There is talk of making a Hollywood movie about the life of Carlos Guitarlos, and you can see why. As the guitarist with the LA blues-punk group Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs in the 1980s, he lived a life of unbridled excess. By the time Top Jimmy died of liver failure, Guitarlos was drunk, divorced and diabetic, and forced to earn a living busking on the streets of San Francisco.
At the age of 54 and sober at last, his already prodigious performing and songwriting talents are now informed by a wealth of hard life experiences and his career has belatedly bloomed. His current album, Straight from the Heart, is a roots-rock gem, but even so it hardly prepares you for the musical and emotional masterclass that is a Carlos Guitarlos gig.
He seemed a little grumpy at first, berating the lighting engineer while rifling through a plastic bag filled with guitar accoutrements. And he was halfway through the zydeco-influenced shuffle of the opening number, Damn Atchafalaya, before the sound engineer located the fader to switch up his black Stratocaster.
Once he had done so, however, and Guitarlos had moved into the testifying R’n’B of The Love I Want followed by a blasting version of the Motown-influenced Ain’t That Lovin’ You, the extent of the man’s talent was beginning to be revealed. Blessed with a gruff but heartfelt singing voice and possessing a huge vocabulary of guitar chops, he performed like a rogue angel. With his long grey hair spilling out from under a fedora and an easy smile that suggested a lifelong mistrust of dentists, he looked and sounded every inch the battle-scarred survivor.
As if this was not enough, his three-piece backing band included the singer and guitarist Marcy Levy. Known for her work with Eric Clapton, for whom she wrote Lay Down Sally, Levy is also remembered as one half of Shakespears Sister, whose biggest hit Stay she also wrote. Tall, dark and exuding a Chrissie Hynde-like cool, she sang these and other songs in a beautiful, clear soprano, that was the perfect foil for Guitarlos’s street-hardened holler. She also took a two-verse harmonica solo during the 12-bar shuffle Women & Whiskey that was the sexiest thing I have ever seen on a rock’n’roll stage. The easy rapport between Guitarlos and Levy — “Beauty and the beast,” as Guitarlos described it — added yet another dimension to a performance that was already superlative. They rounded off with a sure-footed revival of Robert Johnson’s Rambling on My Mind and a blistering instrumental wig-out apparently called Pigfoot Shuffle. As far as basement-club blues goes, this was simply as good as it gets. (David Sinclair)