Oye Como Va
The Year (and Onda) of Los Lonely Boys
It's particularly amusing to watch Ringo Garza, youngest of the Los Lonely Boys siblings, work the Antone's anniversary crowd as though he were prom king -- laughing, smiling, glad-handing friends and family.
No more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, Ringo is a fireplug of a man, anchored by muscular, heavily tattooed drummer's biceps. With a black bandanna tied low across his forehead, he's right out of Central Casting's idea of a big-screen Latino thug. So why is it that when he addresses anyone and everyone, his face broadens in a warm, boyish grin, and you want to hug him rather than shake his hand?
Why is it somewhat disconcerting that both Ringo and Jojo Garza are so open and friendly, a far cry from the chilly aloofness worn by musicians cultivating music-industry buzz? Perhaps because in spite of the formidable figures they cut in their all-black ensembles (Jojo's red shirt notwithstanding), these young men still possess a natural gregariousness unsullied by endless dealings with burgeoning stardom.
Talk to these boys in another year or so, and they may be singing a different, more guarded tune, however. Los Lonely Boys are already the "It Boys" of Texas rock, and the clubs are about to get a lot more crowded and the fans and journalists a lot more possessive.
Henry Garza, at 25 the oldest LLB, is equally friendly but quickly slips away, leaving Ringo and Jojo to entertain their guests in the hot, crowded anteroom that is Antone's backstage. Here, the two brothers, aged 22 and 23, respectively, launch into a spiel worthy of the most seasoned comic impressionist.
In the span of 15 minutes, the brothers affect convincing Mafioso accents copped from myriad gangster movies. Ringo bites his knuckles in playful chagrin as he enumerates the imaginary ways he would do violence to hypothetical foes while Jojo voices his f-bomb-laden, Jersey-shore agreement.
Suddenly, they pull an about-face into clipped British accents.
"Nineteen ninety-eight -- that was a rubbery year!" shouts Ringo.
Gemma Wilson, their manager's assistant, teases them mercilessly, ignoring Ringo's mock-glowers. He begins slapping his biceps.
"Didja getcher tickets, Gemma?" he hisses through a barely suppressed grin, his eyes aglow. "Didja getcher tickets to the gun show?"
These boys live to perform. Whether jockeying for clowning position with a private assemblage or to a throng of live music crazies clustered in front of a stage, the Garzas are that breed of entertainers who come most alive with the cue of the spotlight, the stage -- an audience.
Soon, it's their turn to step into just such a spot -- onstage -- and when they do, all the silliness becomes professionalism. And fun. There's a huge community of friends and extended family in the audience, namely Ringo's in-laws. There's also a healthy gringo contingent, representing everyone from young indie hipsters to sweaty old bluesers, all here for a good time. All here as a testament to the crossover appeal of Los Lonely Boys' "Texican" sound.
"A mixture of those who came before," shrugs Jojo by way of defining "Texican."
More specifically, it's a flirtation with Stevie Ray Vaughan, classic rock, conjunto. The fusion is capped by Henry's guitar-playing, which is ferocious. The self-taught axeman -- all three Garzas are sheet-music illiterate, mute to the language of gearheads -- is being hailed as the next Carlos Santana, and it's evident from Los Lonely Boys' live performances that his raw talent will take the band across the globe.
For now, though, it's all about the moment, tonight, Sunday night, at Antone's.
"It's thinking without thinking," says Jojo, describing what happens when he's onstage with his brothers and his bass. "We relate to Bruce Lee's philosophy of knowing without knowing, being like water, shapeless, formless."
"It's like being caught in a tornado," says Ringo, "and we're trying to stay together inside of it. A lot depends on the audience."
Tonight, the audience plays its part in the exchange to a T. They're thirsty for as much as Los Lonely Boys will give them, quaffing every note with gusto, always cheering for more. This night and this crowd hold the promise of what's in store for this trio in the coming months. Are they ready?
"Aw, hell yeah!" they crow.
You might say they were born ready.
Los Lonely Boys' manager, Kevin Womack, reels off the band's dizzying tour schedule between now and the end of September: Houston; Dallas; Amarillo, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M.; Boulder, Colo.; Denver; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn. The list doesn't stop, not at Farm Aid in Columbus, Ohio, in early September, not at the Austin City Limits Music Festival a few weeks later.
On the Road Again
One is exhausted just contemplating the enormous outlay of energy this tour will require. Such is the life of a band trying to capitalize on buzz and a new album, Los Lonely Boys, due out Aug. 12. Much of the hype comes courtesy of Willie Nelson, who has cast himself as the Lone Star godfather to his San Angelo-bred protégés.
The story is hazy and difficult to confirm -- something about a wet T-shirt contest in a spring-break resort town. What wafts to the surface is that the Red Headed Stranger has put the boys on stages like Farm Aid and his Fourth of July picnic. Nelson has effectively fast-forwarded an overnight success story, hastening the happy end of gigging in dive bars and living hand to mouth.
To say that Los Lonely Boys are riding Willie's coattails would be unfair, however. Rather, they're using the tailwind from his tour bus (is that a whiff of mota?) to slingshot themselves into a national profile befitting their potential.
Yet it's more than just business, this relationship with the country legend, septuagenarian patron saint of struggling bands. It's a family affair. Not only did the Garzas record Los Lonely Boys in his Pedernales Studio, but Ringo, recently married, was wed in the chapel at Luck, Texas, the Willie-owned studio lot/town where Lonesome Dove (among other things) was filmed. What's more, Henry's wife, Roxanne, recounts this past Christmas at the Nelsons.
"I was pregnant with Nico," recalls Roxanne, mother of three. "I wore this long, green velvet dress, and Rica [the couple's 5-year-old daughter] was all dressed up, too. We got there, and everyone's wearing T-shirts and jeans!"
