Secondly, there is a more personal and beautiful aspect to their repertoire. It is the effortless change from English to Spanish and back.

Inevitably, from households in which there are no longer “primary” languages, notably late-twentieth century households that honor both Mexican cultural background and Texas/American upbringings, had to come children whose grasp of both languages and cultural influences is not a matter of “switching” but of expressing oneself in the way that best covers the soul's moment.

And some day that had to wend its way into the music of that generation. Here it is in both raw and pure form.

You get several bilingual songs - more like bi-evocative songs in which language is the very vehicle that drives you to say “Yeah, that's right.” Take “Heaven”, “Nobody Else” and “Dime Mi Amor”. Of the remainder you'll find “Onda” (all but an instrumental with extended drum and guitar solos; and an occasional refrain), and the wrapup ballad “La Contestación” in Spanish. And there's a few that depend on English (“Hollywood”, “Tell Me Why”, “Velvet Sky” and “More than Love” -- a pitch-perfect take on a 50s-style girl-melter).

And please, don't mistake the multilingualism for the code-switching “Spanglish” radio-hybrid stuff that has become more fad than means of communication. Where that finds its way into music is in the mostly pretending-to-be-cute novelty songs like “Hey Baby, que pasó”. Nor is it butchered gringo Spanish. Everything here is impeccably real with the aura of effortlessness that comes from living the song and the languages.

The two songs on the CD most likely to venture into hardcore radio play are the first two - “Señorita” and “Heaven”. The latter is likely already their best known tune. It certainly has their most distinctive stamp - a churning rhythm startup, an über-catchy one-line refrain “How far is heaven?”, and a screaming lead.

I'd have to say that “Nobody Else” and “Velvet Sky” have all the right things going for them as well.

Normally I wouldn't saddle a fine new band with comparisons to influences, real or imagined - that ought to be saved for wannabes. But in this case it comes naturally to say that some here will immediately remind the listener of SRV (“Tell Me Why” and “Crazy Dreams”, and the Stevie Rayesque opening of “Nobody Else”), and some of Carlos Santana (“Onda” and, more subtly, “Real Emotions” and “Señorita”), and the sharp ear will catch a nod to Hendrix too. The comparison is easier because the brothers acknowledge those masters up front. But what really comes to mind is how masterful is the work on which they, Henry in particular, can be tied to SRV and Santana (where Ringo also adds his own time signature to the master's recognizable tone). JoJo pretty much puts his own stamp on the six-string bass.

In the end, what you figure out is that the reminders come from tone and mastery of technique, but that the songs are uniquely Los Lonely Boys'. In fact, by the end of the songs I've forgotten the influence and am infatuated by the singularity of the songs themselves.

In my mind, there is only a single weakness on the CD, one song, and not such that it is unlistenable, but that it seems too far out of place. The CD is a smart boiling-pot of styles and influences, so it is really difficult to single one song out for its difference - but the final song “La Contestación”, while lyrically as elegant as anything on the disc, and showcasing the guys' voices superbly, “sounds” like it's trying too hard to be a pop song.

That's a hard charge to make, since the rest of the CD has such integrity, so I won't make it. Had this been on someone else's weaker attempt I would have made that charge stick though.

I can't put a finger on the exact musical indignity performed here but the song has an “American Idol” flavor that I just can't take as the way to end an otherwise magnificent CD. I am just as certain that there are those who will consider it the best song on the disc. So be it. Regardless, I stand by my original assertion that this is a stunning CD; one that I hope introduces a fine new trio to a nation of hardcore music fans whatever their generic taste.

Check them out further at http://www.loslonelyboys.org



Pictures from Blues on the Green, Austin, Texas, August 2003


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