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Healthy Dose of Rock From the Blazers

It's been a trying year for the group, which originated in East L.A. But the band has survived, thanks in part to fruits and vegetables.


The Blazers may be the hardest-rocking band to come out of East L.A. since Los Lobos, or maybe even Cannibal and the Headhunters, but these guys are sensible enough to know that the rock 'n' roll life can bring a man to his knees.

"Either you learn or you burn out," said Manuel Gonzales, guitarist and co-founder of the band that plays as many as 250 nights a year. "You have to eat healthy, drink a lot of water and take your vitamins."

It is a testament to such survival skills that the Blazers will make it to the stage for Saturday's "Cruise Night" in Glendale, a free street party and classic car show where they will headline with the Surfaris.

In the last 12 months, Gonzales and his cohorts have endured the theft of nearly all their guitars, a grueling two-month tour of Europe and the demise of a beloved old van that had carried them to shows in every corner of the country. That kind of year might have undone a lesser band.

"So strange," says Ruben Guaderrama, who has played with Gonzales since their days at Roosevelt High School. "We're just trying to catch our breath."

The adventure began in September when the Blazers traveled to Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, to appear on a nighttime radio show. Due in Santa Cruz the next morning, they checked into a hotel for a few hours sleep.

"You never leave your guitar in the van. That's a no-no," Gonzales said. "But it was a nice hotel. It had a security garage with cameras. So we left everything in there."


The next morning they woke to find the van's windows smashed. Gonzales lost a Fender Telecaster and a Stratocaster that had been custom-made by Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos. Guaderrama lost a vintage Strat with lipstick pickups. Bass player Lee Stuart lost electronic gear.

"It broke our hearts," Gonzales said.

But later that day, as the band played its Santa Cruz gig with borrowed instruments, the promoter passed a hat and collected $450 from the crowd. Then Los Lobos, who played the same festival, coaxed another audience into donating $500 more.

"It made us feel like we had a No. 1 record or something," Gonzales said. "We felt blessed."

The blessings did not stop there. A few months later, in December, a handful of local musicians, including Rosas, Dave Alvin and the Forbidden Pigs, held a benefit concert at Jack's Sugar Shack in Hollywood, raising several thousand dollars to help pay for new guitars.

"It opened our eyes to how good people can be," Guaderrama said. "Besides, it was a blast."

This unforeseen turn of events should not have surprised him or Gonzales--their careers have long followed an unlikely path.

They grew up in the same neighborhood as the members of Los Lobos. But unlike Rosas, David Hidalgo et al, the two men did not get around to forming a band for many years. They would throw together groups for skating-rink parties and backyard barbecues. Sometimes they accompanied established bands. In between, they got together to jam and write songs.

As the years went by, the two men watched their 30s and their rock 'n' roll careers slip away.

"I mean, how many 40-year-olds do you see on MTV?" Guaderrama said.

Then in 1988 they met Stuart and drummer Mando Goss. The band clicked, churning out tunes that ranged from old-time rock to traditional cumbias--all the stuff they had listened to as kids growing up.


This blend earned them their first full-fledged tour in 1990, a cross-country trek in a van that could barely hold them. All the years of struggle, all the wisdom they had gained with age, went out the window.

"We were eating burgers and fries and drinking like fishes," Gonzales recalled. "We had this one drive from Wichita to Austin and, boy, did we have the shakes. Halfway through, we had to pull over and sleep it off in a truck stop."

But the Blazers survived to earn a contract with Rounder Records. Their first album, "Short Fuse," met with critical raves. A second effort, last summer's "East Side Soul," fared similarly well.

The New York Times called them "Los Lobos' rockier cousins."

Robert Hilburn, of the Times, wrote: "The Blazers move so effortlessly from style to style (blues and country to norteno and more) that it's easy to overlook all the rich resources in the band's musical arsenal. There is, however, no missing the feel-good spirit."

Indeed, Gonzales and Guaderrama, both now 43, find themselves giddy at having achieved a modicum of success so relatively late in life. Enthusiasm, and a diet of pasta and vegetables, saw them through some tough months this spring as the Blazers embarked on a tour that passed through a dozen countries from Spain to Norway.

There were festivals with crowds of 20,000, but there were also small clubs where people sat watching mutely, not knowing what to think when rockabilly met Mexican folklore.

"It's hard to be on the road," Gonzales said. "You've got to love the music and you've got to have guys who you love like brothers."

It also helps to swing by home once in a while.

The Blazers got back to the United States just in time for their van--the one that survived the Northern California burglary--to break down. It will need a new engine. In the meantime, the band is just happy to be working.

"It's an adventure," Gonzales said. "Sort of like surviving."

They played in Long Beach on Wednesday night and will be on KTLA's morning news program Friday. For Saturday's show, the second of a series of concerts produced by the city of Glendale, a lot of family and friends are expected to be in the audience.

"We can relax," Gonzales said. "Everybody'll be dancing, having a good time. It'll be more like a backyard party."


* WHAT: "Cruise Night."

* WHERE: Brand Boulevard at Wilson Avenue, Glendale.

* WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* CALL: (818) 509-3080.

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