The Gaff Is Back

A few times a year, at an oddly misplaced honky-tonk called the Swallows Inn, all hell breaks loose in South County. In the heart of San Juan Capistrano, a few doors down from the mission, amid the gauche tourist shops and Beemer-lined streets, Harleys and beater '70s cars converge on the back parking lot like a swarm of decidedly non-South County harsh reality. Plaque-toothed cracker boys in sweat-stained cowboy hats, big hairy patch-sportin' bikers, cattle-smelly ranchers from the East, and (shudder!) a host of local music critics descend on the dive bar. People drink too much and make fools of themselves. The pictures of Ronald Reagan in the men's room get gleefully urinated on, along with the toilet paper. Honky-tonk angels flirt in slurred words and heated tones; some might stumble as they endeavor to dance. The acrid aroma of motor smoke emanates from nearby alleys and parked vans.

All this sordid activity-a slice of jan-yew-wine, full-throttle blue-collar nightlife in this incubator of yuppiedom-is due to the presence of Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts, who are playing a three-day stand once again. Costa Mesa's Gaffney is little-known in OC or anywhere else for that matter, even though he has had a handful of albums released by various labels. Despite that, he's one of this nation's great, underrated singer/songwriters. The diminutive fellow in the baseball cap and tank top has a perpetually bemused smirk across his lips; sun-cured, jerky-like skin; and a well-defined musculature. He used to be an amateur boxer, and he still works full-time as a construction worker when he's not on the road singing real-life tales of lovable losers and no-account boozers with a voice that's as tough as an overcooked chuck steak and as purty as a Wyoming sunrise.

Gaffney is Everyday People: he doesn't look like a musician, and you'd never pick him out of a crowd. It's easier to envision him perusing the hardware section at Kmart with a gaggle of snot-nosed kids in tow than touring Europe annually for small-but-reverential groups of fans. He comes from a near-lost tradition established by men like Goebel Reeves, Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard: the prole, decidedly non-glamorous singer/ songwriter with a sterling talent for words and melody that capture the essence of life's struggles mixed with a stunning lack of pretense.

The Cold Hard Facts kick ass with an NRBQ-like "we can do anything we want to, and we will, goddamn it" brand of proficiency. They switch instruments around, playing each as well as any other. They scamper all night long between hard country, funky soul, suicidal blues, and ragin' rock & roll. They'll insert a shredding Deep Purple riff in the middle of a ballad; they'll put weepy steel guitar over an R&B rave-up and somehow manage to make it all work. As I said in 1998's Best of OC, Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts are this county's finest band. But because there's no razzle-dazzle, show-biz flash or contemporary hype about this group, and as they are middle-aged and collectively as ugly as an engorged tick on a dog's ass, I don't expect many people in trend-obsessed OC to concur with that assessment.

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Selfishly, I like it that way because it's more fun to see Gaffney at the Swallows than it would be at one of the bigger, more popular venues that refuses to book him. But it's a sad testament to fucked-up priorities that these guys can't pull a better gig for better dough in their own back yard. Take my word for it: check this group out when they play the Swallows Inn this Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon (the shows are being recorded for inclusion on an upcoming live album), and you will not be sorry-until the next day, when you lie quivering in bed with a four-alarm hangover, recalling what a drunken fool you made of yourself at Gaffney's show.

About a year and a half ago, I caught CIGAR STORE INDIANS live and was completely unimpressed. I found the group noisy and overwrought; the songs were a collection of soundalikes; the licks were Straight-up Rockabilly 101; and to add insult to injury, they milked and played an encore even though no one in the audience really asked for one. Their self-titled debut album, which I heard after the concert, did nothing to change my opinion.

So what happened between then and El Baile de la Cobra, the group's sophomore album?? I've just finished listening to this minimasterpiece, which was released last fall, and I am now completely in love with this group of rural Georgia hillbillies. No, not that way. El Baile reminds me of the great SoCal roots-rock groups of the '80s: the Blasters, Los Lobos, the Paladins, the Forbidden Pigs. The songwriting here, all by front man Ben Friedman, is as eclectic as it is superb: there's stone-solid rockabilly, Bakersfield-style country, cumbia-tinged Latin rock, passable swing, even a Morricone-styled twang instrumental. The licks are simple but tasty, the singing passionate, and the rhythm section as powerful as a locomotive pulling a load of pig iron.

What was up when I saw these guys live? Did they have a real stinky night, and I caught them at their worst? Or is it that they still actually suck live even though their new album is cooler than Gene Vincent's teeth? I dunno, but I plan to find out: El Baile is one of the most well-rounded roots albums I've heard in years and a sure signal that these guys are real comers. No, not that way. Check 'em out on Thursday, March 25 at 13th Floor and on Friday at the Foothill.

Van Morrison's new album, Back on Top, is something of an artistic comeback. Not that the prolific and consistent Morrison has ever actually released a bad album in his entire career, which dates back to the '60s and Them. But recent efforts have been a bit too blues-obsessed and rote where Morrison is at his best performing oddly spiritual, stream-of-consciousness soul. The aptly titled Back on Topfinds Morrison in excellent voice, singing a set of all-original new tunes with compelling lyrics and more hooks than a bait shop. He sounds re-energized about it all. In short, this is his best album since the 1991 magnum opus Hymns to the Silence, and only a real weenie would fail to pick up a copy.

Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts perform at the Swallows Inn, 31786 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-3188. Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 4:30 p.m. Free. 21+; Cigar Store Indians play at 13th Floor, 17208 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (562) 592-5833. Thurs., March 25, 10 p.m. Free. 21+; and at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill, (562) 494-5196. Fri., 9 p.m. $10. 18+.

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