"He just put his arm around me and offered me a drink," she says with a relieved grin even now. "He pointed at Henry and said, 'There's a good man.'"
Roxanne, after nine years of marriage, is so proud and still so much in love that one aches watching her make a boxed pineapple upside-down cake for her mother-in-law's surprise birthday party later in the afternoon here in San Angelo. This is no star-struck young lady reveling in the attention lavished upon her and her family by a superstar. No, she stands by her man in true Tammy Wynette fashion, a modest woman from a modest background, who still works at Wal-Mart, calmly taking in the tidal wave of success her husband and brothers-in-law are currently surfing.
One imagines that Roxanne's demeanor represents the relationship between Los Lonely Boys and their patron: comfortable, easygoing, not a big deal. Sweet, friendly, dressed in an oversized 2003 Willie's Picnic shirt and baggy pants, she putters around her kitchen. She speaks not of living the life of an incipient rock-star's wife, but of the little things, like doing Henry's laundry for the next day's trip to Houston and the car seat the Nelsons gave them for little Nico, now 5 months old.
"He's just now big enough for it, so he can look out the window when we're driving," she says softly.
She looks lovingly at the chubby baby in the walker at her feet.
"He just loves it."
Before there was Willie, there was Ringo Sr., a respected conjunto musician.
All en la Familia
"Our dad's our biggest inspiration and teacher," explains Henry. "He wanted the dream, too; he was doing music before us, with his brothers as well. My dad taught me music when I was real little; then he taught Jojo, and I helped him teach Jojo. Then he taught Ringo. We didn't have no choice, everything was there. It's in your blood; this is what you do."
By the time the boys were teens, they were playing in their father's band. Their sisters -- Chrissie, 24, and Carey, 26 -- prefer to sing in the church (one suspects they didn't receive the same encouragement to professionalize that the boys did). The boys' training was in conjunto, but along with it came lessons on how to add different spices to the family's musical stew.
In addition to the more traditional sounds, Ringo Sr. exposed his sons to everything from blues and country to "oldies" rockabilly. Like Ritchie Valens before them, the boys decided to shape these influences in their own way, which dismayed some of their elder relatives, who would have preferred the youngsters to carry the conjunto torch. That was never in the cards, thanks again to their father.
"Our dad showed us a whole different picture," waves Jojo. "We didn't want to be what everyone else already was."
This opened up a whole new can of hominy for a Mexican-American trio who had no intentions of selling their heritage to a certain demographic. The objective wasn't to slide into one niche, a point that Jojo is emphatic about.
"Some people ask why we don't speak more Spanish, but we don't figure we have to have a whole album in Spanish to prove that we are Latinos or Texicans," he stresses.
Why should they? Where has this unspoken burden on nonwhite musicians to emphasize their musical heritage come from? It's obviously a tender spot for the Garzas, because the chatter increases in volume and intensity.
"We're just doing what we can do," urges Ringo. "We can sing in English and Spanish."
"The reason we do the music we do is that it best defines who we are and where we come from," chimes in Henry. "From both sides."
Soon he and Jojo are competing to be heard.
Jojo: "It's not what your heritage is or what color you are --"
Henry: "It's not just about being Mexican or just being American --"
Jojo: "It's being people."
Henry: "It's the best of both worlds."
June 10, 2003, was declared "Los Lonely Boys Day" by the Texas House of Representatives, but it's Los Lonely Boys' Year in San Angelo, the smallish town about three hours west of Austin.
Back at the Ranch
"They didn't give us the crowbar [to the city], though," jests Ringo, relishing the rowdy laughter he inspires in his brother's living room.
Hard to believe an ambassador of San Angelo lives in this modest homestead that sits on a major thoroughfare. The house is sparsely furnished, couches nestled against the white paneled walls, a big-screen TV screening The Emperor's New Groove on this warm summer afternoon.
The living room is dotted with framed photos of the band, both publicity shots and candids with Willie Nelson and other industry colleagues. Family photographs grace the walls as well, posed solo shots of a much younger Henry, family shots with Roxanne and Rica. Nico has plenty of time to establish a presence in the familial gallery, but there are pictures of a baby boy there, one who died six years ago, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Enrico Jose Garza is still very much a presence in his family's life. The devotion shown him in myriad ways -- the large photo in the living room, the small-framed poem and photograph downstairs, the dedication to him in Los Lonely Boys' first album -- reinforces the father-son legacy that marks this family's trajectory. The cherished memory of Enrico is a whispered reminder of what might have been, forever contrasted with what became of Henry and his brothers' relationship with their own father.
Henry's basement is a bachelor's dream, equipped with a refrigerator, couches, another big-screen television, and a PlayStation2. The décor down here is less family oriented and has a dorm-room feel (and smell) to it. The overarching theme is Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose countenance graces every wall multiple times.
"Stevie is a huge influence for us," says Jojo. "He came to Henry in a dream."
Henry concurs and explains the particulars of the visitation to his dubious audience.
"I was having trouble figuring out a really tricky fingering, like that riff in 'Rude Mood,'" he says, singing the bars. "I was trying to figure it out in my sleep, too, and Stevie walked in. I said, 'Hey man, can you show me this fingering?' And he did -- he put my fingers in the right place, and it sounded perfect.
"When I woke up, I tried the fingering he showed me. It worked!"
It's hard to decide whether to nod incredulously, as is the expectation, or to suppress a smile at the earnestness of Henry's belief in this dream and his joy in telling it.
After all, this may be the last time he's unguarded enough to display such boyish awe to an outsider, and now, at this moment, it's best to sit back and enjoy the private performance, because it may never come again.
Los Lonely Boys' CD release show is Friday, Aug. 15 at Antone's.