After a blistering set about four years ago, Dave Alvin brought his band the Guilty Men back onto the Continental Club stage for an encore. From their sidelong looks and body language, there was obviously trouble in the band. Later, it turned out that drummer Bobby Loyd Hicks had overindulged and played the set drunker than Cooter Brown.
But like the professionals they were, Alvin and the Guilty Men seemed to take whatever frustrations they may have had out on their instruments. The electricity was palpable as Alvin kicked off the old Muddy Waters standard "Honey Bee." But it was accordionist Chris Gaffney, not Alvin, who sang, and even Waters himself might have been in awe that night.
"Posthumous" is one of the most unfortunate words a writer can use, especially when referring to a new album. Gaffney, the guts and gristle behind the Hacienda Brothers' just-released Arizona Motel, died April 17 after a short battle with liver cancer.
But the show must go on, so Gaffney's bandmates have taken his final musical testament on the road. That's definitely how the irascible, down-to-earth musician, who found a practical joke in everything, would have wanted it. He had an impeccable sense of humor and comic timing, recalls his longtime Guilty Men bandmate Rick Shea.
"Chris always had an inside joke, and these little personal greetings for everyone, lots of obscure references to TV shows and movies," Shea grins. "My favorite was 'That's your husband, lady, and that's the way we found him.' The way Chris delivered it, you knew whatever position that guy was in, he had lost every shred of dignity he had. But Chris was also reminding you that a fall from grace is only a short step for all of us."
After nine years strumming and squeezing in Alvin's touring band, Gaffney formed the Hacienda Brothers with Paladins guitarist extraordinaire Dave Gonzalez in 2003. A musician's musician who released a handful of critically acclaimed albums, Gaffney never achieved first-tier status, but he was a barroom legend up and down the California coast.
Gaffney, whom Alvin called his best friend, made ends meet with day jobs like toiling in the Newport Beach shipyards between tours. "Chris was always happiest on the road in a van full of buffoons," Greg Gaffney, who played bass in his brother's band the Cold Hard Facts, told the Los Angeles Times.
Gonzalez, whose Paladins were a mainstay of the Southern California blues and rockabilly circuit for two decades, had known Gaffney for years through the bar scene, but it was mutual Tucson friend Jeb Schoonover who convinced the two to consider forming their own band. At that point, after being in a blues trio for 20 years, Gonzalez pined to work with someone who could really sing.
"Gaff was all that — a really well-rounded, versatile singer besides being an exceptional songwriter," he says. "And once we got together, we discovered we dug a lot of the same old records."
Gaffney was a unique talent, Gonzalez remembers.
"He had this amazing way of singing country songs with a lot of soul, and soul songs with that Western thing he had," he says. "Plus he played accordion, so live it was just an instant party."
And according to Gonzalez, the band caught lightning in a bottle straightaway.
"I'd written this song, but I couldn't tell if Gaff liked it or not," he recalls. "We're at Cavern Studio in Tucson on the first day, and Dan [producer and legendary songwriter Penn] asks, 'Dave, what do you want to start with?' I was so nervous, but I had my gut string guitar ready so I suggested 'Walkin' on My Dreams.' Gaff hits it completely out of the park on the first take, and just like that we had a song for the first album."
"I can't tell you how many times during gigs," Gonzalez raves, "when I've just been amazed at the way Chris would hit the high note in that song. Most singers wouldn't even try."
The Haciendas had barely finished the Arizona Motel sessions when Gaffney's cancer was diagnosed. Despite his worsening condition, soulful ballads like "Used to the Pain" or "Ordinary Fool" display all the smooth savvy Gaffney picked up from quiet soul singers like Clarence Carter and Brook Benton and integrated into his version of country music.
When in honky-tonk mode, Gaffney nails swinging, steel guitar-driven covers like Carl Smith's "I'll Come Running" or "When You're Tired of Breaking Other Hearts." Even so, it's Gaffney's funky rendition of his own "Soul Mountain" that transcends the Haciendas' country-soul oeuvre and paints an accurate picture of Gaffney, both as an artist and a man.
The band's current tour, Gonzalez explains, is both a tribute to Gaffney's memory and his own attempt to keep the Hacienda Brothers alive in some form.
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"I'm out on the road with former Houston boy Mike Barfield [the Hollisters] and some great country-soul players from Austin," he says. "We're doing songs from Arizona Motel and other Hacienda Brothers stuff, some of my old stuff and even a few of Mike's songs. We're trying to promote the record, since part of the money goes to Chris's wife Julie. And we're paying tribute to our brother."
Gonzalez says he'll never forget the last advice Gaffney ever gave him.
"He called and I was at Home Depot," he remembers. "He asks me what I'm doing, and I told him I was building a shed. And in that low, gruff voice of his he says, 'Well, don't fuck it up.'
"Whether it was music or just life, that was Gaff — straight up, no B.S."