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Photo by James BunoanAsLittleRichardoncesaid,rock&rollisonlyrock&rollwhen it feels like the devil is knocking on the back door, and there isn't another instrument that captures that sense of sinister intent like a slide dobro. If hell has a symphony, a slide dobro is sitting first chair.
When played well—as in Rocco DeLuca's hands—it conjures visions of weathered Negroes standing at crossroads; of Appalachian hillbillies on creaky wooden porches watching rain fall on dismal woods; of swamps and bayous and long, lonesome roads leading nowhere; of rootlessness and frontiers that beckon only because you know you're finally leaving the place you came from. It's America at its most primitive—and if that ain't the devil knocking on the back door, what is?
DeLuca—who fronts, fittingly enough, the Rocco DeLuca Band—grew up obsessed by the music of old Delta blues musicians and white guitar pickers from Appalachia. He rarely strays far from those sources, whether he's singing exquisitely rendered ballads such as "Bus Ride" or screaming like a wounded banshee in "How Fast." Even when he gets trippy with loops and delays and pedals, it doesn't sound like some techno wonk monkeying with effects so much as a genuinely curious musician intent on exploring different places. That's what drew the attention of Kiefer Sutherland, who signed DeLuca to his production company, Ironworks Records.
"The first time I heard him, I had this really individual, deeply personal, emotional reaction," Sutherland says. "To be transported someplace else by someone's music is pretty special. The way he approaches his songs [and] his sense of imagery and style is something I've never heard before. Not that other people haven't done it, but I haven't heard it. He just gets it. And he's a monster of a guitar player."
DeLuca grew up without much of a father—a traveling musician who'd swoop in to whisk young Rocco away on some adventure that always ended in drama and abandonment—and even less of a mother. A casualty of the '60s, DeLuca says. But he did grow up surrounded by music. He began playing slide guitar at age seven, and there were always the records: "I totally rejected everything current. I was kind of a snob about it," he says.
He doesn't remember when or where, but he knows it was a Roscoe Holcomb record.
"He was playing guitar like a banjo and singing really high and laying down these songs, and I just had to know everyone he was playing with and associated with," he says. "I went on a search for those kinds of records." Those kind of records: primitive, raw recordings of unproduced, unadorned music. "It wasn't done with any particular style, it was just pure," he says. "It didn't feel like anyone was trying to put one over on me. The lyrics were real, and the music was out of tune a lot of time. But it still felt like this was the only true form of music. It was like a collision of cultures."
While his schoolmates were listening to punk, DeLuca sat transfixed in a small bedroom in his grandmother's home in the Ortega Mountains with scratchy records by Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Booker White. As friends spaced to Metallica, DeLuca tripped on white folks from up the mountain: Holcomb, Doc Watson and, of course, the Carter Family.
Listening and performing carried him through awkward teenage years and into Long Beach State, where he majored in literature. There, he discovered a kind of primitive writing in such authors as Charles Bukowski and John Fante that matched the music he'd championed.
"Those guys didn't write slick. They didn't need big words. They just kind of said it," he says. "It never felt like it was trying to be anything other than what it was. I learned a great deal from them about atmosphere and aesthetic. A lot of people decorate their words and their music in such a way that the decorations are brighter than the thing itself, and that's something I don't get."
DeLuca has set up at the Gypsy Lounge in Lake Forest nearly every Tuesday for the past three years, forming a band with drummer Ryan Carmon, percussionist Greg Velasquez and bassist Dave Beste. And he's working with producer Jude Cole to finish his debut record on Ironworks; ITrustYoutoKillMeshould be available by early summer. He's had full creative control over the record, and even if no one buys a copy, he's confident it will be a true and pure rendering of his music. But please: like it.
"Honestly, I don't want to pretend that I don't want great things to happen to me or the guys," he says. "I'd be lying if I said I thought success didn't matter. It does matter. But the thing is I don't have the look or the grooming to be this big, big artist. But I believe this record will get into the hands of the people it's supposed to."
And if it doesn't?
"The one thing I've learned from all the writers I've admired for so long is that the art is in the doing of it—that's the high," he says. "If you're doing this for money, you're not going to get the money. The girls are always temporary. The fame? I know a lot of famous people, and they're in the worst shape of anybody I know. It has to be about the work, whether you're popular at it or not. If you're in motion and putting it down, that's living. That's when you feel present and conscious. It's almost religious."
Rocco DeLuca at the Gypsy Lounge, 23600 Rockfield, Ste. 3A, Lake Forest, (949) 206-9990; www.thegypsylounge.com. Every Tues. in March, 10 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.
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