Eric VonHerzen's Harmonica Bridges the Gap Between Blues and Punk Rock
Bob Steshetz

Eric VonHerzen's Harmonica Bridges the Gap Between Blues and Punk Rock

At a young age, the soul of the blues grabbed Eric VonHerzen by the collar and shoved itself into his pocket. In Orange County during the early ‘70s, there probably weren’t too many kids who needed it more than him. By age 14, he ran away from home living on the streets while nursing a daily drug habit and bouncing from place to place.

“My family was around but they didn’t want me around,” VonHerzen says. “It was a lonely life sometimes but I knew I always had my harmonica.”

The revered local bluesman didn’t buy his first mouth harp, he stole it from an older brother of a friend who showed him the wailing wonders of the reed instrument that’s been the mouthpiece of American music since the Civil War.

But after took his first harmonica, he actually took to it. VonHerzen played for hours every week, mimicking the styles of Paul Butterfield and James Cotton who he used to sneak in and see at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. By his late teens, he’d migrated south to Ocean Beach and was good enough to play adult clubs despite being underage before bouncing back up to OC to become a player who is still considered to be one of the best in SoCal. Since the ‘80s VonHerzen’s shared the stage with countless bluemen, countrymen, guitar gods like Walter Trout and punks like Social Distortion who’ve been transfixed by the fiery, soulful licks created by the seasoned harp man. At one point after hitting it off with SD frontman Mike Ness and Trout, he was constantly pinballing back and forth between two enviable gigs.

VonHerzen with Social Distortion
VonHerzen with Social Distortion
Courtesy of Eric VonHerzen

“Back then SD was a straight punk band and Trout was a ripping guitar blues rock guy so it was quite a stark difference,” VonHerzen says. “I remember when I first met Ness in the '80s. He was attracted to me because I was a blues guy and all we would listen to was blues stuff and search for the right tone with different amplifiers and rigs.”

Being able to satisfy both punk and blues crowds is something he gets away with due to sheer skill and the attitude that comes with black shades and a groovy demeanor that makes him a standout while automatically fitting in on any stage.

In recent years, he performed with the late Mike “Gabby” Gaborno of the Cadillac Ttramps. —no easy task—while blasting out fiery licks for gritty blues band Santos Y Sinners which included Tramps’ guitarist Brian Coakley.

These days, VonHerzen is continuing to play with his band The Atomic Road Kings, who are taking over Cirvillo’s in Long Beach tomorrow night, bringing along a handful of blues legends including Kid Ramos and James Harmon as well as Jason "JR" Lozano (son of Los Lobos bassist Conrad Lozano) of the 44's in celebration of friend and fellow musician Johnny Main, vocalist/guitarist of The 44's.  It’s the kind of show that honors one man’s birthday while simultaneously paying tribute to the guys on the stage as well as other local blues kings like Hollywood Fats, Harman, Ramos, Trout and Al Blake.

Keeping busy on a diet of steady gigs means VonHerzen is constantly on the move. Though he admits the chemistry with Gaborno and Santos is the quintessential vibe he strives to get out of every show,  it’s hard to top the combination of Santos with the late Gaborno on the mic.

Santos Y SinnersEXPAND
Santos Y Sinners
Courtesy of Brian Coakley

After starting the band with the Cadillac Tramps lead singer, VonHerzen would bring him on stage to play in front of respected local blues guys like Rod Piazza, Junior Watson and James Harmon who instantly took a liking to his style.

“These blues legends would go ‘That fuckin dude’s got it, man. That guy’s got it,’ he says. “Then Gabby would sit in and play with these cats and they’d go ‘get Gabby back man!’ They were calling for the guy.”

Since Gaborno’s passing, Von Herzen’s roots in the blues remain strong as he books and plays shows and festivals constantly. His work ethic is not only an homage to the music and his fallen friend, but to ensure that it’s still around so it can save others the way it did for him when he was a kid.

“It’s important not only for the listener but for upcoming musicians that they develop a foundation in music and finding out where their roots are,” Von Herzen says.

The Atomic Road Kings perform James Harman and Kid Ramos at Cirivellos tomorrow from 8-11p.m. For details click here.

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