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Don't Call Them Los Blazers : Rock 'n' roll has been good to the Blazers. And they remain true to their East L.A. roots. Now if only people could stop comparing them to that other band from their neighborhood.

August 27, 1995|Chris Riemenschneider | Chris Riemenschneider is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A passing car backfires outside Manuel Gonzales' white-stucco house in East Los Angeles, and all four members of the Blazers simultaneously pretend they've been shot. A drive-by joke, you might call it.

But it's not all that funny, especially since Gonzales, one of the rock band's singers, is talking about the gang problem and about the crazy guy running through his neighborhood with a machete just a couple of nights ago. It all comes with the territory, Gonzales says, and it has been like this since he and fellow Blazers singer-songwriter Ruben Guaderrama were raised here.

"We loved [playing] so much that it was all we wanted to do, and that was good for us," says Guaderrama about their musical teaming in 1971. "That's maybe what brought us along."

The pair, both 42, say that rock 'n' roll was one of the best things that ever happened to them. That's a standard statement for rock musicians, but it rings especially true with these guys.

"At first we were just playing for fun, you know," Gonzales says. "But we began to see it as a way out. It was a good way to keep us out of trouble, out of some silly gang situation. We had that dream of making it, and that was what we focused on."

With their second album, this summer's "East Side Soul," the quartet believes that dream has been realized. The ever-touring Blazers, who've performed as many as 250 shows a year, have become darlings of a growing legion of critics and fans--including Bob Dylan, who handpicked the band to open for him at the Pantages Theatre after he saw them perform in 1992. The album, released by Rounder Records, is a winning, feel-good blend of rootsy rock, seasoned with the band members' Latino heritage. ( See review, Page 79. )


There's still one problem, though.

No matter how well the Blazers do, they remain stuck in the shadow of Los Lobos. It's hard to find an article or review about the Blazers that doesn't have a reference to East L.A.'s most popular sons.

The members of the Blazers don't mind the comparisons--the bands are good friends, and Los Lobos guitarist Cesar Rosas has produced the Blazers' two albums. But they do worry that people won't see the differences between the groups.

"It's nice because they're a real good band and are real popular," Gonzales says of Los Lobos. "But we don't want people coming to our shows and saying, 'Hey, where's the accordion and where's the saxophone?' We're just a simple four-piece rock band."

The Blazers could distance themselves from Los Lobos by downplaying their East L.A. roots, but they say those roots are essential to defining their music.

"We're real proud to be from East L.A., so we don't mind the focus on it," Gonzales says. "There's a lot of good music that has come from here, and there's a lot of good people here.

"East L.A. was good for us. It really taught us how to be tough, and how to be hard-working. I don't know, maybe we could be some kind of example or something--someone to show the kids that you have to work hard, but if you do, you can maybe get what you want. That's what we learned here, anyway."

On this hot August afternoon, Gonzales' home in a worn, working-class neighborhood is like Grand Central Station, with friends and family members coming and going intermittently, all exchanging greetings. Through it all, the four Blazers talk to each other like brothers, chatting as eagerly about Guaderrama (the only married member) and his wife's expected baby as they do about questions concerning their history. (Bassist Lee Stuart and drummer Mando Goss complete the lineup.)

When it comes to questions about their history, however, it's normally Guaderrama and Gonzales who answer. The childhood friends trade stories about the old days like two war veterans. They reminisce about the times police broke up their noisy back-yard performances and all the times they played just for food.

Their musical path began when they were students at Roosevelt High School. At that time, rock 'n' roll players in East L.A. were a dime a dozen, they say. Richie Valens may have grown up in the San Fernando Valley, but his success with "La Bamba" in the late '50s established him as the first Latino rock star and paved the way for '60s East L.A. groups like Thee Midniters, the Premiers, Little Ray & the Progressions and Cannibal & the Headhunters.

Although Cannibal had a Top 40 hit in 1965 with "Land of 1,000 Dances," none of these East L.A. bands became national sensations. But they did inspire another generation of rockers, who would eventually form Los Lobos and the Blazers.

Before they started the Blazers in 1988, however, Guaderrama and Gonzales spent 17 years playing weddings and parties, more often as a cumbia band than a rock 'n' roll outfit. Anyone who hears "East Side Soul" or last year's "Short Fuse" album knows they can play well in either genre.

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