A member of L.A.’s Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs for eight years back in the ’80s, Carlos moved to San Francisco after that band imploded. In 1991 he gave up playing clubs and began playing on the streets with a sign reading “WILL PLAY FOR FAME OR FORTUNE” propped against his tip jar.
You can see that, at 54, Carlos has led a hard life, but he’s quick to point out that, although he plays on the streets, he doesn’t live on the streets, a crucial distinction. After rallying from years of substance abuse, he and some friends, including Dave Alvin, recorded last year’s Straight from the Heart (Nomad Records), and it was from this 17-song CD that Carlos and his band (bassist Bill MacBeath, who’s been with Carlos since 1988 and is on eight of the disc’s tracks, and Danish drummer Asmus Jensen) chose some of the night’s music.
The band pulled into Chico from a trip up the coast and three gigs in Oregon, most notably at a food festival in Portland (“45 minutes in the sun,” MacBeath told me) and less notably in Eugene at a place called Sam Brown’s Garage, where an audience of 15 was on hand. Considerably more were present at Duffy’s when, after a 30-minute delay, Carlos and crew took the stage and jumped right into “Damn’ Atchafalaya,” a super-heated Cajun number that he introduced as “a true story in someone else’s miserable life, not mine,” that describes the damming of the Atchafalaya River.
A funny, friendly, talkative guy, Carlos had something to say about each song he played, most of them his. I found it odd, however, that they rarely lasted longer than three minutes. The band alternated between killer rave-ups, as in the second set that opened with a volatile five-minute version (!) of the Elmore James classic, “Dust My Broom,” with Carlos playing slide, followed by “The Love I Want” (“is the love you’ve got”), a relaxed love song that–like others in his repertoire–showed another side of him.
In fact, there are a lot of different sides to Carlos, as he continued to reveal when taking fascinating detours on guitar during his nearly three-hour, three-set performance. Using his whammy bar, Carlos judiciously laid some tremelo on some songs and did some nifty finger picking, too, especially on his Robert Johnson “tribute,” “Rambling on My Mind.” Where he truly excelled was in recasting familiar blues songs–i.e., “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (superb Big Joe Turner-style shouting)–in new ways. He has a clear singing voice, which was in significant contrast to the growl he affected during some introductions.
Chico was the last stop on this trip, and you could see the band really enjoyed the enthusiastic audience’s response. I can’t imagine a more perfect setting for the band than Duffy’s; its juke joint atmosphere was just right.