In late October, Eddie Rodriguez and his band Los Volcanes were in their label's home base of Corpus Christi, performing Tejano music on Spanish-language television. Save for a handful of suburban clubs, Tejano is an afterthought in the 42-year-old Rodriguez's adopted hometown of Seattle (he's a Brownsville native). But in South Texas, conjunto, the accordion-heavy subgenre of Tejano music and Los Volcanes' specialty, is huge.
A couple weeks after returning home to Normandy Park, a suburb near the Seattle airport, Rodriguez, who sings lead and plays accordion in Los Volcanes, received a call on his cell phone marked "private." Typically, Rodriguez lets private calls go to voice mail, but this time he picked up.
The caller asked Rodriguez to identify himself. He did, and in turn the man on the other end of the line identified himself as Neil Diamond.
Rodriguez naturally suspected the call to be a hoax. But eventually, he became convinced that he "was talking to a living legend," and asked Diamond if he was sure he had "the right Eddie." According to Rodriguez, Diamond informed him that he'd recently been in Texas performing and doing charitable work, and happened to catch an airing of a Los Volcanes performance on TV.
Diamond played Houston October 14, but there were sufficient holes in his schedule a few weeks later to where he could have returned; Los Volcanes' late-October TV taping was just the most recent of many. Diamond and Rodriguez then spent several minutes discussing the particulars of conjunto, a conversation that ended with Diamond asking Rodriguez if he could send him "some demos."
Rodriguez had his label, Hacienda Records, oblige.
A couple weeks passed before Rodriguez received a second call from Diamond. This time, he informed Rodriguez that there was soon to be a tribute concert in his honor in Los Angeles, and that Diamond was interested in Rodriguez's four-piece playing the gig. But first, Diamond would need Los Volcanes to cut another demo: "Red, Red Wine" — with half the lyrics sung in Spanish and the other half in English.
Rodriguez and his son, Sean, Los Volcanes' drummer, had converted their basement into a recording studio, so laying the track down wasn't a problem. However, says Rodriguez, "I couldn't get a songwriter to give me the lyrics in Spanish, so I did it [myself]."
After shipping the demo to Diamond's people, there remained but one more hurdle to clear: a backstage meeting with Diamond before his January 8 show at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. But as it turned out, a key portion of Interstate 5 between Seattle and Portland was closed that week due to flooding. Trains were also canceled, making any form of ground transport impossible.
Rodriguez panicked. He placed a call to Diamond's production coordinator, Same Cole, on the morning of January 8, explaining the circumstances.
"I said, 'Sam, you're not going to believe this,' and he says, 'No, I do believe it — I'm watching the news,'" recalls Rodriguez, who says Cook then got him a seat on a Horizon Air flight so he could make the scheduled rendezvous.
Once at the Rose Garden, Rodriguez was escorted to a backstage area where Diamond was due to eat lunch.
"[Diamond] came in with three guys," says Rodriguez. "He had a wonderful hat on that made me think of Daniel Boone — the raccoon hat that he wore. He walked right up to me, shook my hand and said, 'Eddie, finally we get to meet.' He said, 'This is meant to be, you have to realize that. I go with my spiritual feeling, and I'm going to take you with me to California.'"
Friday, Los Volcanes will perform "Red, Red Wine" at the Los Angeles Convention Center alongside Coldplay, Foo Fighters and Tim McGraw, among others. Each act will perform Neil Diamond songs as part of a red-carpet gala honoring Diamond as MusiCares' 2009 Person of the Year. (MusiCares is a recording industry charity that provides assistance to musicians in need, and Diamond is being recognized for his philanthropic work on behalf of Hurricane Ike victims.) The event is a precursor to this Sunday's Grammy Awards, held at the Staples Center.
If only the story were this simple, it would be the musical equivalent of Rocky. But there's a conflicting account of how Diamond came into contact with Rodriguez that's been making the rounds, one that's been shared on condition of anonymity by sources close to the event. To hear them tell it, when Diamond called Rodriguez, he thought he was dialing another Eddie: Vedder, who made a memorable appearance in Song Sung Blue, a documentary about a husband-and-wife Diamond cover band called Thunder and Lightning that screened at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. Diamond's camp and MusiCares declined to comment for the record, and MusiCares would neither confirm nor deny that Los Volcanes were on the bill.
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As the alternate version goes, Diamond and Rodriguez each spent several minutes trying to figure out who the other person was. When Diamond realized he had the wrong Eddie, rather than apologizing and calling the right Eddie, he decided to give Los Volcanes the shot of a lifetime.
Rodriguez believes Diamond knew who he was talking to all along. But early in their conversation, Rodriguez remembers Diamond uttering the words, "I'm not calling Eddie Vedder." Whether this was meant as a statement of reassurance (as Rodriguez believes) or confusion is unclear.
What is known is that Diamond invited Vedder to play the same gig — a request that, according to Pearl Jam spokesperson Nicole Vandenberg, was declined due to a scheduling conflict.
That Los Volcanes will be in Los Angeles to perform Friday, though, is thankfully not in dispute.